Like a rampaging fire set off by a fallen cigarette, nuclear war with North Korea could be triggered by a single slip. Wars sometimes happen accidentally, especially in situations like ours, when there is so much mistrust, misunderstanding, and inflexible posturing.
Perhaps the most familiar example is World War I, a global conflict set off by a mistake. Had the carriage carrying Archduke Franz Ferdinand not made a wrong turn, it wouldn’t have passed in front of the restaurant where his assassin happened to be eating lunch. And the continent-convulsing standoff among European powers might never have happened.
Could another wrong turn transform our rhetorical battle with North Korea into a similarly devastating conflict?
The big danger is that someone crosses a red line they never even see. North Korea doesn’t really know how far its provocations can go before triggering a US military attack. And the United States doesn’t know which specific threats or military posture might make Kim Jong-un consider a preemptive assault.
But there’s good reason to think that neither side actually wants war. Kim surely knows that it would mean the end of his regime. And the United States understands that a nuclear conflict could kill tens of millions — in Seoul, Tokyo, perhaps even the mainland United States.
Usually, this is enough. Looking across the historical record, accidental wars are rare. If two countries really want to avoid conflict, they generally find ways to do so.
During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union repeatedly approached the brink of mutually assured destruction, only to step back just in time. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to remove missiles from Cuba is one example, matched by President Kennedy’s willingness to pull US missiles from Turkey.
Even with North Korea, the United States repeatedly has refrained from responding to direct and egregious acts. As recently as 2010, North Korea fired artillery shells at a South Korean island and was allegedly involved in the sinking of a South Korean warship. Earlier, in 1968, North Korea seized a US naval vessel and tortured the crew. A year later, they shot down a US spy plane, killing 31.
These incidents have generally been met with harsh condemnation and limited reprisal. But no more. Presidents from Johnson to Obama have swallowed hard to ensure peace.
For incidents or accidents to actually become wars, nations need to play along. Which also explains why a lot of the accidental wars we tend to think of weren’t really accidents at all. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was exaggerated to generate support for war with North Vietnam. The sinking of the Maine became the pretense for the Spanish-American War, despite a lack of evidence about the real cause.
If countries want to go to war, triggers are easy to find. If they hope for peace, it’s often possible to defuse even the most incendiary incidents.
But there are exceptions to this general rule. Sometimes, even nations hoping to avoid wars end up starting them. The riskiest moments are the ones like World War I, or what we’re seeing between the United States and North Korea — when countries feel obliged to stand behind their tough words and heed even risky promises.
One hundred years ago, mutual-defense agreements and treaty obligations helped turned what could have been a limited skirmish into a continent-wide conflict.
Today, if the heated rhetoric should produce a first — maybe unintended — skirmish, the question might be whether President Trump can stand to lose face, backing down as other presidents have in order to prevent war.Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the U.S. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.