This World Politics in a Time of Populist Nationalism (WPTPN) guest post is written by Phil Arena, a Lecturer at the University of Essex. He has previously held positions at the University of Rochester and the University at Buffalo. His primary interests are interstate conflict and the links between domestic and international politics. His research has appeared in International Studies Quarterly, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Political Science Research and Methods, International Theory, Journal of Theoretical Politics, and elsewhere. He used to maintain a blog at fparena.blogspot.com, which he hopes to revive someday, and has previously contributed to The Duck of Minerva.
I am not an alarmist by nature. I have offended people in the past by not being visibly concerned about matters they thought should trouble me. Yet I am deeply worried that the next world war will break out in the next few years. I admit that I could be wrong, and very much hope that I am, but all the conditions seem to be in place for a tragedy of epic proportion.
Wars are less common than many people appreciate. From a humanitarian perspective, they are not rare enough, yet the forces pushing towards peace are more effective than we often give them credit for. One way to think about this is with birthdays. On any given day, if you’re like most people, your social media accounts inform you that at least one of your friends is celebrating a birthday. That doesn’t change the fact that most of us experience 364 un-birthdays for every birthday. At any given point in time, there is likely at least one war taking place somewhere in the world. That doesn’t change the fact that most countries, most of the time, are at peace. The Militarized Interstate Dispute data record all incidents where one country threatened to use force against another, engaged in a hostile display of force, or actually did use force. Roughly 94% of all MIDs end short of war. Even when countries disagree with each other strongly enough that they threaten to attack one another, or go as far as to call up the reservists or violate one another’s air space, peace almost always prevails. If we are to understand why wars occur, then, it is not enough to ask what the two sides disagree over. We must ask why they were unable to resolve their disagreement peacefully, as the vast majority of disagreements have been resolved throughout history.
One of the best explanations that scholars of international relations have come up with is that it is often impossible to know what terms the other side will accept to maintain the peace. This uncertainty can create incentives to gamble. When countries dispute the location of a border, even those who do not desire war for its own sake might accept some risk of accidentally provoking one in hopes of acquiring desired territory. According to this argument, most wars occur not because of greed or intolerance (factors that were surely present to one degree or another in the 94% of disputes that didn’t become wars), but because one side rolled the dice and they came up snake eyes.
This problem is particularly acute when states signal that they are unwilling to defend that which they ultimately decide is worth defending. This is roughly the story of the Korean War and the Persian Gulf War. As David Halberstam reveals in The Coldest Winter, from 1945 on Kim Il-sung sought Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin’s permission to unite the Korean peninsula by force. Every time he brought the matter up, Stalin ordered him to sit tight because he feared a war with the United States. In 1949, however, Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a commencement speech at the US Military Academy at West Point in which he outlined a ‘defence perimeter’ or areas of the globe that were vital to US interests. The Korean peninsula lay conspicuously outside this perimeter. When Kim next asked Stalin to green-light an offensive, Stalin relented (though he told Kim that if he got into trouble, he’d have to ask Mao for help). Unfortunately for Kim, it turned out that the United States was willing to go to war to defend South Korea. Had the Secretary of State communicated this clearly in 1949, there might never have been a war from 1950 to 1953.
Similarly, just three days before the invasion of Kuwait, Ambassador April Glaspie told Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, “We have no opinion on your Arab – Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary [of State James] Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960′s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America” (source). It is little wonder, then, that Hussein did not back down when the US threatened to go to war if he did not withdraw his forces from Kuwait. Unfortunately for him, President H.W. Bush decided — after the Joint Chiefs of Staff assured him that it would be possible to win the war without suffering a level of fatalities that Bush feared would ruin his prospects for re-election — that he was willing to go to war after all. Similar uncertainties also contributed significantly to the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
It is for these reasons that Trump’s electoral victory is so alarming. Trump has famously questioned what the US is getting out of its military presence in South Korea and Japan and indicated that the US should no longer serve as the world’s policeman (source). He has expressed admiration for Putin and indicated that Russia’s actions in Ukraine are legitimate – when he’s acknowledged that they’re even occurring (source). One could hardly blame Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-un for thinking that the United States would not respond if they chose to attack traditional US allies in the Baltics or South Korea.
What if, like Kim’s grandfather and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, they learn that the US was in fact committed to defending its allies? What if those we might otherwise see as optimists are right to believe that Trump’s bluster on the campaign trail won’t actually predict how he behaves in office? Should his advisers impress upon him the importance of NATO and partnerships with key allies in East Asia, he will likely have to prove what has gone without saying in the past – and the result may be tens or even hundreds of thousands of fatalities. Any war between NATO and Russia is likely to resemble WWII more than the Kosovo conflict. A war on the Korean peninsula also has the potential to escalate into an extremely bloody conflict. China might not want a war, and would prefer to see less provocation from Kim as it is, but the PRC would hardly welcome US military bases less than a mile from their border. Yet if Kim’s regime was overthrown, that would surely be the result. We should also note that the last time the US went to war on the Korean peninsula, its initial goal was to repel an invasion from the north, yet once the tide turned, the US sought to unify the peninsula under the rule of a US ally, nearly reaching the Yalu River.
When it is so easy to see why Putin or Kim might believe that they could get away with things they currently do not dare to attempt, and to imagine what might drag China into a war it does not want, we must ask ourselves which would be worse: if Trump meant the things he said on the campaign trail or if he didn’t?
I don’t even mean to suggest an answer to that question. As horrifying as the prospect of a return to warfare on a scale not seen in decades is, I cannot hope for the abandonment of key allies. That is why I am so troubled; if Putin and Kim respond to Trump’s comments the way leaders have often responded when the US signaled that it was unwilling to check aggression, there is no best case scenario.
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The US has an untenable position in hoping to keep isolated those countries it considers allies, which are in close proximity to other superpowers. We should not play world police to the extent that it threatens large scale war over minor spoils. That makes no sense even if you buy into the whole stop-spread-of-communism thing, especially today when (I feel) odds are good we would have elected a socialist in Sanders if he had been the Dem choice.
US society has become soft and does not want conflicts except about petty things like bigotry. I think the reaction of the nation to Trump wining the election is evidence enough of that.
Regardless a lot of China and Russia’s flexing of military muscle is about trade negotiations. They don’t want to go to war, just to capitalize on prosperity without destroying it with war. Both countries have plenty of mere land and are as much in a struggle with their own citizens about what freedoms should be allowed in this internet, information age.
Intelligent post but the difference between Kuwait and Korea with the situation described is that we have American troops stationed in our allied territory. About 100k in Europe and 28K in S. Korea. They are the “trip wire” that would make a foreign attack on an ally an attack on American personal.
To be fair, most of our troops are concentrated in states that would not be attacked by Russia.
I think the greater threat to war would be in Trump treating each situation as fitting the deterrence model and not a security dilemma. That, and he personalizes everything.
I wrote about this on by blog (it was my first post so there is a bit of pandering).
Let’s say a Democrat (not necessarily Hillary Clinton, but some generic Democrat) had been elected president in 2016.
And let’s say this Democratic president gave a speech saying: “We don’t need 28,000 US troops in South Korea. I am reducing their number to 10,000. At the same time, our commitment to defend S Korea from aggression remains unaltered.”
Would this increase the risk of a N Korean attack? No, I don’t think so. What matters is the stated commitment and its enshrinement in treaty, not the number of US soldiers on the ground in S Korea or the precise distribution of the costs of maintaining them.
So if Trump pressured S Korea to pay more for the costs of the US presence, I tend to doubt that would increase the likelihood of N Korean attack. What might increase the likelihood of a N Korean attack is some signal that the US won’t defend it, w the nuclear umbrella in (unspoken) reserve, and reducing the number of troops does not signal that as it is accompanied by other assurances.
So Trump should make clear, in speeches etc, that the US commitment to S Korea and NATO commitment to the Balkans, as far as the US is concerned, remains the same. Once that signal is conveyed, Trump can then get to dickering about the distribution of costs and burdens.
In the article that was later expanded into his book Restraint, Barry Posen said the US doesn’t need to have 50,000 soldiers in Japan and 40,000 in Germany. Posen is right: these numbers of soldiers are not required. What counts is the stated commitment, not the numbers of soldiers, since 5,000 can act as a “tripwire” just as well as 50,000 can.
I am not that familiar w the IR lit. on signaling, but I wd be very surprised if signaling were ever reduced to numbers of soldiers on the ground, irrespective of other signals. Putin is not dumb, and if NATO reaffirms its commitment to the Baltics, he’s not going to invade them, even if there’s some dickering about what percentage of its GDP Estonia is paying NATO or exactly how many NATO mil. assets are positioned there.
Part of the problem is that he isn’t sending clear signals in the way you describe. His surrogates, like Gingrich, are saying that Estonia is a suburb of St. Petersburg. His advisors, like Flynn, are sitting next to Putin at high tables and have many ties to the Kremlin. During the campaign he repeatedly blustered about Japan, Korea, Germany, and others. He clearly doesn’t know anything about foreign policy, but his gut impulse is “America First”-style isolation.
This is already giving momentum to nationalists in Japan, Korea, and elsewhere. And if they militarize (or look like they might) that will provide opportunities for hard-liners in China, Russia, and elsewhere to inflate threats. It’s easy to see how security dilemmas could form and spiral.
I agree this is a concern. The Gingrich remark was very stupid. One hopes that Gingrich will not get an appt.
Today there is a WaPo story about Trump’s many business connections in India (didn’t read it, just the lead). I’m sure there’s much rejoicing in Islamabad and Lahore about that [/sarcasm].
The game was over the day the Obama administration decided it wasn’t going to honor the US’ Bucharest Memorandum obligations to Ukraine. Everything since then is detail.
Trump isn’t the wrecker here, the Obama administration (which admittedly reflects the desires/fantasies of most of America — the Republicans were not leaping over themselves to oppose his choices in this respect) was.
The message of 2014 was clear
– negotiating a treaty giving up nuclear weapons is for suckers
– US obligations to defend against a clear, non-controversial attack, of precisely the form that was envisaged during negotiations, are worthless.
All Trump is doing today is laying out out the legalistic excuses for why the US doesn’t have to intervene next time. Those excuses (or their absence) change nothing; the priorities of the US became clear as soon as Russia received no pushback against its probings into Ukraine.
FTR, I would say that I am deeply worried about various things in the next few years, but a world war breaking out is not one of them. Inconsistent signaling is a danger, but P Arena doesn’t seem to consider that the very fact that e.g. the US govt backtracked in Korea on Acheson’s ‘defense perimeter’ speech is a reason for others, if they have any sense of history (and at least a couple of Putin’s advisers may), to realize that the US cd backtrack on a policy pronouncement again. IOW they will have reason to exercise caution even in the face of inconsistent US policy and pronouncements.
From norms to nukes, there are various things working vs another world war that bad signaling in itself will not necessarily cancel out. That doesn’t mean a world war is impossible, but it remains IMO v. unlikely. (Of course, so was Trump’s election.)
p.s. The hist. of the origins of the Korean War is complicated, and although many think of it as a clearcut case of repelling an invasion, the conduct of Rhee perhaps makes it less than a completely clearcut case. Or such is my (totally non-expert) impression. Bruce Cuming wd prob be a key person to read here, though there may still be no historical consensus on some of the issues.