The Myth of Accidental War

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This article was originally published by the World Policy Blog on 28 September 2017.

As the rhetoric and warlike maneuvers of the U.S. and North Korea accelerate, the media are increasingly considering the prospect of “accidental” war between the U.S. and North Korea. But if war does start, it will not be accidental. It depends on deliberate choices by both sides about whether to escalate violence or pull back and reassess. Those choices are made by politicians, who are often swayed by domestic political pressures.

The myth of accidental war is a pernicious consequence of liberal international relations theory, which argues that since the consequences of war are so horrendous, no sane person would willfully choose war. Therefore, war occurs only when “madmen,” like Hitler, are in power, or when otherwise rational leaders miscalculate the consequences of their actions. My blog last week argued that the U.S. may be slipping into war with North Korea, but it is important to understand that if it does happen, it is not accidental. It is a product of choices being made now that people and leaders need to be responsible about.

Liberals, in particular, are fond regarding war as a product of accident rather than design. Conversely, realist theory expects that wars start as a matter of deliberate calculation and strategy. My corporatist approach criticizes both. Wars may benefit few while imposing extremely high costs on many, but that is the nature of political economy. Power is not kind, but ruthless. As Prussian war theorist Karl von Clausewitz emphasized, war is an extension of politics. He also wrote that war is like commerce, but with bloodshed; in other words; in my terms, it is a product of polarized political economy. The mistake many realists make, though they often admire Clausewitz, is to ignore domestic politics and political economy when considering war origins. Clausewitz hoped that valid reasons of state security would guide decisions for war. He did not claim that they typically do.

The liberal case for inadvertent war emerged only since World War II. It has two principal roots: One, the advent of mutual assured destruction made nuclear war, at least, seem unthinkable. Two, an effort was made to repair Germany’s reputation during the Cold War. The “madman” Hitler could be blamed for World War II, but to counteract strong objections to rearming Germany again after 1945, it was convenient to exonerate the country for pushing World War I. Most influential was Barbara Tuchman’s bestseller, The Guns of August, which argued that World War I was a tragic accident.

Unfortunately, Tuchman was quite wrong. Historians have found plenty to contradict her view in the archives of the various warring states. Four great powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and France) and one minor power (Serbia) deliberately chose war, all believing that war was inevitable, and that the summer of 1914 was an opportune time—maybe the last good chance—for victory. Furthermore, in all five countries leaders believed that victorious war would yield significant domestic political gains against rival parties. Of course, none of the belligerents could exactly predict the future course of events or more than four years of horrendous bloodletting. European wars during the previous century had tended to be brief. But the calculations that led to World War I did have some rational basis, as least in terms of the interests of the parties making them, if not the nations as a whole.

Russian leaders wanted war specifically by August 1914 because a key part of their plan was a seaborne landing of an army corps near Istanbul to capture the Turkish Straits at the onset of hostilities. The Russian general staff knew that their country would need to export grain through the Straits to import the materials necessary for war. This chance would be lost in August because the Ottomans were scheduled to receive two new British-built battleships, decisively changing the balance of naval power in the Black Sea and dooming Russia’s war plan. When the war did start in early August, Britain seized the two battleships and incorporated them into the Royal Navy. However, unexpectedly for Russia, a powerful German battle cruiser operating in the Mediterranean evaded both the French and British Mediterranean fleets and arrived in Istanbul, where it foiled the Russian invasion plan. As a result, Russia fought World War I chronically short of munitions and other materials it expected to import.

Serbia was divided between pro-Russian and pro-Austrian parties with competing business ties. The pro-Russian party was in power in 1914, but needed a big win to forestall its pro-Austrian adversaries. The Russian military attaché in Belgrade, working closely with the Serbian army’s chief of military intelligence, recruited a group to assassinate the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Russian leaders pushed this risky project because of their own agenda for war sooner rather than later.

Austria-Hungary, a polyglot multinational empire, needed reform to survive in an age of intense nationalism. The assassinated heir had promised sweeping reforms to give more autonomy to the empire’s 10 major constituent nationalities. This threatened both the pro-Russian Serbs, who feared that such reforms would weaken the appeal of their effort to unite all the South Slavs under Serbian leadership, and the empire’s German and Hungarian conservatives, who did not want to give up their privileges. A war to crush Serbia would certainly nip “Greater Serbia” in the bud.

Germany pushed its ally Austria-Hungary into war in 1914 because, according to the German general staff, time was not on its side. Russia was industrializing and building more and more railroads (funded by French capital), which would speed up military mobilization in event of war, making the country a growing threat if not defeated soon. Furthermore, Germany had just widened the Kiel Canal so that its battleships could easily transit between the North and Baltic Seas, enabling the navy to fight a two-front war. The army had just completed a major expansion in 1912. Finally, German conservatives worried that the rapidly growing Social Democratic Party, already the largest party after the 1912 election, would win a majority in the 1916 election and then reform or reshape the German Reich. Victory in a patriotic war against tsarism might restore popularity to the conservative parties.

France backed Russia’s advances after French President Raymond Poincaré visited St. Petersburg on the eve of war. French military planners worried that France’s birthrate, much lower than Germany’s, doomed it to eventual demographic inferiority, so war had to be fought and won soon, under Poincaré’s conservative leadership, to discredit the French Left, which had made significant gains in the June 1914 election. In both France and Germany, conservatives expected that a patriotic war would discredit the internationalism of the socialist left. French leadership had an exaggerated confidence in the superiority of their army over the larger German army, which was more dependent on mobilizing civilian reserves to fill out its ranks. France also expected help from Britain, and possibly Italy.

World War I was not accidental. In fact, I know of no war that was. There are numerous instances where accidental or incidental provocations were contained short of war because leaders did not deliberately choose war. My blogs have argued why Donald Trump may see major political benefit in provoking war with North Korea, and why it is not difficult to provoke. He is aided by media reports that present war as unthinkable, and argue that whatever Trump or Kim Jong Un say, they do not want war and would not deliberately provoke one. I am not so sure.

About the Author

James H Nolt is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and an adjunct associate professor at New York University.

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