While U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in June emphasized that any war in Korea will be “catastrophic,” he also confidently stated in August that war with North Korea would mean “the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.” But what Mattis did not address—and what no member of Congress has asked him to address—is: What about China?
The U.S. sees China’s reluctance to rein in its troublesome ally, and its attempt to squeeze South Korea over its deployment of missile defense systems as seriously as it is squeezing North Korea, as evidence of a China that is trying to use the crisis to push the U.S. out of its neighborhood.
For China, American actions in dealing with North Korea are part of a larger mosaic in which the U.S. is seeking to contain the natural growth of Chinese power; to persuade South Korea and Japan to deploy missile defenses—including THAAD and Aegis systems—to erode China’s nuclear deterrent threat against the U.S.; and to enlarge the U.S. alliance system to include others, even India, in a strategy the U.S. calls “hedging” against China—which is operationally indistinguishable from containment.
And no one should forget that U.S. allies also have deep national interests at stake in this crisis. This multiplies the number of third parties that could pull the U.S. and China into war, just as Britain and Germany were drawn by smaller powers in to what became World War I.
For South Korea, the priority in this drama is to avoid war in its immediate neighborhood. As South Korean President Moon Jae In said recently: “I can confidently say there will not be a war again on the Korean Peninsula.”
Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s agenda in dealing with developments in North Korea focuses on two overriding objectives. First, he opposes any U.S. action that could trigger a North Korean attack on Japan, especially by a missile carrying a nuclear warhead. Second, he is using the heightened sense of risk among Japan’s citizens to advance his deep commitment to revise the pacifist constitution the U.S. imposed on Japan after World War II, and to rebuild a military to levels commensurate with Japan’s position as the third largest economy in the world.
With so many competing perspectives in this multi-party odyssey, risks that one or more of the parties misunderstand what the others are doing increase exponentially.
World War I offers the classic analogy. How could the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand have provided the spark for a conflagration that ended in such devastation it required historians to create an entirely new category: World War? A century after that event, historians are still wrestling with that question.
The two centennial books that do the most to advance this debate are Chris Clark’s The Sleepwalkers and Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace. Both note the deeper forces driving events in the decade running up to 1914, including in particular a rising Germany that challenged Britain’s rule. But both also emphasize the contingent choices leaders made—without fully seeing the consequences their actions would bring.