Monday, April 8, 2013

The Fallacy of Accidental Wars?

The Diplomat has an article entitled "North Korea and the Fallacy of Accidental Wars." The author writes:
Accidental wars rarely happen. Historians have demonstrated that most wars initially deemed “accidental,” (perhaps most notably the First World War), have in actuality resulted from deliberative state policy, even if the circumstances of the war were unplanned. While war seems discordant, it actually requires a great deal of cooperation and coordination. Fundamentally, two parties have to agree to conduct a war; otherwise, you have either a punitive raid or an armed surrender negotiation.
However, the author immediately goes on to undermine his own argument, noting:
This said, there are conditions under which the chances for accidental wars increase. If the main parties do not communicate well (or at all) with one another, they may misunderstand messages designed to convey commitment or capability. Cultural differences can contribute to a lack of appreciation of how a potential foe thinks about the costs and benefits of war. Domestic conflict invariably complicates foreign policy, as state leaders often act according to a logic that places the dictata of their governing coalitions above foreign policy concerns. Finally, leaders do not have full control over their military organizations; a rogue artillery commander, fighter pilot, or sub skipper can effectively initiate hostilities on their own. All of these conditions can lead to situations in which states commit what they believe is limited force in service of what they believe are limited objectives, but in actuality threatens core interests of the enemy.

The potential for accidental war is highest in conditions where technology and doctrine overwhelmingly favor quick, offensive action, and produce quick, decisive outcomes. Wars that could de-escalate following a border skirmish and a few artillery duels can escalate beyond control if both sides understand the timing of offensive action to be critical. Arguably, the conditions on the Korean Peninsula currently match this description. Although there’s virtually no scenario in which North Korea could win a war, if allowed to mobilize and launch well prepared, coordinate offensive activities the DPRK could inflict severe damage on the South Korean military and South Korean civilians.
I think that the author has set up a strawman argument. The issue is not an "accidental" war in the sense of one where the first battles are the result of mischance (e.g., the Battle of Lexington), but a war as a result of gross error, such as overestimating one's own abilities or underestimating your opponent's response.

For instance, the parties to WWI did not start down the path to war because Germany wanted to lay waste to France and kill an entire generation of Europe's young men. It was the culmination of a series of gamesmanship that went from Austria-Hungary's desire to humiliate Serbia to Germany's launch of an invasion of France, and responses from the other European powers. Germany fully expected to quickly overwhelm France, while Britain fully expected that its troops would be home within just a few months.

Similarly, Germany's WWII offensive against Russia was based on a mistaken belief in a quick victory against the Soviet Union. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor because it did not believe that the U.S. would be able and willing to prosecute a naval war against Japan. Iraq invaded Kuwait because it did not believe the U.S. would respond with force. The Taliban permitted Al Qaeda to operate from Afghanistan because it did not believe the West would respond with any credible force.

This is the danger in the current situation in North Korea: that North Korea (or perhaps even one of the other military powers) will misjudge how strong a provocation to make, or when to back down, or underestimates the response the other side will make.

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