WPTPN: The All-Too-Plausible Path to the Next Major War

21 November 2016, 0900 EST

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.

The Duck of Minerva’s WPTPN group is still seeking guest contributions. If you are interested in writing a post and have research expertise in international relations, international political economy, foreign policy, comparative politics, or cognate fields please see this post for more information.