As tensions mount with North Korea, fears arise that President Trump’s tit-for-tat bellicose rhetoric with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un might lead to miscalculations — and thus an accidental war that could have been prevented.
Is there evidence in history that wars break out largely because of an accident or over a misplaced word? Seldom.
The precise timing of particular outbreaks of war, of course, can depend on unique factors. A sudden perception of a loss of deterrence can cause an army to mobilize. So can almost anything, from the introduction of a new weapon to a change in government.
Yet the larger events that originally drove two sides to fight are rarely, if ever, accidental in the manner of car wrecks.
In general, the best deterrent policy in dealing with multiple aggressors is Teddy Roosevelt’s dictum to speak softly and carry a big stick — because loud speech is sometimes misinterpreted as a compensatory effort to disguise military incapability, and thus paradoxically it can lead to a fatal loss of deterrence.
Next best perhaps is speaking loudly while carrying a big stick. Intemperate words are not fatal if ultimately reinforced by overwhelming force.
Most dangerous is speaking loudly (and especially sanctimoniously) while carrying a twig — basically what we have seen in the past eight years with Russia, Iran, and Syria.
Was World War I Really an Accident?
It is often said that accidents and extraneous forces — nearly automatic and mindless mobilization, fumbled diplomacy, greedy arms merchants, archaic alliances on autopilot, confused messaging, or bellicose strutting and rhetoric in August 1914 — triggered World War I, which otherwise might have been prevented.
But a continental war had come close to breaking out earlier in 1911 over Morocco and again in 1912–13 in the Balkans. A war would likely have broken out later, if not in 1914. Berlin by 1914 held views that were incompatible with peaceful resolution:
1) Germany felt cheated that its economic dynamism, population, and military power somehow had not resulted in what Germany thought it deserved: commensurate colonial expansion overseas and dominant influence on the Continent;
2) the German army since 1871 had felt that its size, and organizational and technological excellence, increasingly replicated in a rising and powerful navy, made it nearly unstoppable vis-à-vis other European rivals;
3) any sudden German strike in either the East or West could not be immediately deterred or stopped by the existing forces of Britain, France, or Russia.
The net result of these unchallenged assumptions was a likely German war of aggression sometime in the second or third decade of the 20th century.
Preventing World War I would have required far closer coordination and greater deterrent capability among Germany’s intended targets. Or the Germans would’ve needed to be far less aggressive, perhaps with a Kaiser more like Wilhelm II’s grandfather, Wilhelm I, who under the influence of Otto von Bismarck had realized that long-term German aspirations were achievable without a sudden and destructive European war.
Or a more interventionist United States would have had to intervene on the side of the democracies before, rather than after, the war — somewhat akin to America’s proactive Cold War leadership after 1945.
Just days after the war broke out, German professor and diplomatic analyst Kurt Riezler issued his Septemberprogramm draft of annexing much of Western Europe — a plan of aggression that only summarized long-held German agendas.
Indeed, since 1871, Germans had believed that their empire was destined to do as it wished in Europe, and, more immediately, that another border war would, as in 1870–71, be rather short and earn great dividends that were richly deserved at tolerable costs.
Appeasement, Not Accidents, Start Wars
If rising tensions are not to lead to war, the key factor in confronting aggressors is avoiding accidental impressions that cause a loss of deterrent power.
What will start a war with North Korea is not a bellicose tweet from Trump. Instead, a war will follow if North Korea does a cost-benefit analysis that leads it to conclude that an attack will produce more positive results than setbacks, or if it has the impression that its forces can inflict lots of damage without the regime’s destruction.
Again, mellifluous appeasement is far more dangerous even than sloppy, bellicose rhetoric. Of course, the latter should be avoided if not backed by force, but “fire and fury” words, ipsis factis, will not provoke to action an otherwise stationary aggressor. Rather the danger is that rhetoric alone can project a sense of weakness that invites aggression, on the theory that fiery but empty words are intended to mask military inability.
The last century of so-called accidental wars did not start over an unwise taunt or an accidental bombing. To the degree that there was a miscalculation during rising tensions, the culprit was most often a loss of deterrence, whether real or imagined:
Much of Europe and Britain weakly appeased Hitler’s serial aggressions in the 1930s rather than stopping them, persuading Hitler that his rather meager forces could nonetheless win a continental war against America, Britain, and the Soviet Union.
Japan wrongly surmised that U.S. isolationism in the 1930s and inaction from 1939 to 1941 would not lead to a muscular response after Pearl Harbor — and so Japan tried its luck.
Dean Acheson in 1950 suggested that South Korea was outside the U.S. protective shield; the miscue probably encouraged a North Korean invasion.
A series of unwise British actions in the early 1980s (from a parliamentarian’s occasional naïve reference to the Falklands as the “Malvinas” to the more serious tactic of withdrawing a small Royal Navy ship from the Falklands) suggested to the Argentine dictatorship that London did not see retaining the Falklands as worth a war.
April Glaspie sloppily remarked in 1990 that Arab border disputes were not of paramount interests to the U.S., which may have encouraged Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait.
The dismantling of supposed nuclear programs in Ukraine and Libya signaled that both had no deterrent against future big-power interventions, which eventually followed.
The Terrible Laboratory
War is a horrific laboratory experiment that confirms or rejects vague and inexact prewar guesses about relative strength or weakness.
The way, then, to prevent conflict from breaking out is to assure potential aggressors during peacetime that they are weaker than their targets and would lose catastrophically if they were foolish enough to test the obvious. Only in this way does war appear as a costly redundancy that is avoidable.
World Wars I and II were tragic and unnecessary demonstrations of what should have been obvious in 1914 and in 1939–41. In the former case, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Ottoman Turkey could never match the combined power of the eventual alliance of Britain and its Empire, France, Italy, Russia, and the United States.
In the latter war, Germany, Italy, and Japan had no business dreaming that their combined might could ever defeat the forces of the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and the United States. But for a variety of reasons (in the case of World War II, British appeasement, Russian collaboration, and the isolationism of the United States), that reality from 1939 to 1941 was not made clear. The result was that the Axis started a series of wars on false impressions; the truth would have been obvious if their enemies had adopted wiser prewar deterrent policies and military preparation.
An Accident — or an Accident Waiting to Happen?
So too it is with North Korea. Even the sloppiest outburst from Kim Jong Un or promises of fiery retaliation from Donald Trump are not likely to prompt a second Korean War — at least until the conditions for it are nearly preordained by tragically false perceptions of relative strength.
Still, Trump should be careful what he says, largely because rhetoric at best is a shrinking asset that encourages adventurism when not reinforced by concrete action. At worst, tough talk can be wrongly interpreted as a surrogate for a quiet willingness to use force to deter enemies.
In contrast, a clear and firm statement about what will happen if North Korea attacks either U.S. bases or American soil or its allies, backed by demonstrations of deterrent force, will likely prevent a war.
As far as North Korea, a deterrent policy involves periodic shows of overwhelming force by our alliance, a concerted effort to implement missile defense, and diplomatic efforts to line up big powers such as China, the European Union, India, and Russia to apprise North Korea that it will face only global hostility if it starts a war against the overwhelming strength of the U.S. alliance.
A bombastic outburst may change the date of an inevitable war with North Korea, but it won’t in itself ensure a war. In contrast, an inadvertent or deliberate effort to assure North Korea that the U.S. will not respond in apocalyptic fashion to its aggression is a guarantee that war will follow.
The Fear That We Are Still Reptilian
Why do we ignore this lesson of history?
Pacifism and appeasement in the short term often postpone war and are achieved at little cost. Both win popular and elite acclaim for demonstrating sophisticated moderation and forbearance. In thinking that war is always irrational, only an accident can explain why otherwise sober people would launch such an atrocious enterprise.
In contrast, military preparation, deterrence, and a willingness to use superior force against aggressors is a de facto admission that humans are still Neanderthals — and in their limbic brains fear not so much starting a war as being utterly defeated in a war.
Deterrence is a hard sell for an affluent and leisured society convinced that its supposed success at evolving and improving human nature has made the tough lessons of the past seem prosaic and irrelevant.
Let us pray that we accept the bitter reality that the world is still full of reptiles and not college professors.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, to appear in October from Basic Books.