The biggest international news in the quiet months before 9/11 was the collision of a U.S. Navy spy aircraft and a PLA fighter jet in China, during which 24 American crew members were detained. Even though the incident was lampooned on SNL, there was real concern that the incident would blow up, damaging already-tense relations between the two countries. But it quickly faded and both sides reached an agreement. Quiet diplomacy prevailed.
Flash-forward a decade later and we have a similar border incident of a spy plane being shot down between Turkey and Syria. Cue the familiar drumbeats for war on both sides. To save face, each side has ratcheted up its hostile rhetoric (even though Syria’s president did offer something of an admission of guilt). But, as in the spring of 2001, I wouldn’t get too worried. One of the least noted global norms to emerge in recent decades has been the persistence of state restraint in international relations. Retaliation has almost become an unstated taboo. Of course, interstate war is obviously not a relic of previous centuries, but nor is it as commonplace anymore, despite persistent flare-ups that have the potential to escalate to full-blown war.
Consider the distinct cases of India and South Korea. Both have sustained serious attacks with mass casualties in recent years: South Korea saw 46 of its sailors killed after the Cheonan, a naval vessel, was sunk by North Korea; India saw 200 citizens killed by the Mumbai attacks, orchestrated by Islamist groups with links to Pakistani intelligence. Yet neither retaliated with military force. Why?
The short answer might be: Because a response may have triggered a nuclear war (both Pakistan and North Korea are nuclear-armed states). So nukes in this case may have acted as a deterrent and prevented an escalation of hostilities. But I would argue that it was not the presence of nuclear weapons that led to restraint but rather normative considerations. South Korea and India are also both rising democratic powers with fast-growing economies, enemies along their peripheries, and the military and financial backing of the United States. Their leaders, subject to the whims of an electorate, may have faced domestic pressures to respond with force or suffer reputational costs. And yet no escalation occurred and war was averted.
Again, I argue that this is because there is an emerging and under-reported norm of restraint in international politics. Even Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008, which may at first appear to disprove this theory, actually upholds it: The Russians barely entered into Georgia proper and could easily have marched onto the capital. But they didn’t. The war was over in 5 days and Russian troops retreated to disputed provinces. Similarly, Turkey will not declare war on Syria, no matter how angry it is that Damascus shot down one of its spy planes. Quiet diplomacy will prevail.
In 1999, Nina Tannenwald made waves by proclaiming the emergence of what she called a “nuclear taboo” – that is, the non-use of dangerous nukes had emerged as an important global norm. Are we witnessing the emergence of a similar norm for interstate war? Even as violence rages on in the form of civil war and internal political violence all across the global map, interstate conflict is increasingly rare. My point is not to echo Steven Pinker, whose latest book, The Better Angles of Our Nature, painstakingly details a “civilizing process” and “humanitarian revolution” that has brought war casualties and murder rates down over the centuries. I’m not fully convinced by his argument, but certainly agree with the observation that at the state level, a norm of non-retaliation has emerged. The question is why.
Partly, war no longer makes as much sense as in the past because capturing territory is no longer as advantageous as it once was. We no longer live in a world where marauding throngs of Dothraki-like bandits – or what Mancur Olson politely called “non-stationary bandits” – seek to expand their writ over large unconquered areas. This goes on, of course, at the intrastate level, but the rationale for interstate war for conquest is no longer as strong. Interstate wars of recent memory — the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflicts of 1999 and 2005, the Russia-Georgia War of 2008 — upon closer inspection, actually look more like intrastate wars. The latter was fought over two secessionist provinces; the former between two former rebel leaders-turned-presidents who had a falling out.
But if we have reached a norm of non-retaliation to threats or attacks, does that mean that deterrence is no longer valid? After all, if states know there will be no response, why not step up the level of attacks? I would argue that the mere threat of retaliation is enough, as evidenced by Turkish leaders’ harsh words toward Syria (there is now a de facto no-fly zone near their shared border). Still, doesn’t restraint send a signal of weakness and lack of resolve? After all, didn’t Seoul’s non-response to the Cheonan sinking only invite Pyongyang to escalate hostilities?
Robert Jervis dismisses the notion that a tough response signals resolve as being overly simplified. The observers’ interpretation of the actor and the risks involved also matter. When Schelling writes about the importance of “saving face,” he describes it as the “interdependence of a country’s commitments; it is a country’s reputation for action, the expectations other countries have about its behavior.” Others note that the presence of nuclear weapons forces states, when attacked, to respond with restraint to avoid the risk of nuclear escalation. Hence, we get “limited wars” rather than full-blown conflicts, or what some deterrent theorists describe as the “stability-instability paradox.” This is not a new concept, of course: Thucydides quoted King Archimadus of Sparta: “And perhaps then they see that our actual strength is keeping pace with the language that we use, they will be more inclined to give way, since their land will still be untouched and, in making up their minds, they will be thinking of advantages which they still possess and which have not yet been destroyed.”
There will be future wars between states, of course. But the days when an isolated incident, such as a spy plane being shot down or a cross-border incursion, can unleash a chain of events that lead to interstate wars I believe are largely over because of the emergence of restraint as a powerful normative force in international politics, not unlike Tannenwald’s “nuclear taboo.” Turkey and Syria will only exchange a war of words, not actual hostilities. To do otherwise would be a violation of this existing norm.