Mutual escalation between the US and North Korea has risen to a high level. There have been threats of destruction, personal insults between heads of state, and even claims that a state of war exists. Beyond the realm of words are provocative actions including firing missiles and testing nuclear explosions on the North Korean side, and naval and military aircraft movements by the US.
Assuming the worst, when will nuclear war begin? This is a more complicated question than it might appear. According to the conventional model of escalation and counter-escalation, if both sides do not pull back, nuclear war would seem to be inevitable.
Nevertheless, there are some grounds for optimism. If we look at research on threatening situations of smaller-scale violence, we find that violence does not always break out. In most situations where antagonists insult and challenge each other, violence does not happen. This is true even when both sides have weapons, show them off, and make threatening gestures with them.
I will summarize what we know about when protest demonstrations do or do not turn into violent riots, and similarly about confrontations in bar fights, street fights, and gang wars.
When do demonstrations become riots?
According to Dr. Anne Nassauer, sociologist at the Free University Berlin, most demonstrations are peaceful. Her research focuses on demonstrations in the US and in Germany, with comparisons elsewhere in Europe, where 92-98% of protests are peaceful. The impression that demonstrations easily turn violent is created because the news media ignore most demonstrations unless they are violent.
Even when participants announce in advance they will use violence, that is not enough to predict that a demo will be violent. Nor does it matter whether authorities announce a zero-tolerance policy, declaring that any provocation by demonstrators will be met by force and arrest.
It makes no difference whether or not a demonstration includes participants who come prepared to fight. Since the 1990s, demos have generally included an avowedly violent group known as the Black Bloc-- who wear black clothes, facemasks, body armor and shields, and link arms in aggressive tactics against police and opponents. The names have changed over the years; in the 1960s the pro-violence faction were called “Maoists”, while very recently they have gone under the “Anti-Fa” banner. Such groups are usually a small proportion of a large demonstration. But as we can see in photos of riots, only 5-10% of the those present do all the violence; so a relatively small violent group can potentially make a demo into a riot. The surprising finding is that whether such a group is present or not does not make a difference in whether the demo will stay peaceful or not.
Avowed intentions do not matter much when it comes to violence. Declaring that you are going to be violent does not predict what you will actually do. On the flip side, declaring that a protest will be peaceful does not guarantee that it will turn out that way; violence can break out even when demonstrators plan to use non-violent tactics and the policing style is hands-off. As Nassauer shows, even when the police announce they will avoid using force, and both sides meet beforehand to plan the protest route and agree on how to avoid confrontations, things can go wrong. At the moment of outbreak, violence is inflamed by surprise and outrage on each side that their agreement was violated.
Why don’t groups of people do what they say they are going to do? In contentious protests, whether the event turns violent is the result of turning points that first increase tension on both sides, and then trigger off a collective reaction. It is less a matter of conscious planning than of emotions building up during the situation when the two sides confront each other face to face. It is an emergent process. Dr. Isabel Bramsen of Copenhagen University, who studied demonstrations and violence in the Arab Spring uprisings, called her analysis “Route Causes of Violence”-- i.e. the causes of violent outbreaks emerge en route, rather than determining what will happen in advance.
Take the case where we would most expect violence: the demonstrators are ready to fight, and the authorities have said they will put it down by force. Yet, without the emotional turning points en route, this does not happen. Why not? Above all, it is a matter of timing.
Typically, if violence occurs during a protest demonstration, it will break out one to three hours in. A demo does not start out by being violent from the very first minute. Even if protestors intend to be violent, they don’t start off with using rocks, guns, or gasoline fire bombs; nor do authorities immediately fire tear gas and automatic weapons. * It takes time to build up high tension, to build up the feeling of when the moment is ripe for violence. This is a mutual moment felt on both sides.
* This is true, amazingly enough, even in Arab Spring locations like Tunisia, Bahrain, and Syria. Bramsen found that even though authoritarian regimes order their forces to use force, they do not start firing at the first sign of a demonstration. Here, too, timing and collective emotions determine what will happen.
A simple formula for avoiding violence is:
-- no violence at minute number 1
-- no violence at minute number 2
-- no violence at minute number 10
-- no violence at minutes number 30, 40, 50...
Then approaching the danger zone--
-- getting through minutes number 60, 90, 100, up to 150... without violence.
If the emotional trigger does not happen by then, both sides start to relax. As if both unconsciously feel, too late now, maybe next time.
Small-scale violence most frequently aborts
A similar dynamic, based on emotions and timing, exists in small-scale disputes in bars, parties, and entertainment zones.
Curtis Jackson-Jacobs, a UCLA researcher, followed a loosely-organized gang in Tucson, Arizona, as they went looking for fights. It consisted of a couple of dozen young white men, all of them bored with middle-class life style, who went to parties hoping to find someone to fight with. They were looking for opponents who would give them some action and boost their prestige, at least in their own eyes: black guys, tough guys, Hispanic gangs, bikers, athletes. But although there were plenty of over-crowded house parties in this desert city, with plenty of loud music and drinking going on, the surprise is how difficult it was for them to find a fight. They took a belligerent attitude, bumped into people, gave people the eye, but most of the time fights didn’t happen. Fights were rare enough that when one happened, the group would spend weeks thereafter talking about it, going over the details, bragging about what they did and even about taking a beating if they lost.
Why did this action-seeking group have so much trouble finding fights? Jackson-Jacobs spelled out the subtle details that had to happen if two sides were going to fight. These little details were only semi-conscious, but they boiled down to the fact that both sides had to decide that a fight was coming up, and this had to be a mutual feeling of emotion and timing. Like a demo only turning into a riot a couple of hours in, no one walks into a party and starts a fight from the very first minute. And if the minutes go by long enough, there is a feeling that this isn’t the time and place, so the action-seekers go somewhere else. *
*Another hypothesis is that fights were also inhibited because typically rival groups fight within the same identity or demographic: as we know from gang murders in Chicago (Andrew Papachristos’ research) and gang fights generally, most such violence is segregated: black gangs fight with black gangs, Hispanic gangs with Hispanic, Irish gangs with Irish, Italian Mafias with each other. Jackson-Jacobs’ white middle-class guys were an anomaly on the tough-guy scene; they didn’t identify as skinheads, so they had no counterpart group to fight with them. J-J’s crew were looking for the prestige of fighting somebody tough; maybe they didn’t perceive that the same goes for the other side, and real fighting gangs didn’t think they were a worthy opponent.
The pattern holds generally across different kinds of small-scale fights: most encounters where people threaten each other with violence do not actually end in violence. Most stay at the level of angry insults—the human bark is worse than our bite. Even if it gets physical, most fights do not go beyond pushing and shoving. Videos of fights (posted from cell phones) generally show that after a few wild swings, fighters tend to spin away from each other, leaving themselves at a distance just out of reach while the fight winds down. Showing your willingness to fight is on the whole more important than what damage you do. Researchers in England, using CCTV from pubs and the streets outside, found that angry disputes were broken up, in the great majority of cases, by friends separating the fighters.
The fact that fights mostly abort is well known to club bouncers and other habitués of so-called dangerous places. But researchers did not start documenting the pattern until quite recently, helped by the abundance of videos. For a long time, we relied on official statistics. The trouble is that police records report only the most violent cases: almost all murders are reported, but assaults only if someone is badly injured or if a cop happens to be there. This is sampling on the dependent variable, counting only the cases where violence happens. What gets missed are all the cases where a quarrel did not turn into a fight, or at least not one serious enough to do much damage.
This isn’t just a quibble about statistics, because the upshot is entirely different when we start at the other end and ask about quarrels, to see if they end up in a fight. Most crime statistics have a pessimistic tone; we don’t have an accurate idea of what causes violence, but the causes usually cited-- poverty, discrimination, disrespect, gangs, popular entertainment-- are things that we can do very little about. But the findings of today’s micro-sociologists are a rare piece of social science that shows optimistic results: most threatened fights do not come off. We are beginning to understand the subtle turning points that lead, sometimes to escalation, but most of the time, to the fight petering out.
A key feature that keeps quarrels from escalating is when they are balanced. Two guys quarrel with each other. They push out their chests, get their hands into fighting position. They yell insults at each other, each getting louder, trying to shout the other down. A lot here depends on what the audience will do-- whether other people take sides or encourage them to fight; or do the opposite, ignoring the quarrel, which tends to take the energy out of it. Left to themselves, the belligerents usually find themselves repeating the same insults, over and over; they are both talking at the same time, which means they aren’t listening to each other, and it just becomes a contest of keeping up the noise. (How long do dogs go on barking at each other? Check it out.) After a short period of time-- usually less than 60 seconds-- this gets boring. They get tired of a quarrel that is going nowhere. Typically they will break it off, with a gesture of disgust, or slamming the door on the way out.
This suggests some practical advice. If you get into a threatening face-contest with someone, keep it in equilibrium. Just mimic what the other person does; don’t escalate it. After a while it becomes boring-- and boredom is your friend. (Sir Francis Bacon, 400 years ago, wrote that if you are in an angry dispute, keep it to common terms of abuse; don’t try to score a cutting remark with a personal insult that your opponent will never forgive.)
Different groups of people have their specific ways of carrying out quarrels, their own cultures of quarreling. But cutting across most of them is an unconscious common denominator: most of the time they have ways of keeping their disputes this side of violence. Research on quarrels among roommates or neighbours shows that such disputes often fester, but they almost never go all the way to violence. Gangs have an explicit culture of violence; they brag about it and measure their prestige by it. Nevertheless, close ethnographic observations by trained observers on the spot show that gang fights are much more about showing off their weapons than using them.
Street gangs have a turf and challenge anyone who enters it who fits the demographic of a rival gang; and often in a show of bravado they will invade someone else’s turf. But what happens then? If the groups are more or less evenly matched, they confine themselves to flashing their gang signs, showing their colors, exchanging trash talk. On a schoolyard in southern California, rival gangs pull up their shirts to show the guns tucked in their waist-bands; but nothing happens, until the school janitor comes out and shoos them away. On the streets of west and north Philadelphia, the local culture of gun gesturing has evolved in the last 20 years-- opening your coat to show the butt of a gun; pulling the gun but keeping it pointed at the ground while continuing the duet of insults; pointing the gun in the air. This requires a good understanding of what’s going on, and accomplished tough guys need to be able to read the signs of where this ballet of danger displays is leading. Shootings do occur in these neighbourhoods, but most of the time these incidents are survivable.
In Chicago, ethnographer Joe Krupnick accompanied seasoned gang members-- men in their 20s who had gone through years of living dangerously, and who always went armed. But although they often met members of rival gangs on the street (this was after the big hierarchic gangs had broken up and no one controlled the old turf in the city projects), they had an etiquette of how to pass one another, with just enough recognition, and without showing too much suspicion that the other would turn on them. When things got escalated, these armed men might even fire a bullet in the air-- a way to alert the police, and giving everyone an excuse to leave the scene.
These gangs displayed what Elijah Anderson called “the code of the street”: show you are capable of violence, don’t back down from a threat, but recognize that if we both play by the street code, we can save face and at the same time avoid violence. You gain prestige by playing the street code, and the highest prestige comes not from killing other people but by showing you are in the fraternity of those who know how to handle such situations.
What relevance do small scale fights have for nuclear war?
There is a huge difference between two states armed with nuclear weapons and the military apparatus to deliver them to targets across the globe, and a few guys outside a bar, or a protest march in the streets. The military is much better organized and this gives them much more staying power in a battle, once it gets going. But at the core, there are two sides confronting each other; two leaders of nuclear-armed states who are getting in each other’s face, surrounded by coteries and audiences who amplify or dampen their emotions. The process of escalation, on an abstract level, is similar on each scale; and so is the process of de-escalation. What we have learned about small-scale fights applies also to the risk of nuclear war.
Threats, insults, and displays of weapons-- even firing them off in the wrong direction-- happen at the small-scale level, without them necessarily leading to all-out violence. They can fall into an equilibrium that keeps violence from happening-- in fact this is the most frequent outcome of such incidents.
The most important lesson from the micro level, that we can apply to the geopolitical level of nuclear war, is this: conflicts can stop escalating even without deliberate agreement, without negotiating, apologizing, or offering concessions.
In the world of international politics, the issue is generally posed as either taking a tough stance, or else turning to negotiations. But what do you do when the other side refuses to negotiate? Or when they make it clear that one thing that is not negotiable is building nuclear weapons that can wipe you out? This is a terrible dilemma. It makes advocates of negotiation look like they are shying away from a frightening reality through acts of blind faith. But micro-level conflicts show that there is another way out: threats of violence, even with the strongest expressions of hostility between the sides, nevertheless can arrive at an equilibrium that stops short of the brink. And this happens without negotiating, without making an explicit agreement.
When and how does this happen? Micro conflict shows it is a matter of shared emotional moods shifting over time. It is a minute-by-minute process, or day-by-day, even month-by-month. De facto de-escalation occurs with the sheer passage of time, avoiding irretrievable steps along the way, and keeping the sides in emotional equilibrium.
When is the point of no return?
Look at the timing of how shooting wars break out-- the timing of daily events that preceded the actual fighting.
A war clearly begins with a incursion into enemy territory. World War I went through a period of intense public emotions for five weeks before this happened. The heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated on June 28. At first, the European heads of state all sent condolences and showed no inclination to go to war. But crowds assembled in the streets of every major city in Europe-- from Vienna to Berlin, St. Petersburg to Paris to London-- enthusiastically pressing their leaders to go to war. Diplomatic messages became more and more testy. On July 29-- after a month of emotional build-up-- Austria invaded Serbia (source of the assassination). The next day, the Russian army mobilized, and two more days later Germany mobilized and declared war on Russia, while France and England also mobilized. August 2 Germany attacked through Luxenburg; August 3 Germany declared war on France; August 4 Germany attacked through Belgium, and Britain declared war on Germany. Threats (i.e. mobilizing your army or putting your fleet on war stations) led to declarations of war; but the real shooting war started with territorial invasions.
Threats and even official declarations do not necessarily mean war. In 1939 Germany and Russia invaded Poland, triggering declarations of war by France and England, but it remained a so-called “phony war” until May 1940, when Germany attacked France and began aerial bombing of Britain. And so on. The Korean War was never officially called a war (it was a “police action”), and the Vietnam War was never officially declared by an act of Congress. The 4-day Gulf War in February 1991 happened in response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, after six months of waiting time while the US gathered allies and prepared its attack. Again in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the build-up took 18 months, instigated by the 9/11/2001 al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington D.C.
In all these wars, the escalation of force-- and the difficulty of de-escalating or extricating oneself-- became locked in through a territorial incursion, when boots hit the ground.
In the case of a North Korea vs. United States nuclear war, there is no obvious territorial incursion, short of all-out nuclear attack at long distance. Hypothetically, North Korea could invade South Korea, or the U.S. could invade North Korea; but both seem unlikely. N. Korea would not be hitting its main enemy and would leave itself open to a nuclear strike before it launched its own; in the second scenario, the U.S. would have to move many troops and ships into place, thus giving away its intention and prompting N. Korea to begin a nuclear attack.
Is this a conundrum, or an opportunity for violence to abort?
If neither side attempts a territorial incursion, we are in the same situation as a demonstration that doesn’t turn into a riot while the emotional danger-zone ticks by; in the same situation as gang members showing off their guns while trash-talking but only pointing them in the air. It looks dangerous, but it is survivable.
The scenario that worries everybody is that N. Korea will continue developing its long-distance nuclear weapons. If it does this publically-- firing rockets near U.S. allies, or testing an H-bomb in the atmosphere-- that still remains at the level of bluster and threat. And as we know from smaller-scale examples, this could go on for a long time without breaking the emotional equilibrium, without reaching the moment when one side or both feels they must start nuclear war.
Who wants to be responsible for nuclear war?
Leaders in such circumstances have a heavy burden of decision-making. This is a moral concern, over and above the pressures and emotions driven by insults, anger, public posturing, and realistic assessments of the danger of not pre-empting the other’s nuclear attack.
Both leaders have to consider:
Do they want to be responsible for enormous damage to one’s own country? This could run to millions of casualties at home, and possibly far worse.
Do they want to be responsible to their own conscience? Some might question whether the 45th President of the United States or the dictator of North Korea have a conscience. Sociologically, everyone is affected by the opinion that other people have of them, because they have internalized an image of how they want other people to see them. Starting a nuclear war would bring an enormous reaction from one’s fellow citizens, as well as from the rest of the world. If you start a nuclear war, your name will go down in history for this alone, whatever else you do in your life. Call it “conscience,” or call it concern for one’s historical reputation, it comes to the same thing.
And the conscience/reputation problem remains, even if you are the “victor” in a nuclear war. This applies mainly to a U.S. pre-emptive strike, which conceivably might be successful in the sense of destroying North Korea militarily, with little damage to the mainland U.S. It is hard to conceive of this kind of “success” without killing millions of people in Japan and South Korea as North Korea strikes back, as well as near-total annihilation of North Koreans. In whatever fashion it plays out, the leader who gives the order for nuclear attack would be saddled with the moral onus of killing millions.
I am not saying that these leaders (or conceivably others) will decide not to strike, out of consideration for casualties of this scale. But they are feeling the emotional pressure. This adds one more force for delaying the moment, in the usual fashion of violence that does not come about because the “emotional moment that is ripe for violence” has not yet arrived.
Leaders will tend to prolong the decision. And waiting is itself a possible path to emotional de-escalation, perhaps the only path we have.
Nassauer, Anne. 2013. Violence in demonstrations. A comparative analysis of situational interaction dynamics at social movement protests. PhD dissertation, Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences.
Bramsen, Isobel. 2017. Route Causes of Conflict: Trajectories of violent and non-violent conflict intensification. PhD Dissertation, University of Copenhagen.
Jackson-Jacobs, Curtis. 2013. "Constructing Physical Fights: An Interactionist Analysis of Violence Among Affluent Suburban Youth." Qualitative Sociology 36: 23-52.
Levine, M., P. Taylor, and R. Best. 2011. "Third parties, violence, and conflict resolution." Psychological Science 22: 406-412.
Copes, Heith, Andy Hochstetler, and Craig J. Forsyth. 2013. "Peaceful Warriors: Codes for Violence among Adult Male Bar Fighters." Criminology 51: 761-794.
Papachristos, Andrew. 2009. “Murder by Structure: Dominance Relations and The Social Structure of Gang Homicide,” American Journal of Sociology 115: 74-128.
Emerson, Robert M. 2015. Everyday Troubles: The Micro-politics of Interpersonal Conflict. University of Chicago Press.
Joseph Krupnick and Christopher Winship. 2015. "Keeping Up the Front: How Young Black Men Avoid Street Violence in the Inner City." In Orlando Patterson (Ed.), The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth. Harvard University Press.
Anderson, Elijah. 1999. The Code of the Street. Norton.
Randall Collins. 2008. Violence: a Micro-sociological Theory. Princeton Univ. Press.