Lessons from Munich and Sarajevo

By Dietrich Fischer

Before World War I, the prevailing view was that the best way to avoid war was to be prepared to win it. The key to victory was seen in quick and decisive action at the outset of a war to surprise and defeat the adversary’s forces before they could be fully mobilized. As a result of this philosophy, Europe became rapidly engulfed in the conflagration of World War I, sparked by the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne at Sarajevo.

Learning from the events of 1914, many concluded that to avoid war one had to be conciliatory, patient, and restrained, so as to avoid an escalation of threats. Chamberlain may have thought he had learnt the lessons of Sarajevo when he yielded to Hitler’s demands at Munich in 1938. As we now know, the consequences were even worse, when Hitler felt emboldened by his early successes.

After World War II, the pendulum has swung back full cycle: Emphasizing the risks of appeasement, both NATO and the Warsaw Treaty Organization have vowed that they would react strongly to the first signs of aggression. The Soviet Union, attacked from the West three times in this century, has until recently espoused a doctrine of “strategic defence, tactical offence.” NATO’s concept of “follow-on forces attack” (now being abandoned) foresees the destruction of command posts and staging areas deep inside Eastern Europe if a war should erupt.

By threatening strong retaliation and deliberate escalation, such strategies seek to deter intentional aggression. But they fail to prevent wars through accident or miscalculation. By focusing on the lessons of Munich, they ignore the lessons of Sarajevo.

Non-offensive defence can avoid both types of war: By maintaining a strong defense, it can credibly resist the type of aggression with which World War II began. Yet by avoiding offensive operations into the territory of an opponent, it helps prevent the automatic escalation of fighting that led to World War I.

To prevent war, we must make two things clear to a potential adversary: (1) aggression cannot succeed, and (2) if he does not attack, he has absolutely nothing to fear. The first point is well heeded, but the second, which is no less important, is too often ignored Non-offensive defense emphasizes both points equally.

Some recent studies from both East and West have provided valuable background for the current talks on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) in Vienna. A shift to a non-offensive defence posture involves the sharp reduction or elimination of arms that are primarily useful to invade and hold territory, such as tanks, self-propelled artillery, armored personnel carriers, and bridge-building equipment. Ground-attack aircraft weapons in fixed positions are retained or even strengthened.

Military analysis in both the United States and the Soviet Union focuses largely on the experience of World War II, and is based on the notion that weakness invites war. But the possession of offensive arms can in fact invite an attack rather than deterrng it For example, President Nasser believed in the 1960s that a strong air force would make Egypt more secure. The result was the opposite. Israel was so terrified of this air force that when tensions rose in 1967, it felt it had no choice but to destroy Egypt’s air force in a surprise attack, before it could be used against Israel.

WEAPONS in space, as envisaged under SDI, would be equally destabilizing. Whichever side were to strike first during a crisis could rapidly destroy the space weapons of the opponent. This is the trait of an offensive rather than defensive weapons system Furthermore, leaving the decision to initiate combat to a highly complex computerized system would increase the risk of accidental war. The shooting down of Iran’s Air Flight 655 by the Vincennes should warn all those with exaggerated faith in sophisticated technology. (See p.17.)

Non-offensive defence has a number of advantages over a strategy that envisages defeating an enemy by pursuing hisp. forces into their home territory: It provides no incentive for a preemptive strike, it avoids escalation of a war that may begin by accident or misunderstanding, and it provides no incentive for an arms race.p. Removing from opposing military forces the capabilities for offensive operations reduces pressure on each side to initiate a preemptive attack to eliminate a potential threat.

A “defence” strategy that envisages deep penetration into the adversary’s territory to attack staging areas and command posts (embodied in “FOFA”-Follow-On-Forces-Attack, NATO’s plan until recently) gives the adversary every incentive to maintain the initiative in combat if war should ever start. Withdrawal would invite defeat. If both sides try to push the fighting back onto the territory of the other side, any small border incident, even an accidental border violation, could escalate into a big war. But if one side defends its territory up to the border and not beyond, the adversary has every incentive to withdraw. When he pushes the battle beyond his own borders, he suffers losses. If he withdraws, he is safe. Current defence planning does not provide this incentive, but it could be a valuable instrument to defuse a potentially escalatory conflict. In a heated battlefield strewn with many “usable” nuclear weapons as well as a range of increasingly devastating conventional systems, it is important to possess a strategy to deescalate war. Finally, the competition between two opposing military alliances to build larger and increasingly capable offensive forces is essentially driven by mutual fear. However, purely defensive measure, which pose no threat to an adversary, can hardly fuel an arms race. It is hard to imagine how clearly defensive structures in fixed positions, such as the fortifications in the Swiss Alps, could be perceived as a threat by anyone. (It would be difficult to move the Alps to attack someone.)

Some have sought to discredit a defensive conventional posture by pointing to the failure of the Maginot line. But a good defence should be widely dispersed and cover the territory in depth, not be concentrated only along the border. The Maginot line resembled a thin egg shell. Once broken or bypassed, it was worthless. A good defence should rather resemble a solid rock. Even if the surface has been penetrated, it is just as hard to proceed.

Some advocate an offensive military posture, arguing that if there is to be fighting it better take place on the adversary’s side of the border. But assuming there will be war is the wrong premise to start from A purely defensive posture is far more effective in preventing war in the first place.

Is non-offensive defense an effective strategy to prevent war? Judging from history, it is. Some countries have pursued such a type of strategy successfully for a long time. According to Small and Singer, there are only two countries in the world that have not been at war since the end of the Napoleonic period: Sweden and Switzerland. Both have a relatively strong defence (a militia army comprising about 10 percent of their populations) but have deliberately avoided posing a threat to their neighbors, or even to be misperceived as a potential threat. They are prepared to defend their own territory, but have a strict provision never to fight outside of their own borders, except possibly within the framework of U.N. peacekeeping operations. If every country adhered to these principles, there would be no wars.

The often heard assertion that nuclear weapons have helped prevent war since 1945 is contrary to fact. Since then the five nuclear powers have been involved in more wars than almost any other country. The six neutral countries of Europe, on the other hand, which possess no nuclear weapons and are under nobody else’s “nuclear umbrella,” have experienced no war over that period. A non-offensive defence posture has served them well.

Some claim that a non-offensive defense posture is more expensive than the reliance on nuclear deterrence. Even if it were, it would be prefer-able. But in fact, it costs less. Defence spending is 2.5% of GNP for the European neutrals, 3.3% for the non-nuclear NATO members, and considerably higher for each of the nuclear powers.

Of course, protective defence can be only one among many components of a comprehensive strategy to reduce tensions and solve conflicts without violence. Other components involve closer international cooperation and the strengthening of mechanisms for peacefully resolving conflicts. One useful strategy, proposed by Kenneth Boulding, is the massive exchange of students. Policy makers don’t like to kill their own children.

Even though the concept of non offensive defence has been developed by people close to the peace movements in the West, it has first been officially embraced the nations of the Warsaw Treaty Organization. Mikhail Gorbachev had advocated “such a structure of arined forces of a state that they would be sufficient to repulse a possible aggression but would not be sufficient for the conduct of offensive actions.” The Western response has so far been disappointing. After Gorbachev announced the unilateral reduction of Soviet forces by half a million troops and the elimination of 10,000 Soviet tanks from Europe in his address to the United Nations of December 1988, Henry Kissinger commented, “When they say that they are shifting to a defensive posture, nobody really knows what that means.” He argued that a tank, for example, could be used for offensive or defensive purposes. Of course, there exist some borderline cases of weapons that can be used either way. But to argue that no distinction exists between offense and defence is as if someone were to say, “There is no difference between light and dark colors. Take for example gray; it is neither light nor dark.”

Some argue that it is premature to make any changes before we are sure whether Gorbachev lasts. But whether he lasts depends partly on whether or not the West responds positively to his initiatives toward better relations. Gorbachev has gone a long way to reduce Soviet military forces, but there is a limit to what he can do unilaterally without losing the support of the Soviet military. He needs some reciprocal steps from the West to be able to continue the course he has chosen.

Some caution against helping the Soviet Union, saying that would remove the economic pressure that has forced it to turn its attention inward. Others argue that unless Gorbachev succeeds, the alternative would be much worse. Who is right? History may be a guide. In the Versailles Treaty of 1919, France and its allies sought to eliminate Germany’s warmaking powers by imposing punishing economic sanctions on it. This led to deep German resentment and Hitler’s rise to power on the promise to abrogate the Versailles Treaty. After World War II, the United States took the opposite approach in the form (if the Marshall Plan, helping its former enemies to rebuild their war-torn economies. In this war, it has converted Germany and Japan from firmer enemies into allies. It this is any indication, it is in our strong interest to help Gorbachev succeed. If we miss the present opportunity to improve East-West relations, it may not come again soon.

Dietrich Fischer, an Associate Professor at Pace Unversiity and member of the Exploratory Project on the Conditions of Peace, is co-author of Winning Peace (Taylor and Francis, New York, 1989).

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1990

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1990, page 14. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Dietrich Fischer here

Peace Magazine homepage