The period from 1890 to 1914 saw numerous occasions on which various nations, large and small, faced off against each other over issues that made war a credible prospect. Over time, according to eminent historians such as Margaret MacMillan and Christopher Clark, a resort to war to solve contentious problems became an accepted means of managing international relations. And this attitude became one of the accepted reasons why we accuse leaders of that day of sleepwalking into the Great War.
Today, as North Korea claims it has a nuclear-warhead capable intercontinental ballistic missile, we see two megalomaniac leaders, one in North Korea and the other in the US, ratcheting up the threatening dialogue about each other and even pointing towards the much higher and unacceptable likelihood of nuclear war. Most analysts do not seem too concerned about this heightened rhetoric. Yet we cannot be confident, in the midst of such sabre rattling, about the outcomes of any miscalculation, misadventure, or poorly judged provocation. Both leaders seem to have tin ears.
In June, Jim Clapper, the recently retired US Director of National Intelligence, spoke at the Australian National University. He made his view clear when he said “there are no acceptable military solutions to the problem of North Korea”. It seems that Washington is not listening to his sage advice, or maybe it is playing an extraordinary game of bluff for the highest of stakes. Each side is trying to rhetorically out-do the other.
Will nothing really happen?
In many publications during these past few months there have been many articles covering the shape, size and possible consequences of a range of military incidents. These incidents are dangerous but they are not remotely a complete set of scenarios. And, astonishingly, nearly all of the articles conclude with a view that nothing will happen. This is breathtaking complacency. Just as the decision-makers in 1914 thought that the war would end before Christmas, today we seem to feel complacent because we believe our technology will give us the winning edge – that it will limit the possible consequences of a military strike, or an exchange, to a short period of time and a restricted location.
Clearly, we have forgotten about the consequences that flowed from the invasion of Iraq in 2003, or the beginning of the Great War in 1914.
The problem, and risk, with these comfortable assumptions is that they may turn out to be very wrong. Unlike the cautiousness of President Kennedy in 1961 over the Cuban Missile Crisis, today we have an untrusted and untested leader in Washington whose entire previous career has depended on winning the bluff in the world of business in general, and New York property development in particular. But, even in terms of his business career, Donald Trump has had a record of bankruptcy from which he doesn’t seem to have learnt anything about changing his behaviour.
The sequencing of events in a North Korea scenario will depend on many factors, if one leader called the other’s bluff.
How good is our intel?
A particularly worrying factor is the quality of our intelligence about the Hermit Kingdom. How confident can the West be that the intelligence picture is 100 per cent accurate? It never has been in the past as we saw in Iraq, and it is not very likely to be so in this situation.
Thus, we cannot easily dismiss the reasonable likelihood that a trigger event leads to a US pre-emptive strike “intended to disable all North Korean offensive capabilities”, and yet, because of imperfect intelligence, the strike fails absolutely, after which the DPRK military unleashes all its remaining capabilities on South Korea and Tokyo.
If not already nuclear, in this conflict that threshold will then be quickly reached if the US is determined – as it must be, given its solemn alliances – to show it is reliable when it comes to extended nuclear deterrence. Thereafter, it is easy to show that China, Japan, and other countries, including perhaps Russia, will become embroiled in a war they do not want, but from which there is no escape. The world would be sleepwalking into war once again.
In this “March of Folly”, the theme of a book by Barbara Tuchman containing case studies about the pursuit of policies that were inimical to national interests, how certain can we be that the US President will back down from his aggressive posturing? Is there any chance that Kim Jong-un will do the same?
The opposite of good signs
In fact the opposite seems to be happening. In the last few days we have been seeing each side ratcheting up the rhetoric once more: Trump promising “fire and fury” and telling the world that “talking is not the answer”, and Kim launching a missile over Japan, and, on Sunday, conducting its sixth nuclear test.
In an article published in The Conversation on July 12, we showed elements of a computer simulation that demonstrated an unacceptably high risk of general war exists when hawkishness is high, and risk aversion is low in relations between two countries. We did not anticipate then how quickly the international situation would deteriorate.
We also pointed out that statesmen are needed to limit the risk of war when a crisis erupts. Hawkishness is strongly influenced by other countries and has a high emotional content. It is easier to talk up than down, as the current situation clearly shows, and is likely to be resistant to statesmanship. But risk aversion is more about the rational balance of war’s costs and benefits, and we think statesmanship might find more purchase there.
Does anyone think that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are statesmen? Can we imagine either of them having a “Kennedy” moment and walking the world away from war? The potential for this crisis to turn bad is very real – we should all be very careful.
Admiral Chris Barrie is a former Chief of Defence Force and an honorary professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre and Roger Bradbury is professor at the National Security College, both at the Australian National University. Dmitry Brizhinev is an ANU researcher.
This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.