How to Start a War in 5 Easy Steps

A brief checklist to know whether Trump is getting serious about attacking another country.

By , the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.
Donald Trump gestures before a meeting in the Oval Office on Oct. 19, 2017. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Donald Trump gestures before a meeting in the Oval Office on Oct. 19, 2017. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Is the United States on the road to war? The number of people who think so seems to be growing, especially after President Donald Trump fired several of the grown-ups who were reportedly tempering his worst instincts and proceeded to elevate hawks such as CIA Director Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Writing in the New York Times Magazine this past Sunday, Robert Worth portrays Defense Secretary James Mattis as the sole voice of reason in Trump’s new “war cabinet” and highlights the risks of conflict with Iran, North Korea, and maybe a few other countries. How nervous should we be, and how might we tell if Trump is really serious about war or not?

The first thing to remember is that leaders don’t start wars that they believe will be long, costly, and might end in their own defeat. Plenty of wars turn out that way, of course, but the leaders who begin them do so because they fool themselves into thinking the war will be quick, cheap, and successful. Before World War I, Germany’s leaders thought the Schlieffen Plan would allow them to defeat France and Russia in a couple of months, and Hitler had similar hopes for the blitzkrieg and organized the entire Nazi war machine on the assumption that the war would be brief. Japan knew it couldn’t win a long war against the United States, and the attack on Pearl Harbor was a desperate gamble that Tokyo hoped would shatter U.S. morale and convince Washington to give it a free hand in East Asia. Saddam Hussein didn’t think anyone would resist the seizure of Kuwait, and George W. Bush and the neocons (as well as Bolton) foolishly believed the Iraq War would be easy, short, and pay for itself.

In a democracy, leaders bent on war also must convince the public that rolling the “iron dice” of war, to quote German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg in 1914, is necessary and wise. Congress abdicated its constitutional role to declare war a long time ago, which gives presidents a pretty free hand, but no president is likely to order the large-scale use of force (as opposed to drones or small-scale raids) if he believes the public is dead set against it. Instead, he and his team will go to great lengths to persuade the public to go along.

So, if a president and his advisors are looking to start a war, how will they sell it? Here are the five main arguments that hawks typically advance when seeking to justify a war. You might think of them as the Top Five Warning Signs We’re Going to War.

  1. The danger is grave and growing.

The basic logic behind preventive war is the assumption that war is coming and that it is better to fight now instead of later. Thus, Germany went to war in 1914 because it believed (incorrectly) that Russian power would soon eclipse its own, and the Bush administration attacked Iraq because it thought Saddam was hellbent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the situation would be intolerable if he ever managed to do so. Accordingly, anyone seeking to start a war will try to convince the public that the United States is facing multiple adverse trends and that its deteriorating position can be reversed only via military action. The lesson? Watch for rhetoric about “gaps,” “red lines” “points of no return,” or “time is running out,” which imply the United States must act before it is too late.

It is therefore worrisome that the Trump administration insists that North Korea’s improving nuclear and missile capabilities constitute an existential threat that cannot be tolerated and other warmongers conjure up lurid fears of a new “Persian empire” that must be defeated before it takes over the whole region. Both statements imply that America’s security is running out — like sands in an hourglass — making war almost impossible to avoid.

Such dark warnings rest on little more than guesswork about the future, of course, and typically depend on worst-case assumptions about where current trends might lead. If the United States were scuttle the nuclear deal with Iran and Tehran eventually got nuclear weapons, for example, there’s no reason to think deterrence wouldn’t work as effectively as it did with other nuclear powers. Similarly, it is hardly obvious that North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities will inevitably lead it to become more aggressive — let alone threaten the United States directly. It’s just as likely that it will become more cooperative once it is no longer worried about U.S.-sponsored regime change. I’m not saying that would be the case, mind you, but it is as plausible as believing that acquiring WMD or enhanced missile capabilities would suddenly lead Pyongyang or Tehran to launch a vast imperial rampage. Because the future is always uncertain, fear of adverse circumstances that may never materialize is a poor justification for war and especially for a country that is as powerful, wealthy, and secure as the United States actually is. That is why German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck called preventive war “committing suicide for fear of death.”

Notice further that the logic of preventive war implicitly acknowledges that the United States is still far stronger and more secure than any of these adversaries and need not go to war from a sense of panic. Which brings me to No. 2.

  1. War will be easy and cheap (but only if we act now).

As noted above, nobody launches a war if he or she is certain it will be long, costly, or likely to end in defeat. Accordingly, anyone trying to make the case for war has to convince him or herself and the public that it will be easy and that victory will be both inevitable and cheap. In practice, this means persuading people that the costs to the United States will be negligible, the risks of escalation controllable, and the likely outcome easy to foresee.

What does that tell us to look out for? Well, the more that the administration talks about “limited options,” a “bloody nose” strike, the potency of air power, the ability to conduct “precision attacks” with no collateral damage, or other supposedly controllable war scenarios, the more worried you should be. Those are the signs that a government is convincing itself that it has lots of options that will wreak havoc on its foes but pose little danger to the country. And you should be especially concerned when those advocating war seem to be assuming that the enemy will behave exactly as they would like them to, instead of coming up with responses they didn’t anticipate. “The enemy gets a vote” is a familiar cliche but also one that hawks routinely dismiss when making the case for action. 

  1. War will solve all (or at least most) of our problems.

Advocates for war typically promise that victory will solve lots of problems at once. Saddam thought invading Kuwait was a masterstroke that would eliminate one of his main creditors, increase Iraq’s GNP by billions of dollars overnight, enhance his leverage over Saudi Arabia, dampen domestic discontent, and give him the wherewithal to compete with a potentially more powerful Iran. Similarly, Bush and the neocons thought toppling Saddam would eliminate a potential aggressor, send a message to other would-be proliferators, restore U.S. credibility after 9/11, and began a process of democratization in the Middle East that would eventually mitigate the danger of Islamic terrorism.

Hawks also like to argue the flip side: A failure to act now (or soon) will have dire consequences. Not only will it allow the balance of power to shift against the United States (see #1), but it will also lead others to doubt the country’s resolve and question its credibility. In other words: If the United States uses force, other states will respect it, deterrence will be strengthened, and peace will spread far and wide. If it doesn’t act, by contrast, adversaries will be emboldened, allies enfeebled, and the world will descend into darkness.

The astonishing thing about such claims is how often they get recycled. No matter how many times the United States goes to war or uses force — and it has done a lot of both in recent decades — it’s never enough. The positive effects of vigorous never seem to last more than a few months — at least according to the hawks — and soon they are telling Americans that they have to blow something up again so that others will know they can and will.

  1. The enemy is evil. Or crazy. Maybe both.

If you want to lead a country into war, don’t forget to demonize your opponent. Portraying the conflict as a straightforward clash of competing interests isn’t enough, because if that were the case, the problem might be resolved via diplomacy and compromise rather than by military force. Accordingly, hawks go to great lengths to portray opponents as the embodiment of evil and to convince the public that the enemy is morally repugnant and unalterably hostile. After all, if a foreign government does some bad things, and if its hostility to America will never, ever change, then the only long-term solution is to get rid of it. As former Vice President Dick Cheney put it, “We don’t negotiate with evil. We defeat it.”

A second line of argument is the claim that America’s adversaries are irrational, fanatical aggressors that cannot be deterred by its superior military power, huge arsenal of sophisticated nuclear weapons, robust network of allies, and assorted economic tools. Thus, Iran’s leaders are routinely described as religious fanatics who would welcome martyrdom, and North Korea’s three Kims have been routinely depicted as bizarre, crazy, extremely bellicose, and therefore impossible to deter. Never mind that both regimes have repeatedly shown themselves to be obsessed not with martyrdom or ideology but rather with retaining power and staying alive. To make the case for war, it’s more effective to tell the public these folks are dangerously bonkers.

Yet when it suits them, hawks also tend to portray the enemy as smart and sensible, to make using force seem safe. A leader like Kim Jong Un is said to be too irrational to deter, which is why the United States must go after him. But hawks also argue that if America does decide to attack North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure, it will in fact be possible to deter him from retaliating against U.S. allies or against the United States itself. Those who favor attacking Iran use similar arguments: Iran’s leaders are supposedly irrational fanatics who could not be deterred if they ever got nuclear weapons, but they are also smart and sensible enough to sit quietly while the U.S. Air Force conducts a devastating bombing campaign throughout their country. Needless to say, when you see an openly contradictory argument like this, you know you are in the realm of pro-war propaganda rather than serious analysis.

  1. Peace is unpatriotic.

The final warning sign is when an administration starts wrapping itself in the flag and suggesting that skepticism about the use of force is a sign of insufficient patriotism. During the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon accused anti-war activists of giving aid and comfort to the enemy, and an administration eager to sell a war is bound to portray those opposing it as weak-willed, naive, or insufficiently committed to U.S. security. If Trump is contemplating war and prominent people start to challenge him, you’ll know by keeping a close eye on his Twitter feed.

As I’ve noted before, U.S. politicians’ present aversion to peace is puzzling. I’m a realist and not a pacifist, but a country whose global position is as favorable as the United States has an obvious interest in peace and stability and little interest in taking big risks for small gains. Unfortunately, after 27 years of being the indispensable nation, and 17 years of fighting the war on terror, Americans have become accustomed to presidents trying to solve complex strategic and political problems mostly by blowing stuff up. This approach hasn’t worked very well, but it is still the default response of the foreign-policy establishment. Just remember the outpouring of bipartisan support that Trump received when he fired a few dozen cruise missiles into Syria. It was a one-off gesture that did not affect the war there in the slightest, yet Republicans — and Democrats — hailed it as a sign that Trump was finally taking his presidential responsibilities seriously.

My point is that if this administration decides it wants to start a war, it will do everything it can to intimidate or marginalize skeptics. The most reliable way to do that is to impugn their patriotism, in the hope that everyone will have forgotten how much damage overzealous hawks have done in recent years.

So, if you see the Trump administration deploying any of the arguments I’ve just identified (and to be fair, it already has to some degree) — look out. What makes this tricky, however, is that an administration that didn’t want to go to war might still act as if it were itching for a fight, in the hope of persuading the other side to make concessions. But this is a dangerous gambit, either because the bluff can get called or because you can start believing your own propaganda and talk yourself into war by stages.

If Trump does choose war, where is it most likely to occur? I’d say Iran, for two reasons. First, North Korea already has nuclear weapons, and Iran has none, so the risks of war with the former are infinitely greater. Second, even a purely conventional war on the Korean Peninsula would make South Korea, Japan, China, and others very nervous; by contrast, America’s Middle East clients would be positively giddy if Trump succumbed to their blandishments and attacked Iran on their behalf. If Trump is eager to distract people from his other troubles, or is determined to compensate for those small hands of his, war with Iran makes a lot more sense than a war with North Korea.

Which is not to say that it makes much sense at all. I still think war with either country is unlikely because the United States has little to gain and much to lose by launching another war. And it shouldn’t take a genius to figure that out. But that’s pretty cold comfort because I’ve overestimated the intelligence, prudence, and judgment of U.S. leaders before. Sadly, sometimes very bad ideas get implemented anyway.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.