Ambiguous Alliances Cause War

Michael Keenan
7 min readOct 12, 2016

Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote that wars start when alliances are unclear. The aggressor mistakenly believes the victim’s allies won’t defend it, so they attack. They find themselves in a much bigger war than they expected.

I wanted to know whether this was true, so I searched for examples. I found four major ones, which I’ll summarize and then discuss in greater detail. (In each case, the misunderstanding is one factor leading to war; I’m not claiming it to be the sole cause of any war.)

World War I

Britain had followed an isolationist policy in the 1870s, and Germany mistakenly expected that this would continue. Britain had no strict military obligation to France, and its commercial interests would be better served by staying neutral. Germany expected the war would only be against France and Russia.

Korean War

The U.S. secretary of state gave an informal speech in which he identified certain areas that the United States would defend. He omitted South Korea, and North Korea invaded six months later.

Invasion of Kuwait

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq told Saddam that “We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait…the Kuwait issue is not associated with America.” She meant that America doesn’t take positions on border disputes between friendly countries, but Saddam took this to mean that America would not defend Kuwait from an invasion.

World War II

Hitler didn’t believe Britain would defend Poland. England “will not allow herself to blunder into a war lasting for years … Not even England has the money nowadays to fight a world war. What should England fight for? You don’t get yourself killed for an ally … While England may talk big,
even recall her Ambassador, perhaps put a complete embargo on
trade, she is sure not to resort to armed intervention in the conflict.”

Having read about these examples, I’m persuaded that being very clear about who you’ll defend is very important, and being unclear when you will in fact defend is exceedingly unwise. I think that some of these wars, especially World War I and II, would have happened anyway, but the misunderstandings were a factor.

World War I

Bismarck did not initially fear an alliance between France and Britain, for the latter was at that time in the midst of a self-declared 1870s policy of “splendid isolation”, choosing to stay above continental European politics.

The German government gave no credence to the possibility that Britain would ignore her own commercial interests (which were presumably best served by staying aloof from the conflict and maintaining her all-important commercial trading routes), and would instead uphold her ancient treaty of obligation to recover violated Belgian neutrality.

It is also suggested that Germany would have backed away from war had Britain declared her intentions sooner. Believing that Britain would stay out of the coming conflict, and would limit herself to diplomatic protests — after all, Britain was under no strict military obligation to France — Germany, and Austria-Hungary, proceeded under the belief that war would be fought solely with France and Russia.

The Causes of World War One at

Korean War

Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech to the National Press Club in which he identified certain areas around which the United States would draw a security perimeter against Soviet aggression, implying that the United States would not defend those areas outside of the perimeter. One of the places left outside the perimeter was Korea. Six months later, the North Koreans moved forces against South Korea, provoking Washington to intervene under UN auspices. The speech, which Acheson gave somewhat informally, without a prepared text, and the turn of events that followed indicate how closely leaders around the world focus on the words of U.S. policymakers, who even today may not always appreciate the influence they wield.

U.S. National Security: A Reference Handbook by Cynthia Ann Watson

Invasion of Kuwait

American ambassador April Glaspie asked Saddam Hussein why Iraq was massing forces near the border of Kuwait:

We can see that you have deployed massive numbers of troops in the south. Normally that would be none of our business, but when this happens in the context of your threats against Kuwait, then it would be reasonable for us to be concerned. For this reason, I have received an instruction to ask you, in the spirit of friendship — not confrontation — regarding your intentions: Why are your troops massed so very close to Kuwait’s borders?

Believing Saddam to be only posturing, Glaspie further said:

We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America.

This was taken by Saddam to mean that America would not intervene if Iraq were to invade Kuwait.

Glaspie has been heavily criticized for being unclear. James Akins, the U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia at the time, came to her defense:

[Glaspie] took the straight American line, which is we do not take positions on border disputes between friendly countries. That’s standard. That’s what you always say. You would not have said, ‘Mr. President, if you really are considering invading Kuwait, by God, we’ll bring down the wrath of God on your palaces, and on your country, and you’ll all be destroyed.’ She wouldn’t say that, nor would I. Neither would any diplomat.

World War II

The excerpts in this section are all from The Rise And Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer.

While political and military successes could not be had without taking risks, [Hitler] was certain that Great Britain and France would not fight. For one thing, Britain “has no leaders of real caliber. The men I got to know at Munich are not the kind that start a new world war.” As at previous meetings with his military chiefs, the Fuehrer could not keep his mind off England and he spoke in considerable detail of her strengths and weaknesses, especially the latter. England [Halder noted down the words], unlike in 1914, will not allow herself to blunder into a war lasting for years … Such is the fate of rich countries … Not even England has the money nowadays to fight a world war. What should England fight for? You don’t get yourself killed for an ally.

All these factors argue against England and France entering the war … There is nothing to force them into it. The men of Munich will not take the risk … English and French general staffs take a very sober view of the prospects of an armed conflict and advise against it… . All this supports the conviction that while England may talk big, even recall her Ambassador, perhaps put a complete embargo on trade, she is sure not to resort to armed intervention in the conflict.

— notes from the diary of General Halder, Chief of the Army General Staff, 14 August 1939

Britain became aware that Hitler believed that Britain wouldn’t fight. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain tried to persuade Hitler he was mistaken in a letter on August 24, 1939, two days before Hitler had planned to begin the invasion of Poland:

“Apparently the announcement of a German-Soviet Agreement is taken in some quarters in Berlin to indicate that intervention by Great Britain on behalf of Poland is no longer a contingency that need be reckoned with. No greater mistake could be made. Whatever may prove to be the nature of the German-Soviet Agreement, it cannot alter Great Britain’s obligation to Poland … It has been alleged that, if His Majesty’s Government had made their position more clear in 1914, the great catastrophe would have been avoided. Whether or not there is any force in that allegation, His Majesty’s Government are resolved that on this occasion there shall be no such tragic misunderstanding. If the case should arise, they are resolved, and prepared, to employ without delay all the forces at their command, and it is impossible to foresee the end of hostilities once engaged” (my emphasis)

Shirer writes that Hitler was “confident that, despite what Chamberlain had just written him, Great Britain and, in its wake, France would have second thoughts about honoring their obligations to Poland”. But he delayed the invasion for a few days to figure this out.

The Fuehrer was still resolved to go to war that very weekend against Poland; he was still hopeful, despite all the British government and Henderson had said, of keeping Britain out of it. Apparently, Hitler, encouraged by the obsequious and ignorant Ribbentrop, simply could not believe that the British meant what they said, though he said he did.

Shortly after noon on August 31, then, Hitler formally and in writing directed the attack on Poland to begin at dawn the next day. As his first war directive indicates, he was still not quite sure what Britain and France would do. He would refrain from attacking them first. If they took hostile action, he was prepared to meet it. Perhaps, as Halder had indicated in his diary entry of August 28, the British would go through the motions of honoring their obligation to Poland and ”wage a sham war.”