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John Mueller joins the show to explain how, when international war is in decline, complacency and appeasement become viable diplomatic devices and a large military is scarcely required.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

John Mueller is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a member of the political science department and senior research scientist with the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at Ohio State University. He is a leading expert on terrorism and particularly on the reactions (or over‐​reactions) it often inspires.


It could be said that American foreign policy since 1945 has been one long miscue; most international threats — including during the Cold War — have been substantially exaggerated. The result has been agony and bloviation, unnecessary and costly military interventions that have mostly failed.

John Mueller joins the show to explain how, when international war is in decline, complacency and appeasement become viable diplomatic devices and a large military is scarcely required.

Further Reading:



0:00:07.3 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.

0:00:09.4 Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.

0:00:10.9 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is John Mueller, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is also a member of the political science department and senior research scientist with the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at Ohio State University. His new book is, “The Stupidity of War: American Foreign Policy and the Case for Complacency.” Welcome back to the show, John.

0:00:30.3 John Mueller: Thanks. It’s nice to be here.

0:00:32.3 Trevor Burrus: Your title is provocative in two ways. First, how is war stupid?

0:00:38.8 John Mueller: Well, I think war has always been stupid. [chuckle] Depends on your values, obviously. But it only became… People basically didn’t come to really realize that until the 20th century. It wasn’t that… There were the occasional people saying war is really stupid, it’s ugly, it’s disgusting, and so forth, but it was countered previously before World War I by the notion that war is really beautiful, glorious, clean, cleansing, redemptive, progressive, and that peace was decadent and filled with bovine content, as one person put it. It was only after World War I, I think, that there was this really broad consensus that it was really, basically, stupid. The kind of thing that people basically agree now. But if you said that before the war, you’d be shouted down by all these people that said how wonderful war was, and the only thing peace was good for was to maintain a, “Get ready for the next war.” War was extremely common. We’re talking, basically, about international war and war in Europe, in particular. And so there was a huge change in attitudes toward war at the time of World War I because… And you can see that quantitatively. It’s very easy to find people saying the things I’ve just been saying, before World War I. It’s virtually impossible to find anybody saying that after the war. So it goes from a lot, hundreds, thousands. I’d give you thousands of case examples to virtually zero. So that… My thesis is that it is very consequential.

0:02:16.6 Aaron Ross Powell: Given what you’ve just said, I guess I’m a little bit confused about what you mean by a consensus that war is stupid because not too long ago, we’ve recorded an episode of this podcast with our colleague, John Glaser, on the way that the Washington foreign policy establishment works. And the Washington foreign policy establishment seems to be filled with lots of people who, certainly, don’t act as if war is stupid. They’re always calling for us to get into new wars, to stay in existing wars, to escalate, and looking down their noses at those of us who say, maybe we should disengage a bit, maybe we shouldn’t use quite as much kinetic military action. So are those people exceptions to the consensus that war is stupid, or do they mean something? Is there something else going on?

0:03:02.0 John Mueller: No. Basically what you’re talking is military… What you said is, “Military action” and actually being prepared for war, and using it around the fringes. But essentially, there’s only been two wars, two international wars in this whole century. Both of them started by the kind of people you’re talking about, incidentally. The 9/11 wars against Afghanistan and against Iraq, both of which degenerated. But if you look at Europe as a whole, for example, since World War II, there has not been a single substantial international war in a continent that used to be the most war‐​like in the world. And in fact, Europe has now been free from international war for the longest period of time since the word Europe was invented, about 2500 years ago. So I think it’s consequential. What you do have is playing around at the fringes, as I said, basically, there’s hardly anything resembling real international wars anymore, particularly in the last few decades, but you do have people playing around in the sense of intervening in each other’s civil wars. You do have economic sanctions. You do have lobbying cyber balloons. And so there’s these various things like that that you can do, but they’re all short of war by my standard. A war in my opinion, the way it’s commonly defined is a conflict between… An international war, conflict between two countries in which, at least, a thousand battle deaths are suffered per year.

0:04:35.6 John Mueller: You also get… There’s also a fair number of little dinky wars, if that’s what you wanna call them. For example, there was just a border conflict a few months ago between China and India, in which about a dozen people died. If you count that as a war, then I’ll be sure that’s a war. But what’s impressive, particularly since 1945, and particularly in the last two, three decades, is that although there’ve been border conflicts, the people doing the conflicts keep them very limited and keep them from escalating to a real war. So they tend to take place in places where there’s no people along borderlines, and also where there’s no garrisons. So the idea is not so much that war‐​like behavior is completely gone, but wars are. And so we got sort of an anarchic situation in which, the way I put it, basically, is overwhelmingly, people have… States… There’s a sort of a culture of peace in the world. Culture of a society of peace, in which the states essentially agree not to use war as an instrument to carry out their policy, international war. At one time it was the standard way of doing things. So that’s really a major development and it’s been growing since 1945. In 1945, Europe definitely, Europe and the developed world, generally, basically slumped into a lack of war. I mean there’s been no World War III, right?

0:06:09.6 John Mueller: I’m safe on that one, I hope. And gradually other countries around the world have fallen into step. For example, there are a fair number of borders between Israel and the Arab states, international wars, but the last one was in 1973. And there also were a fairly substantial wars between India and Pakistan, but the last one of those was about that same time. There have been exceptions, the Iran‐​Iraq war. There was a war between Ethiopia and Eritrea at the very end of the 20th century, but they’ve been really quite low. There’ve been a lot of civil wars, and at one time there were colonial wars, but those died out with colonialism. So basically what we’re dealing with is this society. So from a libertarian standpoint, it’s a perfect anarchy, almost perfect, imperfect anarchy, in which there is no government, and countries around the world need to work out their problems. They have disputes over borders, they have disputes over fisheries, they have disputes over trade, they have disputes over ethnic groups and stuff.

0:07:13.6 John Mueller: And what they have, if they’ve truly given up the idea of using war to deal with them, they have to work out rules and regulations, laws. How far into the sea does the territorial… Is part of the territory of the country next to it? That kind of thing. But I think mostly what’s happened is, that the rules have come from the aversion to war. I’ll give you a pedestrian example here, literally pedestrian, I guess. We have a rule that you should only ride on one side of the street. In Washington, that’d be the right side of the street. London, the left. Now, it is not the case that people really have become averse to being killed by oncoming traffic, because they have to drive on one side of the street, rather the aversion to being killed by oncoming traffic is led to the rule. And so what you can do is… So you get that worked out. It doesn’t matter what side you pick, but everybody has to go along with it, and if the occasional misguided drunk drives on the wrong side, that doesn’t invalidate the rule. So I think generally, it’s not that rules have been set up that have caused peace, but the desire for peace has caused the rules.

0:08:30.2 Trevor Burrus: Now, it seems you’ve pinpointed World War I, which has a few characteristics to it, this sort of mechanization of death, things like tanks, and sort of the astounding brutality of some of these things. In addition to a lot of pictures and images coming from the war, and then of course, the massive death tolls. So it seems that there might be a fairly easy explanation for this, like massive tech… War technologies being used on a massive scale, became much less desirable than cavalry charges between Napoleonic… In the Napoleonic Wars, so basically the brutality of war increased, and so the desire for it decreased.

0:09:12.3 John Mueller: Yeah, I don’t think so. [chuckle] I think it simply became repulsed by it. Dysentery, [chuckle] to bring up, probably, the most common attribute of war, wasn’t invented in 1914, neither were mud, nor leeches. And if you wanna be killed, being shot by a bullet is probably a lot better than being hacked to death with a sword, or penetrated with an arrow. So people, for a long time have… The disgusting aspect of war has been there for a long time, and what happened after the World War I, was that people were willing to see it. And so they said basically, “Let’s not do that again.” That also happened with slavery 100 years earlier. People started jumping up and down saying, “We shouldn’t do slavery anymore.” Even though it was economically doing quite well. The Atlantic slave trade was booming. And the same thing with dueling. Dueling was a way of, for centuries, a way men of a certain class working out their disagreements. By the end of the 19th century it was regarded being silly, stupid, ridiculous. And I think that’s basically what happened with war. World War I, obviously, was a horrible catastrophe, but there are plenty of wars that were fought to total annihilation before that. There are plenty of wars that were fought for things which are even more stupid. The most famous war in history, or mythology, is the one between the Greeks and the Trojans.

0:10:41.5 John Mueller: It was fought over an errant wife, lasted 10 years and caused… And ended up with Troy being totally annihilated. The men killed, the women sold into sexual slavery, and the place burned to the ground. So and the Thirty Years’ War in Europe was devastating. There was a rumor for a long time, I believe for a long time, that 80% or 90% of the Germans died in it. That turns out that was just sort of high, but people believed that. And no one said, “That was really bad. Let’s not do that anymore.” Instead, they just kept going and assumed it was a way of life. So before World War I, World War I is unique in only one respect that I can see, and that’s that there was a peace movement, anti‐​war movement, organized for the first time in history. An individual philosopher sitting on rocks saying, “War’s a bad idea.” And so forth, but this was the first movement, the first time there was an organized movement, and it was mostly ridiculed by… And it was a gadfly movement, but it was attracting a fair amount of attention from politicians, from financiers like Alfred Nobel and Andrew Carnegie, and socialists had it built in somewhat too.

0:12:04.0 John Mueller: So it was kind of a growing movement, but it was ridiculed as being effeminate and cowardly, and materialistic. After the war, the arguments were the standard coin, and so there’s this concentrated effort to try to stop international wars from happening again.

0:12:22.7 Aaron Ross Powell: What exactly changed with the perception then, because if it isn’t as Trevor hypothesized that an increase in the brutality of the war, and we certainly had, you know, it’s… Yes, there were photographs and some videos in the way that there hadn’t necessarily been with the 30 Years War or the Trojan War, but there still were accounts of the war. Even Homer talks a fair and bit about the brutality of the Trojan War, like we weren’t hiding that. So what changed that suddenly made with World War I, people willing to accept the brutality of war, and willing to see it in a way that they hadn’t been before?

0:13:06.4 John Mueller: Well, I’ve got a three word answer, I don’t know. There is a phrase, ideas whose time has come. Democracy started in big countries only about 200 years ago, 250 years ago. Democracy was known about for millennia, and then suddenly starting with, maybe the United States, Switzerland, Britain and so forth, just started doing it. It wasn’t a new idea and so why didn’t that start 500 years before that, or a 1000 years before that, it didn’t except in small enclaves. So I can definitely guarantee what I have said earlier, quantitatively, that before war, World War I, there were all these people saying this, I can give you chapter and verse over and over again. These are not just willing militarists from Prussia, but they’re philosophers, poets, Emile Zola the French novelist called war life itself, and there’s a art critic in Britain basically saying the world… We can’t get rid of war ’cause it’s so wonderful, and so it was just very common.

0:14:18.1 John Mueller: It is necessary… Igor Stravinsky, the composer, saying it’s necessary for human progress, it was just sort of accepted. Starting and after the war, you can find almost nobody that says that. Let me give you actually an example that I found in the book actually, the book was mostly written, and then I came across this, so I certainly put it in. Someone on Wikipedia has put a list of all the anti‐​war plays. Plays, historically, which have been anti‐​war in their basic color, they got three plays for the Ancient Greeks, two by Aristophanes and one by Euripides. And the next one is 1929. I think they skipped over it, that then I would take Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida as being an anti‐​war play, but they may have made a few mistakes here and there, but basically then after the war, the second most popular film, silent film of the silent era was King Vidor’s The Big Parade was an anti‐​war film. It made tons of money. Big novel like All Quiet on the Western Front. Late in the ‘20s, a German novel becomes a Bestseller. So basically, everybody is against war and that’s mostly continued.

0:15:43.4 Trevor Burrus: One of the interesting things about wars, maybe intermittently, but it’s quite common for when the war begins, it is perceived to be easy by some sides, the World War I would happen, and the Brits would go over the continent and give Jerry a drumming and come back home by Christmas and the Civil War has a similar type of thing, where the North doesn’t think the South wants to fight and vice versa. One exception to that, however, is World War II, and that’s part of a general thing is that is World War II is kind of an exception, broadly speaking, from this, because if we had established the stupidity of war, realized that we marched off unknowingly between 1914 and 1918 until the tunes of millions dead, but then World War II comes and that seems to be a non‐​stupid war that people went into knowing it would not be easy and it would cost a lot of lives, but it needed to be done.

0:16:39.6 John Mueller: Yeah, yeah, my book basically deals with since 1945, but World War… The one place where the militarism lasted was in Japan, you can still find it… When I said before, basically, you can’t find it anywhere, you can find it in Japan, but not in any place else, certainly not in Europe. So they are sort of prime for it, and it shows that they stumbled into this war themselves, trying to do it with the invasion of China and so forth. The other war, and this is a very controversial part of the book, but I’ll stand by it, I’ve been working on it for some time, was that World War II in Europe would not have started had it not been for Adolf Hitler, that is to say, if you wanna find a somebody who really made a difference, it was him. It’s very hard to see any other German, they had resentments and stuff from World War I, that’s all certainly true, but the idea of going to war to relieve it was simply not acceptable.

0:17:32.8 John Mueller: John Keegan, one of the major military historians, said, “After World War I, there was only one European who wanted war, and that was Adolf Hitler.” And I’ve looked at it in a quite extensively, the question, if he’d been run over by a truck, was there someone else to do it, and there basically wasn’t anybody. There’s stuff about German public opinion, and the German public was as afraid of another war as the French or the Dutch or the English. So Hitler was world’s… I have once called him the history’s supreme atavism. But anyway, then after the war, that reifies everything. Once again, the yet known set of the League of Nations, you have the United Nations, you have outlawing of war coming in, you have a millions of treaties and stuff to try to keep it that way. So in some respects, World War I is a cosmic disaster, but the one in Europe in particular was not a stupid war, it was necessary probably to do something about him, though he mostly self‐​destructed by massively over‐​reaching, but it also rarefied the idea, we shouldn’t do international war anymore, particularly in Europe.

0:18:57.9 Trevor Burrus: And then shortly after World War II, we get into Korea, as you said, your book mostly focuses on post ’45. Now, Korea’s stand, interestingly, in the kind of cold war story is that it might have been justified, at least in the sense that at least half that peninsula is not living under one of the worst and most despotic regimes we’ve ever seen. But was there something a little bit over‐​wrought about Korea and the way that we perceived what was going on there?

0:19:28.1 John Mueller: Yes, I think so, in many respects. What happened was, I mentioned before that people were using non‐​military, or non‐​war, like devices. In the case of Korea, the communist world definitely was not status quo, it definitely wanted to change things, it wanted to take over the world if you wanna call it that, but its techniques were not used to use a direct war, it was to use revolution. And they’ve said this a billion times, a revolution, revolutionary civil wars, subversion, that kind of thing, they certainly tried that, particularly by beefing up the communist parties in France and Italy, for example. But that was not starting a direct war, by any means. The exception to that was when Kim Il‐​sung comes in and says, “I’m sitting up here in North Korea, a communist state.” Mostly, he fabricated by the Russians, Soviets, “And I can take over South Korea.”

0:20:29.8 John Mueller: And so, by military force, by pushing. And Stalin in Russia was actually quite reluctant to get into this mess, he pulled back the Soviet troops so they wouldn’t… If it escalated, the Soviet Union would not be pulled into it. And it turned into this disastrous war, United States saying, I think much over‐​estimating the issue, arguing that it was showing that the revolutionaries were not willing to use direct war, and it seems to me this is a sort of a unique, bizarre case at that time, in an area which was extremely… Very much a backwater. It isn’t anymore, but it was then. But the interpretation was that if we don’t fight there, we’re gonna have to fight world war III, that was almost precise quote from Harry Truman. The problem was that… So the war… Korean War may be the only war that was worth fighting that the United States has done since World War II, in my opinion. But the problem was that there was an extrapolation from that, arguing that we have to really deter in a war by the Soviet Union, like against Western Europe.

0:21:48.0 John Mueller: In fact, a lot of people at the time thought that the attack on Korea is a diversionary tactic and they’re really gonna come across, fill the gap and take over Western Europe. Complete nonsense, but who knows, at that time. But then the idea that you had to deter the Soviet Union from starting war, document after document coming out of the Soviet archives indicates that was nonsense. They never in a million years wanted to get into anything that would be like World War I or World War II, much less one with nuclear weapons. The archives show that they had no plans for any kind of offensive wars. They did have plans in case they were attacked themselves. So there’s basically a massive exaggeration of the threat that the Soviet Union placed. They were right to suggest they wanted to support their revolution, coups, revolutionary civil war, but they were wrong to think it was gonna use a major war, direct old‐​fashioned war, international war in other words, to advance the cause.

0:22:48.5 Aaron Ross Powell: But we don’t have… At the moment that we are thinking about declaring a war or engaging in a war, we don’t have access to the archives of the people that we might be going to war against, and so a lot of this seems like there are… Most wars are stupid, but you’ve listed some that weren’t or maybe weren’t, but how do we know going in if a war is stupid or not? We can tell after the fact when we’ve assessed all the information, but we can’t… We’ve gotta make a decision right now, are there important signs we can look for to say, “This war is leaning in the stupid direction?”

0:23:29.0 John Mueller: Well, my argument basically is people come to agree that all international wars are stupid, and so they don’t start them. [chuckle] The point is that we haven’t had any. [chuckle] Had very few international wars since World War II, of any sort, any place in the world, and a declining number, almost zero, in this century already. So essentially, you can certainly see that in the public opinion, in, “Do we really want to get into a war with Iran.” For example. I think that the response is no, definitely not. So generally speaking, there’s been issues, there’ve been problems, there’ve been border conflicts and so forth, but people said, What we don’t want to do is get into a situation which escalates to a real war. Occasionally, there have been some wars, of course, since World War II, international wars, but they’ve been really quite rare. So my argument is that those wars didn’t seem stupid necessarily to the guys starting them at the beginning.

0:24:31.9 John Mueller: But mostly what’s happened is any time you bring up the idea of war, the response is, “That’s really stupid. Let’s not do that.” In other words, “We wanna take over some of Costa Rica’s territory. Well, we’ll do it by diverting a river. [chuckle] And we’ll do it in a place where there isn’t any people and where there isn’t any garrison, and if we can get away with it ’cause they don’t really care about that territory anyway.” So we can nip off things, or we can poach somebody’s fish, or we can exact economic sanctions, there’s various things we can do, but these are seen to be an alternative to war. India is suggesting essentially that using real war, which used to be a common currency in the olden days, before 1914 in Europe in particular is no longer an acceptable means.

0:25:24.1 John Mueller: An analogy with we have dueling. I mean, why don’t young men duel anymore? They could even do it legally like with boxing gloves, but now what you get is a situation which they have the same disagreements, I don’t think there’s any evidence that says “testosterone levels have gone down” they still get mad over various matters of honor and being disrespected and so forth, and in particular over women, but they don’t even think about fighting a duel over it. Now, what that can do is increase incivility. [chuckle] In other words, if you’re in the dueling class and you walk up to somebody in a fancy costume ball and say, “You’re a bloody liar.” Or as happens in Tolstoy’s novel, War and Peace, “Your wife has been sleeping around.” What you’re gonna expect, would be in the old days, he’d be challenged to a duel. So therefore, you might say, even though everybody knows that’s true what you were saying, that going to the duels might have unpleasant consequences. So you’d be deterred from insulting this guy for the fear that you might be called into a duel.

0:26:33.4 John Mueller: Now, that’s gone away, so now you can walk up and say, “Your wife has been sleeping around.” There might be some consequences, like you might take a poke in your mouth… Poke you on the face, or he might try to sue you, or he might try to denigrate you outside, and so forth, all kinds of things, slander, etcetera, whatever. So you can do all of those kinds of uncivil things, but basically you don’t have to worry about being into a duel. And I think that’s basically what’s happening with war. People can be intemperate, they can… Certainly they’ve been intervening in other people’s civil wars, which usually didn’t happen, but they don’t get into wars directly themselves, international wars.

0:27:17.9 Trevor Burrus: You seem very confident, going a little back to Aaron’s question, that during the Cold War, during this time when the American foreign policy establishment assumed that the Soviet Union was hell bent on expansion, even via military expansion, and that it would be a domino theory, it would sort of take over. If you had Mexico become a communist satellite state, that was gonna be bad for America. Everyone thought this at the time, which is interesting for your thesis, ’cause it both assumes maybe that is… Your argument being that we thought that the USSR really wanted war and the USSR thought that we wanted war, but actually both of us had learned that war was stupid, even with or without nuclear weapons but definitely with nuclear weapons.

0:28:06.1 John Mueller: Yeah. Well, that’s basically what happened. It’s called the security dilemma, and it’s… Some people call it a tragedy. I think it’s more of like a farce. I do something to protect myself against you and you get thinking that, “Well, the reason you’re doing this is ’cause he wants to start a war, so therefore we have to arm and so forth.” The containment idea, that they might take over countries, was perfectly plausible. They took over obviously the communists advanced in Cuba, they took over North Vietnam, they obviously took over China in 1949, and so forth, so they… But that was part of their game plan. The Marxism, Marxism and Leninism was the wave of the future, and so forth. But what happened was, almost comically, in retrospect, was that contain… And so the idea basically was they have containment to keep these people from advancing, and then they’d eventually meddle from within, was the idea. Well, what happened was the opposite, namely after 1975 a whole bunch of countries suddenly fell into the communist orbit. Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in Southeast Asia, three countries in Africa, a couple in Latin America, South Yemen, and then Afghanistan.

0:29:25.3 John Mueller: And all these countries descended… And so they joined the Soviet empire, willingly, or the Soviet camp. And what happened was that the Soviets then found that they almost all turned into economic and political, and often military, basket cases filled with Civil War, the worst one being Afghanistan. So the Soviet Union came to realize that they would have been better off contained. At first they thought the correlation of forces, as they called it, was really moving in their direction and so they were really happy about it, but then they realized it was not. And that was one of the things that… That these things were basically a burden, and that affected Gorbachev quite a bit and he basically changed the ideology. So containment worked best when it failed.

0:30:18.4 Aaron Ross Powell: What role does threat inflation play in this? Because that seems to be a pretty common thing in Washington, and there’s… As we’re recording this, we’re waiting for the FDA to decide if it’s gonna let people start taking the Johnson & Johnson vaccine again. And there’s lots of criticism of this decision on the grounds that there’s a vanishingly small threat that is likely much smaller than other threats, but the FDA’s incentives are to latch on to small threats and respond to those, and to kind of act as if they’re bigger, because they are the threats in its wheelhouse, I suppose. And there’s something similar happens, it seems like, in foreign policy. So what is threat inflation and does it play a part in this story, both in the story of convincing us that war is stupid, because we’ve seen threats inflated, but maybe also in convincing us it’s not because we’ve been told that threats are bigger than they are?

0:31:20.1 John Mueller: Yeah. Well, one of the main themes of the book is looking at threat inflation. And one of the ones I just mentioned that the idea they inflated the threat the Soviet Union was willing to start World War III, for example. And we now have… They had to be careful at the time and who knows, you have a limited evidence and so forth, but we know a lot more now. And basically there was no danger of war, even on the Cuban missile crisis, for example.

0:31:48.5 John Mueller: But that basically is continuing. And I think we’re continuing to inflate threat. Terrorism after 9/11, in particular, was pretty terrible. But I’ve written a lot about that in this book and other books, that we massively inflated the degree to which international terrorism is a threat. 9/11 was a horror, but it stands out as being an extreme outlier. There’s never been another terrorist event before or after 9/11, in war zones or outside war zones, that inflicted even one‐​tenth as much total destruction. So by seeing that as the wave of the future, which is a standard belief right after 9/11 in the intelligence community, was basically nonsense. And it impelled us into this two sort of preventative wars supposedly in Afghanistan and Iraq, which never would have happened without it. And currently… The book also deals with current threats. And it seems to be that the big two that people worry about are Russia and China, both of those growing in concern within the Beltway.

0:32:54.9 John Mueller: And I just think it’s nonsense. Both countries obviously wanna feel their weight. Both countries are certainly doing things from a civil liberty standpoint which are reprehensible, also from an economic liberty standpoint foolish. But they aren’t expansionary in the sense of Hitler wanting to take over new territory. With the exception of China trying to… Wanting to get Taiwan back. So while they’re a pain in the neck, they… And there’s definitely parts of their policy that I certainly find abhorrent, as do most other Americans, nonetheless, it’s not a threat and not a security threat. And dealing with it… And the same thing with nuclear proliferation. It’s not clear that that makes much difference, if Korea has a bomb, North Korea has a bomb or not. It’s not clear that that’s really a problem overall. So I can deal with it calmly, even complacency… Even complacently, as says in the subtitle of the book, ’cause I don’t think we have security threats that require much more than that.

0:34:06.9 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, that’s what I was gonna ask about, ’cause at the beginning I said there are two controversial statements in the title, the stupidity of war, and complacency, the case for complacency. I mean, it’s interesting because that has been the kind of attack that you lob on someone who criticizes American foreign policy, being complacent to something that you cannot be. Now, again, we know from hindsight a bunch of these things are not… Were not as big of threats. But I remember after 9/11, anyone would have said that there would have been another terrorist attack within the next five years. People would have put a lot of money in saying that there would have been another big one. So when it comes to complacency like North Korea and a nuclear weapon, I mean, we don’t want nuclear weapons in the hands of completely maniacal dictators, it would seem to me. So I mean, maybe complacency when it comes to some of these threats, but when it comes to ones that could turn really serious, is there still a case for complacency?

0:35:09.4 John Mueller: Well, there’s been no more a maniacal dictator than Joseph Stalin, and he was also going crazy at the end, or Mao Zedong, so just because they’re maniacal dictators doesn’t mean they use the weapons. The North Korean weapon is mostly obviously to deter the United States who’s threatened to wipe it out repeatedly. Rid the world of evil, is George W. Bush, and I’ll also tell you where the evil is, North Korea, Iraq and Iran. So the North Koreans obviously got a bit exercised about that, so I don’t… The problem with the atomic obsession, as they call it, is that worrying so much about proliferation kills people. The war in Iraq has killed hundreds of thousands of people. And it was an anti‐​proliferation war. So nuclear weapons have killed nobody since 1945, but efforts to stop them have killed hundreds of thousands of people, to stop them from proliferating. So being complacent in the case of North Korea, there’s no way you’re gonna negotiate those out. They think they need them for their security. What you can do is try to help North Korea become a normal country. And I think there’s some real possibilities under Kim Jong‐​un. He’s actually reversed previous policy in that way. So I think there’s distinct possibilities.

0:36:35.6 John Mueller: Other places I’d like, Afghanistan. The Russians and the Chinese wanna play a bigger role in the world. And the question is, why not bring them in on Afghanistan? They don’t want Afghanistan to be unstable. They’re as worried about Islamist extremists as anybody in the world, because they have problems with it in their own countries, they think. So why not bring them in? Why not work with Russia to try to stabilize the situation in Syria, the disaster? Assad now has won. And one possibility is to try to work to stabilize that situation as much as possible. Allow refugees to go back and work with Assad, or against Assad if necessary with the Russians, to keep him from engaging in vengeful actions. So that… Anyway, the point is working with these people, obviously you have to work with them on other things such as pandemics, refugees, global warming, and so forth, there are a lot of other places where they could be useful. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But it seems to me they should be tried. Yet they should not be seen as enemies, I think overall. They are opponents, they may be competitors in some sense rather, but I don’t think they’re out to take over the world. They might want to play a bigger role in it. They certainly want to develop economically, and I don’t see those as being necessarily terrible goals.

0:38:12.0 Trevor Burrus: It seems weird that almost the inverse. So if you speak to a standard, not even just a conservative, like a mainstream liberal they would, most of them would say, “Over the post‐​war period, America’s military strength was paramount to keeping the world order in check, keeping communists in check, protecting Western Europe, making sure we didn’t have communism run across South America.” You name it. And it seems that your thesis is radically the opposite to the point that it’d have people scratching their heads. Essentially that except for maybe North Korea, if America did nothing, if our military was $100 billion a year, a fraction of what it is now, if America did nothing, things wouldn’t have been radically different in terms of the world order, except for we’d have fewer people dead in Vietnam and stuff like that. But is that essentially that everything played itself out and American military prowess did nothing in that equation in the post‐​war period?

0:39:20.5 John Mueller: Yeah, well, that’s one of the themes of the book. It’s not clear that American military has been necessary. Its one achievement was, as you say, keeping South Korea from being taken over by the communists and that’s why it seems to me that that might have been a war worth fighting. But otherwise, the idea that, for example, France and Germany would have gone to war but for the United States is absurd. What you have to do is find me somebody in France, somebody in Germany over the last 75 years who’s gotten on a soapbox and said, “We used to be so good at getting into wars, let’s do it again.” So the idea that you have to have a security community or a coal and steel community or the Americans or NATO or anything to stop them from going to war is basically absurd, it seems to me. In the case of the coal and steel community, which of course led into the common market and so forth, was initially, it was mainly an anti‐​war thing.

0:40:24.4 John Mueller: In other words, they had the coal and steel community ’cause they wanted to reduce the danger of war. My opinion is that basically, because they didn’t want to go to war, things like the coal and steel community is something you’d seriously consider, integrating the economies in one way or the other to everybody’s mutual advantage. So what happens is, if you have… If war basically becomes extremely unlikely, then certain things happen, like you might go over there and see if they have something you wanna buy or sell. Maybe you’ll cut a deal, maybe not. If you think you’re gonna go to war with them every five years or every 10 years, then obviously that’s a real stricture on the economic development. So it’s not at all clear that anybody would have gone to war because of the United States. Europe has remained peaceful because Europe wanted to be peaceful.

0:41:17.0 John Mueller: The Soviet Union never had any idea of starting another war and it’s not clear that other places did. In the case of Vietnam, the United States might have kept Vietnam from falling to the communists in 1965, instead it fell in 1975. And of course, now by the way, Vietnam is sort of our bosom buddy in that area. So it’s not at all clear that we needed the United States for Pax Americana, and people who say otherwise have to show me exactly where two countries about ready go to war. Turkey and Greece, maybe, where they basically saw that, and the United States stepped in and said, “No, you’re not going to war.” I think it’s very hard to find anything like that.

0:41:57.8 Aaron Ross Powell: But maybe there’s a case that, while we might not have examples of the United States explicitly stepping in and saying, “Hey, knock it off, guys.” The very presence of not just that the United States is there with a large military, but that the United States has a history of actually using it acts as a deterrent to them even getting to the point where we need to get between them and separate them.

0:42:22.5 John Mueller: What country are you talking about?

0:42:24.8 Aaron Ross Powell: I’m thinking of, I mean, the examples that I’ve heard people talk about would be, so Iran and Iran wanting to take over more of the Middle East. Iraq that did invade its neighbor, possibly India and Pakistan. China might have longer term plans to be a little bit more ambitious, like what they’re doing in Hong Kong and what they might do to Taiwan. Those sorts of things that may be just the United States and its history of using its muscle is preventing them from wanting to go to war in the first place.

0:43:03.3 John Mueller: You have to see where that’s… Show where that’s true. In the case of Iran, they obviously wanna play a bigger role in the Middle East and they have their own groups that they prefer and so forth. And they seem, whatever the United States does, they seem to have been able to do that. The United States has tried to punish them, not with military force so much, but with sanctions and that does not seem to have changed their policy in the slightest, so it’s not clear that any of that makes that much difference.

0:43:29.7 Trevor Burrus: On the Taiwan point though, this one seems to be pretty salient because we know Xi Jinping’s writing has made explicit that part of the designs is to take Taiwan back for China. We know that, and it seems to me that the biggest thing that would be keeping them from doing that is wondering whether or not we would get involved. And that only matters because we have a significant enough military that it would matter if we got involved.

0:43:54.3 John Mueller: Yeah, well, the biggest thing actually would be what would happen to its own reputation and its own economy if we were to do that. The Russians were able to take over Crimea in 2014 and they may have gained some territory, but it certainly didn’t do them any good economically and they got really hit by a lot of stuff, much of it natural in the sense that people trust them less, are willing to invest less. More people get money out of the country, capital flight and so forth. And I think China would have to worry about that big time. Taiwan is probably pretty capable of defending itself. There’s only a few beaches where you can land a landing force and amphibious landings is probably the hardest tactic in warfare and fails more often than anything else. So I think you’re right, basically to point that as a problem. The ambiguity of the American entrance probably does play into the Chinese hands, but they’ve long said basically that we think long‐​term on this. We got a long, long, long, long history and eventually we want these guys to come around, and the question now is whether they really wanna do it very soon.

0:45:06.3 John Mueller: And I’m not sure, but I think pretty much that they don’t. The costs of doing so, with their untried and extremely corrupt military would be very high even if they were successful and even if the United States didn’t intervene. Furthermore, if they did intervene and the United States didn’t directly get involved, it could do other things like harassing, like sanctions, like supporting rebels within Taiwan. It’s also the case that the Chinese would find that they had a lot of difficulty containing cessation elements and anti‐​China elements within Hong Kong. If they now take over Taiwan, they’re gonna have a much bigger problem along that line, they have to finesse that too, so there’s a lot of things that could deter them from going. The Taiwanese also have very good early warning system, etcetera, etcetera. They are obviously much smaller, but the Chinese military is pretty much untested. The last time it fought a war was in 1979 against North Vietnam and it did not go very well. So there’s various things, reasons you can think of that, but I think that is by far the most important area of concern in terms of potential warfare, yeah, yeah. The Taiwan thing which I mentioned earlier on.

0:46:25.9 Trevor Burrus: One of the things that we’ve seen in the last five years is a collapsing of the previous agreement that free trade is a good thing. And I had thought that we reached a point that we all came around to understand that free trade was a good thing, and now that is not the case anymore. And some of the things that animate anti‐​free trade arguments, nationalism, desire to help your people over other people, are similar to the kind of things that animate war in many ways. So in this increasingly nationalistic world, at least in terms of trade but also in a variety of different ways, does it concern you that maybe this conclusion that so much of humanity has reached that war is stupid is as fragile going forward as say the free trade consensus that did exist? That this is not something that we can rest assured will stick around?

0:47:28.2 John Mueller: Yeah, that’s right. People dislike the argument because if Hitler could start a war, why can’t someone else? If people can decide war is a really bad idea, why can’t they just as quickly decide it’s a good one? And I have no answer to that ’cause I don’t know, things do change. [0:47:41.4] ____ go up and down, they don’t only go up and they don’t only go down. Baseball caps get worn backwards and frontwards at various times, so I can’t be certain. And basically the argument is it’s only been a matter of change of opinion. On the other hand, there was a big change of opinion on slavery and over 100 years formal slavery, at least, was limited from what was then known as Christendom and you don’t see that coming back.

0:48:10.0 John Mueller: There is informal slavery, there’s illegal slavery and stuff, and human trafficking and so forth, but you can’t go to New Orleans and buy somebody. No one is saying, “That was really good when we used to be able to buy people in New Orleans. They put them on there and we’d look them over and so forth. And then you have this property and you can sell it or you can keep it or whatever.” It doesn’t come back. And similarly with duelling. The causes for duelling are the same as they’ve ever been, egos in particular. People get very mad, young men in particular, and though they don’t duel except at least in the formal sense, you’d have some with street gangs with being disrespected and so forth. So the point is that the bustle hasn’t come back, the corset hasn’t come back, so certain ideas die out.

0:49:02.8 John Mueller: Infanticide, the old‐​fashioned infanticide, obviously, has been gone for a very long time. Steve Pinker has a whole book or two books now, basically tracing the decline of various kinds of violence around the world, [0:49:19.6] ____ at Cato. So what happens is that some things really do go out of fashion, they never come back. You could argue that abortion is a form of high‐​tech infanticide, and to a degree infanticide in that sense has come back. At one time it was basically inconceivable that you could have legal abortion, of course, since the ‘70s that’s changed, so ideas go back and forth. And what people like would be to say that, “Well, if you reach a certain level of GDP per capita or something, you don’t go to war. As long as you stay above that, you’re okay.” In other words, it’s determined by GDP per capita or something else, something you really measure and get your hands on. But in my view, that’s not true and it’s basically simply a matter of people’s changing attitudes. But I do wanna say as with slavery and duelling, sometimes ideas can die out and never come back.


0:50:34.5 Speaker 4: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us in Apple Podcasts or in your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.