World War I Redux: Setting Up Tripwires to War

The bipartisan War Party will be firmly in control in Washington, D.C. when Joe Biden becomes president. He supported most conflicts waged by the U.S. since he entered the Senate in 1973. Those tapped to lead his foreign policy are architects of such disasters as inflaming a Libyan civil war now in its ninth year and supporting the murderous Saudi/Emirati invasion of Yemen.

Quite a legacy to build on!

These foolish wars of choice have been costly, especially in lives of foreigners. For instance, George W. Bush & Co. are awash in the blood of 400,000 or more Iraqis, most of whom who died in sectarian fighting after the invasion. No US official has been held responsible for his or her gross policy malpractice.

To the contrary, the latest iteration of war hawks, such as Samantha Power, complain that public concern over their past deadly blunders constrains their actions today. The self-pity just flows. So many countries to bomb, invade, and occupy, so little popular will for endless war!

However, the direct risks of these misadventures to America remain limited. The Iraq invasion had horrendous consequences for the Middle East, but US dead and wounded remained in the tens of thousands – tragic, but not Vietnam. Never did America face an existential threat. At least until Libyan or Yemeni terrorists show up in the US no Americans are likely to die as a result of participation in those conflicts.

Unfortunately, there remains a bipartisan consensus in favor of creating new and intensifying old tripwires for war. Indeed, Biden’s constant mantra about "strengthening" alliances is code for telling more nations more emphatically that they need do nothing while relying on Washington to defend them. Certainly, that is how US allies will interpret his message. Just look at the almost hysterical, even frenzied joy with which most friendly foreign nations greeted his victory. Uncle Sucker is back, sure to ask them to do more but unlikely to threaten any meaningful consequences if they do not.

Luckily most military tripwires go untested. Potential aggressors usually aren’t interested in war. Some figure the risk of tangling with Washington is too great. However, the seeming success of America’s promiscuous promises to defend much of the known world has created dangerous complacency. Most advocates of ever more expansive defense commitments by the US cannot imagine ever being called on the commitments made. Which makes proposals for new guarantees ever more reckless.

World War I stands as the ultimate refutation for those who assume that nothing can go wrong. People were enjoying a better life on the continent: prosperity was rising, democracy was advancing, even the ancient monarchies were liberalizing. Two competing alliances arose, the Entente and Central Powers, by which Europe’s leading powers divided and promised to come to their partners’ aid. The alliances were supposed to be firebreaks to war.

Then came two gunshots in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife were dead. Vienna presented an ultimatum, backed by the threat of war, against Serbia, which had armed the killer and his confederates. The Russian Empire backed Belgrade; Imperial Germany supported Austria-Hungary. France stood by its ally Russia. Then the United Kingdom entered on France’s and Russia’s side. As weeks and months passed, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire as well as Italy and Romania also joined the war, the first two with the German-led Central powers, the latter two with the Entente members. After four years of war as many as 20 million people were dead, much of the continent was ravaged, the Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman, and Russian empires were gone, and the stage was set for the rise of communism, fascism, and Nazism, and eruption of a far worse war a generation later.

Great job, European statesmen! So much for assuming military tripwires ensured peace. So what bad ideas for additional US security guarantees are currently afloat in Washington?

Bad Old European Standby. Georgia and Ukraine continue to seek entry into NATO. Why wouldn’t they? They want to borrow the US military if things get worse with Russia. They would especially enjoy being under the infamous nuclear umbrella, by which the US would trade Washington for Kiev or Tbilisi. Moreover, the US is more likely to toss money at both countries for military modernization and other purposes if they are in NATO. There’s also the extra prestige of joining the world’s fanciest geopolitical club.

Promising to protect them is a very bad idea for America, however. Neither of the countries is important for US security. Both were historically part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, with no adverse effect on America. Their recent conflicts with Moscow (Georgia 2008, Ukraine 2014) were unfortunate, but threatened the US in no way. Even so, the Bush administration debated intervening militarily in the former. Members of the infamous Blob, or Washington foreign policy establishment, proposed all manner of military support for Kiev, including deploying US troops to confront Moscow.

Bringing both nations into NATO would be similarly dangerous. Doing so would mean giving them a security guarantee, that is, promising to fight on their behalf, in this case against a nuclear-armed power with which they already are involved in a conflict. Even in the best of circumstances the US should not issue military commitments to nations which are not vital to America. It is especially foolish to assume, as the Bush administration did with the inclusion of the three Baltic states in 2004, that US guarantee will never be called. It would be mad to repeat that mistake with Georgia and Ukraine.

Wasteful Old European Standby. One way NATO coped with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw pact was finding a new purpose, integrating its former enemies into Europe. That should have been the responsibility of what today is the European Union, but the latter actually required more of applicants. The transatlantic alliance took everyone, even if they brought more problems than assets to the alliance.

The most recent additions were Montenegro and North Macedonia. They are unlikely to cause a war, but their membership will cost the US more than they are worth while giving more mini-states a theoretically equal seat at NATO’s decision-making table. The alliance might as well add the fictional Duchy of Grand Fenwick, which would be more helpful in a war with Moscow. Unfortunately, NATO ultimately hopes to add Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Serbia as well. None are relevant to America’s defense nor able to do much on behalf of anyone else. All three have internal political problems and are involved in sharp international disputes, mostly with each other.

Admittedly, adding them would be more a matter of waste than danger. But that’s no argument for doing so. NATO has dramatically departed from its traditional role as a serious military alliance focused on advancing US security.

Nutty Old European Standby. Alliances seem to inflame the interventionist temptation. That may help explain proposals to add nations like Israel and Mexico to NATO. Israel is a nuclear-armed regional superpower, with a demonstrated ability to defend itself – after all, it won full-scale wars in 1948, 1967, and 1973, and another half-dozen more limited conflicts. There is no reason for the US to promise to defend it other than politics, which is an awful reason to threaten to go to war. Nor would Israel be likely to defend anyone else by, for instance, launching a suicide attack on Russia in response to the latter’s invasion of another member.

Mexico is an even less likely addition. Unlike NATO member Canada, with which it has been compared, Mexico has not maintained ties to Europe, previously gone to war on behalf of the continent, and developed the means to fight a serious foe. None of these circumstances is likely to change in the future, irrespective of circumstances. Moreover, Mexico faces no external military threats. Anyway, many of its people, long wary of their nation’s relations with its overbearing superpower neighbor, would be wary of American intervention there under any circumstance.

Traditional Asian Status Quo. Nearly seven decades later in a vastly changed world, the US maintains its alliance with South Korea, even though the latter enjoys more than 50 times the GDP and twice the population of the North, and hence could afford to defend itself. War with North Korea remains unlikely but could grow much deadlier for America. The North has developed a nuclear capacity with as many as 65 weapons, though no one really knows for sure.

Washington long could count on victory in any Korean War II. The US would still win, but the price of victory soon could be the loss of a major American city or more. In 1950 the U.S.-led UN force appeared ready to complete the conquest of North Korea when China intervened; after three-and-a-half more years of war, the conflict ended roughly where it began.

If Washington similarly neared victory in another war, Beijing would not intervene this time. However, Pyongyang could threaten a nuclear attack unless the allies withdrew. It would have little and the US everything to lose. Normal tensions between the two governments also would be unusually dangerous, since the North’s nukes would be vulnerable to American military strikes: the weapons would be essentially use them or lose them. If Pyongyang believed war was imminent, it might choose to strike first, starting a war that no one wanted.

North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal and missile capabilities have changed the effective balance of power in Northeast Asia. Once Pyongyang’s nuclear threat is fully credible, Washington will face pressure to drop what will have become a tripwire to nuclear war. Nothing in Korea is worth the sacrifice of America’s homeland.

Traditional Asian Foolishness. For decades the US has guaranteed the security of Japan and the Philippines through additional misnamed "Mutual Defense Treaties." The only duty of the other governments is to let America defend them. Nevertheless, protecting these nations from the PRC is a relatively safe bet, since Beijing has demonstrated no interest in conquering non-Chinese peoples in non-Chinese lands.

Unfortunately, however, both the Obama and Trump administrations have insisted that they would go to war to maintain allied control over the contested bits of useless rocks which dot the area’s waters. For instance, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated: "Any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations."

However, the US has nothing at stake in territorial disputes over islands, shoals, islets, reefs, and more, and should not take the side of its allies irrespective of the strength of their respective cases. In the case of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Tokyo won’t even talk about the issue with Beijing despite the latter’s colorable claim. Washington’s support only makes Japan more obdurate, increasing chances of an altercation between opposing forces. Such controversies are no reason to risk war with China, a highly nationalistic, increasingly powerful nuclear-armed power.

Indeed, the policy is especially dangerous with the Philippines, a semi-failed state whose president makes Donald Trump look reasonable, rational, and responsible. Last June, a Chinese naval vessel hit and sank a Filipino fishing boat in contested waters. President Rodrigo Duterte announced: "I’m calling now, America. I am invoking the RP-US pact, and I would like America to gather their Seventh Fleet in front of China." Then he channeled Maj. T.J. Kong, who rode the bomb down in the movie Dr. Strangelove: "When they enter the South China Sea, I will enter. I will ride with the American who goes there first. Then I will tell the Americans, ‘Okay, let’s bomb everything’."

Thankfully, Washington ignored his delusional rant.

New Asian Perils. Taiwan has become the most dangerous flashpoint between the US and China. The island (actually islands) was separated from Imperial China by Japan after the latter’s victory in war in 1895. In 1945 the Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek reclaimed Taiwan, to which the regime fled in 1949 after the victory of the Chinese Communist Party. Of the last 125 years, Taipei has been governed by the mainland for only four years. A vanishing proportion of the population wants to be ruled by Xi Jinping’s brutal, vindictive mainland dictatorship.

Nevertheless, most Chinese, even liberal students who bridle at state censorship and other restrictions on their freedom, believe that the island is rightly part of the People’s Republic of China. As such, the issue matters much more to Beijing than to America, leading to the taunt that the US won’t sacrifice Los Angeles for Taipei. America certainly shouldn’t do so. And the belief that Washington won’t do so is likely to leave the PRC prepared to intervene militarily almost irrespective of what the US government says or does. Notably, the North took a similar position toward British proposals to intervene in America’s Civil War: war with London would result, the Lincoln administration said. So the UK stayed out.

Moreover, guaranteeing Taiwan’s security encourages irresponsible and confrontational behavior by Taipei. Chen Sui-bian, the first member of the opposition Democratic People’s Party candidate to be elected president, delighted in antagonizing Beijing. Officials I spoke with at the time admitted that they presumed the US would rescue them in any conflict. President Tsai Ing-wen has followed a steadier course, but nevertheless continues to push for an independent international presence – an understandable desire, but potentially reckless given China’s hostility. The chances of an unintentional, accidental, or unexpected war is real.

World War I was never supposed to happen. None of the participants wanted a military Goetterdaemmerung in Europe. And no unstoppable historical forces made one inevitable. Foolish officials made alliances that turned into transmission belts of war. Everyone assumed that everyone else would back down. No one did. And a devastating global war resulted, one which set the stage for an even deadlier conflict just one score plus one years later.

President-elect Biden is the ultimate establishment pol. He always has been a member of the War Party, which is already planning for good times ahead. Which threatens a terrible future for the American people.

However, America’s circumstances have changed dramatically from when the US made most of its treaties. Endless wars have sullied America’s international reputation and damaged America’s domestic system. The incoming president should surprise Washington policy elites and adopt a more restrained foreign policy, dismantling rather than creating more tripwires for war.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.