Prattle and Full Battle Rattle: Is there a taboo against retaliation?
There was recently an interesting piece arguing the development of a new norm against retaliation in international politics, as evidenced by Syria’s recent shootdown of a Turkish reconnaissance aircraft and the possible firing on of a second rescue aircraft. The article goes on to argue that other cases – the DPRK’s sinking of the Cheonan, and the Indian desire for retaliation after the 2008 Mumbai attacks – show that a new norm against retaliation is developing.
I’m quite skeptical, for a few reasons. Firstly, the Turkish-Syrian incident is not a clear case where one might have expected war to erupt. Firstly, it’s not at all clear that the crash was the result of an unjustifiably aggressive action by Syria. Though accounts differ, leaks from the United States intelligence community suggest that Syrian anti-aircraft artillery felled the Turkish aircraft within Syrian airspace. This matters for two reasons – firstly, if true, Turkey understands that Syria’s action does not truly qualify as an act of aggression. Secondly, regardless of whether or not it is true, the United States signaled to Turkey that it was not interested in escalation by undercutting their casus belli, and NATO’s cool reception to Turkey’s desired Article V claim all indicated that Turkey would bear any costs of further escalation on its own.
Additionally, previous Turkish behavior all suggested Turkey was reluctant to rapidly militarize its relations with Syria in the first place. Turkey’s military is questionably reliable, and its ability to act without broader NATO support in Syria is questionable. There’s a variety of domestic political and geopolitical constraints which all discouraged escalation in this case.
As for the case of South Korea, it’s important to remember that the Cheonan incident was hardly the first of its kind. In the late 1960s, North Korea conducted a series of violent provocations. In 1968, a KPA infiltration force crossed the DMZ, and, violating the laws of war by donning South Korean uniforms, attempted to attack the Blue House before a violent firefight that killed dozens of Koreans on each side, and several U.S. troops. Just days later, the North Koreans seized the USS Pueblo. Neither incident resulted in significant retaliation because the costs of a conventional escalation might have been extremely high, and with the Korean War fresh in the memories of all parties involved, as well as an escalating U.S. commitment in Vietnam (in which large numbers of South Korean troops fought), taking the dispute further could have proved deadly.
North Korea also shot down an EC-121 Warning Star in 1969. Again, the potential costs of another major military commitment deterred the U.S., which instead chose to conduct naval exercises and resume surveillance flights. South Korea, for its part, had tried to retaliate to the Blue House Raid by forming, in one of the more bizarre episodes of Cold War history, recruited unemployed and criminals to form a special infiltration unit to retaliate against North Korea. Instead, the unit rose up and killed their commanders. Clearly South Korea intended to retaliate, but circumstances dictated otherwise.
As for India and Pakistan, while Mumbai prompted a lot of talk about retaliation, it was hardly unheralded that armed provocations would not result in a broader war. For example, after the LeT/JeM attack on the Indian Parliament, there was a major war scare, resulting in massive military mobilizations. The prospect of nuclear war and the enormous costs of simply mobilizing military forces – let alone unleashing them against each other on a scale not seen since 1971 – was a significant damper on the prospects for escalation.
Indeed, India and Pakistan had many militarized or terrorist incidents that did not result in broader war. In 1984 and 1999, conflicts largely localized to the Siachen and Kargil broke out, with the use of Pakistani-backed jihadist forces in the latter case also serving as a prominent factor. The disasters of 1965 and 1971, on Pakistan’s side, discouraged it from seeking to escalate conventional conflicts, but brought about an increasing use of proxy forces. India, for its part, has generally tried to keep retaliation limited to areas of conflict or types of action unlikely to impose significant costs.
Essentially, it’s far from clear-cut that either South Korea or India, both living under the specter first of costly conventional wars and then of nuclear strikes – have ever been particularly prone to retaliation over such incidents.
The piece also cites the EP-3 Hainan Island incident, but this was just one in a pattern of incidents dating back to the formation of Communist China and Korean War where the U.S. had suffered a perceived or actual Chinese provocation but avoided a full-on retaliatory response. The First, Second, and Third Taiwan Straits Crises all demonstrated that combinations of conventional and nuclear deterrence, negotiations, and red-lines were already in place for avoiding Sino-American conflict. It’s hard to say that normative factors are taking a leading role when patterns of de-escalated behavior, after much more serious violent incidents in some cases, have prevailed.
While it would be worth looking into a large-n study, my suspicion is that this is not a recent phenomenon either. Before World War I, there were several major war scares before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and even then it would be misleading to depict that assassination as anything but a proximate catalyst – a large amount of other military and diplomatic factors helped make that Balkan crisis, one of many, into to broader war.
For many of the incidents described above, the norm was not launching full-out war but punitive actions against peripheral interests of the provocateur (if it was a rival great power), or more direct punitive expeditions if the provocateur was particularly weak. Major maritime powers, for example, suffered provocations from pirates, brigands, or hostile non-European fleets constantly. The response generally was not a full-out war, but shore bombardments, raids, and other actions that stopped-short of a full-scale conflict, which is why so few of these incidents are remembered today. Importantly, though, the dissemination of economic strength, military capability, and diplomatic clout among many of these smaller states which previously suffered punitive expeditions rapidly expanded their ability to impose costs on retaliatory actions. Even in the 1870s, the General Sherman incident, when Koreans attacked ships attempting to “open” Korea, and the retaliatory expedition afterwards, demonstrated that punitive behavior could carry significant costs.
For example, the 2008 Georgia War, which the author dismisses as a case of normative restraint on Russia’s part, Russia faced significant potential costs to carrying the war to Tbilisi and escalating the confrontation. According to some of the most thorough studies of the conflict, Russia was well-prepared for a limited engagement, but even in this limited engagement, difficulties coordinating within and between Russian services, deteriorating equipment quality throughout the course of the war, the overstretching of Russian logistics, and the significant degradation of the Russian air power deeper into Georgia all demonstrate that a larger-scale war might have been much more costly for Russia. Not only that, but the costs would have been largely fruitless, as virtually all of Russia’s major objectives – achieving de-facto independent for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, restoring the right of a privileged Russian “sphere of influence” and the fait accompli preclusion of Russian entry into NATO all suggest the benefits of a Russian war to depose Saakashvili might not have come at worthwhile costs.
Essentially, the norm for provocative incidents has generally be limited punitive raids, and changes in the geopolitical and military context have made it harder for wronged states to control the escalation ladder or limit the costs of a punitive or retaliatory action. It’s also notable that in many cases, where the slighted power has had recourse either to irregular means of retaliation, or been overwhelmingly more powerful than the opposing force, retaliation has been frequent. Turkey frequently conducts punitive raids against the PKK, and the United States had conducted punitive or retaliatory strikes against Iraq during the 1990s and Libya in 1986. While it is possible that a norm against retaliation is developing, the historical record of punitive actions and the shifting cost-benefit balance of retaliatory action all suggest that limitation or absence of retaliation is overdetermined by geopolitical and strategic factors. Full-blown wars have rarely resulted from minor, if violent, provocations such as those described above.