Playing With Triggers

Whenever we read an account of the beginning of WWI it’s necessary for the historian to first lay out the landscape of interlocking defense treaties that turned Europe into a sort of Venn diagram of fantasy militarism. To me, it’s a reminder of the great Avalon Hill game Diplomacy which we played in my high school Military History Club (AKA: D&D club) – everyone secretly negotiating with everyone else against everyone else. For Europe, the results were grim, and I needn’t go into them.

There’s a quip that I believe is attributed to Voltaire, which goes something like: “once the leaders begin secret diplomacy, it always ends in tyranny.” It’s not a hard and fast rule but there are several reasons that make it a good observation; first: when leaders negotiate behind each others’ backs it becomes much easier for them to make the same promise to competing interests and, second: when leaders can work in secret, the will of the people is irrelevant and it’s the first step toward autocracy. Voltaire, having dealt with French kings, knew a thing or two about autocracy and would not have been in the least bit surprised by the folly of WWI. Of Louis XIV’s invasion of the Palatinate in 1689, Voltaire wrote:

“If the king had witnessed this spectacle, he would have put out the flames himself. He signed the destruction of an entire country in his palace at Versailles, in the midst of pleasures, because he saw in that order nothing but his power and the unfortunate law of war; but had he been there, he would have seen nothing but its horror.” [gay, 113]

The rulers of Europe had to make agonizing (and secret) decisions which treaties they were going to uphold, and which they were going to break – decisions that cost millions of lives. Then, once they had sorted that all out, they went and did the same thing again 30 years later; leaders are surprisingly slow learners. It’s especially bad when the diplomacy, as all diplomacy ultimately seems to be, involves wars. When Germany invaded Belgium in WWI, Britain had to declare war against them based on a treaty signed in 1839; treaties like that are established as hedges against aggression – that’s their entire value: in 1914 the Germans assumed Britain would renege on its obligations and let them traverse through and attack France unimpeded. I see these treaties as odd – especially if kept secret – because the only rational reason to make them is for their deterrent value, and a secret deterrent isn’t much of a deterrent. As Doctor Strangelove says:

“Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy… The fear to attack.”

It’s worth noting that Britain’s leaders probably didn’t declare war against Germany because they gave a molecule of manure for the Belgians; it was their precious credibility that they wanted to defend. Asquith delivered Germany an ultimatum: “withdraw from Belgium by midnight August 3rd” followed by a declaration of war later that morning. The precious credibility of Britain was its ability to produce in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack.

Now, we can move on to the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty [wik] that has been being discussed so much in the news, lately. What’s that you said, “It hasn’t”? Surely a military mutual defense pact between China and North Korea would be highly relevant to, you know, stuff.

September 10, 1961 it was signed in Beijing. It is still in force, being automatically renewed every 20 years, with the ability for either signatory to withdraw with a 1 year warning. Article 2 of the treaty specifically calls for mutual defense against any nation or coalition that attacks either signatory. Now you can understand why this treaty has been being discussed so much in the US media, as blusterer-in-chief Trump openly threatens a war of aggression against North Korea. What do you mean, “this is news to me”?

It’s not news to everyone. There have been some really odd talking-points floated about how it doesn’t matter at all; I’m sure Asquith got similar arguments when Germany invaded Belgium:

The Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty stipulates that one country must immediately take military and all other necessary measures to oppose any country or coalition of countries that might attack either nation. But the treaty also says that both nations should safeguard peace and security.

Observers told the SCMP that North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons in violation of the United Nations treaty on non-proliferation could amount to a breach of the pact. This means that Beijing is not obliged to help defend North Korea from a military attack, they told the paper. [straits times]

That’s a really tendentious assessment of the treaty, radically re-interpreting a desire to increase peaceful cooperation between the treaty signatories as applying to the entire region. But there’s a lot to read between those lines; China is pressuring North Korea, using a very powerful tool – the threat of reinterpreting the treaty. I am tempted to imagine that Trump is speaking between those lines when he says “China must do more” except I don’t think he’s capable of being that subtle.

Go, and amuse yourself by Googling for articles about the treaty in the American press. It’s as if America is trying to secretize a significant treaty: cue Dr. Strangelove and Voltaire. Then put on your chemtrail-detector goggles and ask whether this is just blinkered ignorance by the American media, or an over-reliance on DoD talking-points memos. Or both. What do you think?

July 1961, Kim Il Sung and Zhou Enlai [source]

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Voltaire quip: I heard it fly by in a podcast or audiobook and I no longer remember where. I’ve googled, I’ve searched, I asked my dad and dad gave me his copy of Peter Gay’s Voltaire’s Politics and suggested I look there. Every time I open the cover of that book, I get lost for hours – but I never found the quip. Voltaire’s output consisted of over 900 books and many times that in letters; only a Voltaire expert like Gay could locate it, but Professor Gay is no longer with us. So, I’m reluctant to solidly attribute my memory of a quip that I can’t locate, but it’s so good I must use it. All I can say for sure is that, if Voltaire did actually say that, it sounded better in his French.


  1. Ogvorbis: Swimming without a parachute. says

    Another disturbing almost-parallel between WWI and what is happening in North Korea is that the German military thought that, in 1914, then had a good chance of defeating Russia. Given the economic growth in Russia between the 1905 revolution and 1914, German military leaders ‘knew’ that by 1920, there was no way that a war with Russia could be anything but a war-of-attrition quagmire and, by 1925, Russia would be able to roll up Germany easily. Whether this is true or not, this was a major line of thought in the German General staff.

    Fast forward to Trump and Korea. Trump ‘knows’ that we can wipe up North Korea easily. In five years, who knows? Maybe a part of the ‘thinking’ on the part of the Trump administration is ” if ’twere done, ’twere best done quickly.” I’m not arguing that this is a major component, but it is one thing that, to me, seems to be an unspoken underpinning to Trump’s frightened bullying bluster.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    Given his own expressed curiosity about nuclear weapons – i.e. “if we have them, why don’t we use them?” – Trump is perfectly rational to fear the present and possible future capability of the Norks. I assume he got an answer to that question, but it wasn’t one he understood or internalised. Not for the first time I’m shaking my head at what Trump has managed to achieve. First he made me feel sorry for an entitled right wing millionaire (Jeb Bush), now he’s actually making me feel sympathy for what is generally agreed to be one of the worst human beings on earth, Kim Jong Un. Why? Because until this year, the Norks had a playbook they could rely on and an opponent they could predict and, on that basis, deal with. They could bluster and posture and work on their defences, and the US would tut and wag their finger and not actually do anything very much. And now that playbook is in the bin, and I can envisage actual panic among the Nork leadership. Strange times.

  3. jrkrideau says

    this is just blinkered ignorance by the American media, or an over-reliance on DoD talking-points memos. Or both.
    Oh both, of course. But then, probably no one of any influence in the DoD probably knew, or remembered, that it existed either.

    Britain’s leaders probably didn’t declare war against Germany because they gave a molecule of manure for the Belgians; it was their precious credibility that they wanted to defend.

    While they would have wanted to defend their credibility since then as now a reputation for keeping one’s word was important, I suspect there were other reasons.

    One, it was a valid excuse for declaring war for those who wanted a war. The possibilty of a war between the UK and Germany had been obvious ever since the Kaiser had started his crazy naval buildup and a war with France and Russia as allies would have looked as favourable as any other imaginable circumstances.

    Two, to return to the German navy, if Germany captured much or all of Belgium, that very likely give her a major port within, IIRC, about 8 to 10 hours steaming of the mouth of the Thames and the Port of London.

    Move a major part of the High Seas Fleet there and well over half of British trade is threatened.

  4. Dunc says

    I tend to regard WWI as a war fought by the ruling class of Europe against their own working classes, using each others working classes as proxies. They were all itching for it – the actual circumstances merely provided the excuse. If it hadn’t gone down the way it did, they would have found some other pretext instead. Nobody gives a fuck about their treaty obligations when the chips are down.