Is There An Emerging ‘Taboo’ Against Retaliation?

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.


5 thoughts on “Is There An Emerging ‘Taboo’ Against Retaliation?

  1. Interesting, but more problematic than interesting. I appreciate norms, but also their explanatory seductiveness, and they require a hell of a lot of supporting evidence. Forgive the length.
    1. Your use of the two reconnaissance incidents as evidence of restraint implies that the reconnoiting states have casus belli from what the Syrians and Chinese could plausibly argue was defense against a violation of their sovereignty (especially in the PRC case where there was clearly no intent to cause the two planes to go down). To so claim would be, generously, contestable. And to close your loop on these kinds of incidents, when exactly were ‘the days when an isolated incident, such as a spy plane being shot down…[would] lead to an interstate war’? Which wars (as distinct from punitive actions) are you thinking of that never would have happened if not for some avoidable, isolated incident?
    2. With regard to the Cheonan and Indo-Pak incidents, I am dubious that an amorphous norm against retaliation plays a stronger role in leader decisions than the norm against wanting to be an irradiated parking lot, and you offer no evidence how or why that would be the case. And if you agree with the stability-instability paradox, then quite arguably RoK made a mistake by not making a limited punitive attack of its own.
    3. The 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict absolutely disproves this idea. It is much harder for Georgia to justify their incursion into the Joint Peace Keeping Force zones in S.O. and Abk. than it is for Russia to justify responding to that incursion. However, once Georgian forces had been expelled from the contested zones, how else would you describe the Russian incursion into recognized Georgian territory, and its destruction of military facilities there, but as punitive? Don’t say that ‘it wasn’t THAT punitive’. Do not confuse ‘proportionality’ in the use of force, and ‘strategic restraint’ – e.g. Gulf War I displayed the latter by not going to Baghdad, but by the scale of destruction imposed on Iraqi forces, it was certainly not the former. OIF, by contrast, was arguably the other way around. In 2008 Russia acted disproportionately by entering Georgian territory when Georgia did not violate Russian territory, but it did exhibit strategic restraint by only being punitive to the Georgian military, and not marching to the capital.
    4. Having listed a couple of examples that sort of (but in my view do not) support your normative idea, you ignore a multitude of clearly retaliatory and punitive actions over a similar time period: Operation PRAYING MANTIS in ’88, basically every TLAM strike made during the Clinton administration, the NATO bombing of Belgrade during the Kosovar war, Operation DESERT FOX, numerous arguably-punitive missions under the auspices of the Iraqi No-Fly Zone enforcement between 1992 and 2003 (especially Operation SOUTHERN FOCUS)…and obviously this is just a US list.

    Even if you argue that retaliations, punishments, and provocations have become less violent (and I’m not sure I’d grant that), this hardly means that their logics aren’t still operating. Incidents emanating from the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea (and even the reconnaissance tit-for-tats between the US and PRC to an extent) compellingly represent a use of non-violent behavior-modification tactics that seek to impose punishment or retaliation in support of their respective claims.

    Finally, from a horse-and-cart perspective, if there is in fact a pervasive norm against retaliation, doesn’t there have to be an equally strong corresponding norm-failure that didn’t restrain the instigators/provocateurs of these incidents that the ‘victim’ state is restraining itself in? If anything, your construct would seem to strategically reward aggressors, making it inherently unsustainable – even if it is real, eventually those buying into it will figure out it isn’t doing them any good, no?

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  3. I think this is an important debate, but I would hypothesise that the reason for not retaliating in most cases is in fact a simple cost/benefit analysis. Put simply the costs of retaliation are not worth the benefits of doing so, regardless of the potential for nuclear war. Only when broader strategic ainms are also addressed by resorting to conflict will conflicts occur. in the case of the 2 Koreas or India and Pakistan, conflict would have damaged the economies of the attacked countries and potentially cost thousands upon thousands of lives (even if nukes weren’t used) and any victory to emerge would not have left them in a stronger position. They might have been stronger relative to the aggressor but not relative to all the other states they had to interact with. Ditto Turkey and Syria – Turkey might want Assad gone but it wouldn’t be worth it to go to war without NATO behind it to ensure that happens. I get the feeling Turkey does want to do this but that its NATO allies don’t, but that could just be the impression the media has given me. in the case of the Russo-Georgia War, Russia’s retaliation has to be considered as part of a wider strategic picture, firstly as a form of payback for NATO’s war with its ally Serbia in Kosovo, secondly as a response to Georgia’s developing ties with the US, thirdly as an expression of Russian military power to the world,and fourthly as a ploy to gain popular support for Russian leadership at home, all while being aware that they would undoubtedly win, and win quickly, because of the massive military advantage they had.

    I agree there seems to be less chance of states retaliating to minor incidents than in the past but I don’t know if I would call it a norm or taboo against retaliation, rather simply an expression of a changing political and economic landscape globally where warfare often bears more costs than benefits. A norm implies a legal position too, but international treaties are very clear about the right to retaliate against acts of aggression so I don’t think that customary interantional law could develop a norm which would supersede that right. Although I’m no international lawyer so I could be wrong on that count!

  4. Pingback: Is There An Emerging Norm Against Restraint in Dealing With Non-State Actors? | The Smoke-Filled Room

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