Sending unmistakable signals and enforcing rules

The current war in Ukraine has surprised all three participants: Russia, Ukraine and NATO countries. The war has been far more prolonged, has caused far more deaths and destruction and refugee movements, and has involved much bigger military investments than any of the participants had expected. Russia didn’t expect such strong Ukrainian resistance, such massive input of NATO military supplies, and such widespread NATO retaliation against Russia’s economy. The West and Ukraine didn’t expect Russia to switch from military targets to civilian targets. None of the participants gave specific warnings of what they would do. None could anticipate what the other participants would do.

As a result, what began as a limited local war now has wide, dangerous, unpredictable consequences. Will Russia use chemical weapons or tactical nuclear weapons, or attack Moldova or Estonia? NATO countries don’t know. How will NATO countries respond if Russia does any of those things? Russia doesn’t know.

In short, the absence of clear signals from all three participants has inflamed the war. This importance of signaling extends beyond the current Ukrainian war and beyond all wars. Clear signals are essential to peaceful relations not just between countries, but also between husbands and wives, parents and children, employees and employers, students and teachers, and governments and their citizens.

Empty protests

Let’s begin with examples of a lack of signals causing wars, and of clear signals averting wars. The outbreak of World War II in Europe was caused by signaling failures. By the Treaty of Versailles that the victorious Allies Britain and France imposed on defeated Germany after World War I, the Allies forbade Germany to rearm. But from 1934 onwards, step by step, Adolf Hitler undid those bans. While claiming peaceful intentions, Hitler first founded a German air force, then he introduced military conscription, then he annexed Austria, then he occupied Czechoslovakia’s borderlands.

At each of those steps by Hitler, Britain and France protested but then did nothing. Hitler became convinced that the Allies were not serious about their protests. Only when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 did Britain and France declare war on Germany.

If the Allies had acted on their protests at any time until the end of 1938, Germany would have been forced to back down or would have been easily defeated, and World War II would not have broken out in Europe. The moral of this story: If you protest and then do nothing, your opponents will learn to ignore your protests.

My next military example: the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, a war that almost broke out because of ambiguous signals, but that was averted when those signals became unambiguous. In 1958 and 1960 the Soviet Union and the U.S. respectively acquired new leaders: Nikita Khrushchev, a 63-year-old risk-taker, and John F. Kennedy, at age 43 the youngest elected president in American history. When the two met in Vienna in June 1961, Khrushchev became convinced that Kennedy was not just young and inexperienced, but also weak and indecisive. Khrushchev’s low opinion of Kennedy was reinforced by Kennedy’s mismanagement of the U.S.’s disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, and by Kennedy’s apparent acceptance of East Germany’s erection of the Berlin Wall.

Hence in 1962 Khrushchev ordered the construction of missile bases in Cuba, convinced that Kennedy would accept the bases just as he had accepted the Berlin Wall. But to Khrushchev’s surprise and anger, Kennedy ordered a U.S. naval blockade of Cuba, sent U.S. warplanes into the air, sent U.S. nuclear submarines to sea, and put U.S. military and nuclear forces on high alert. After several terrifying days in which a nuclear war seemed imminent, Khrushchev backed down and ordered the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba.

My final military example is the relations between the Soviet Union and the U.S. for several decades after 1962. Through discussions with each other after the Cuban Missile Crisis, military planners on both sides came to realize how close they had come to a nuclear war that neither side wanted, and that would have been equally disastrous to both sides. As a result, mutual communication increased, and fears of nuclear war receded.

Thus, wars are the sphere in which unclear signals have the heaviest consequences. But the world has not agreed on rules of clear signaling between countries. For example, there is no international agreement specifying that countries should give three days’ notice before bombing a hospital in another country. Hence Russia’s bombing of a Ukrainian hospital without giving advance notice, while unexpected and reprehensible, did not violate any rule of international signaling.

Making intentions clear

However, in many other spheres of human activity there are formal rules that serve as explicit signals of what one intends to do.

One familiar example is law codes. All governments make laws signaling what people should and shouldn’t do in the country. But if a government fails to enforce a law, many people won’t obey the law. This result is illustrated by a natural experiment in New York City.

Like all cities with streets and cars, New York has rules about where one may park one’s car. For instance, it’s illegal to park one’s car in front of a fire hydrant or blocking a driveway.

However, New York is the location of the United Nations’ headquarters, where diplomats from all over the world work. Diplomats’ cars are distinguished by license plates marked with the letter D. Until 2002, the U.S. federal government forbade New York to tow cars of diplomats who repeatedly failed to pay parking fines. As a result, diplomats of 127 out of 149 countries for which New York parking records are available accumulated unpaid fines.

In October 2002 the U.S. State Department gave New York permission to remove diplomatic plates from cars with three or more unpaid parking fines, and to subtract 110% of the unpaid fines from U.S. foreign aid to the offending diplomat’s country. The result: unpaid parking violations by diplomats’ cars in New York quickly decreased from thousands per month to only 1% of that number.

Two other examples illustrating that signaling threats become ignored if they aren’t carried out involve student behavior and the workplace. Schools order students not to cheat. Well-run schools impose escalating punishments on students repeatedly caught cheating on exams: for instance, the first time, a written warning; the second time, probation; and the third time, expulsion. If those escalating punishments are not carried out, student cheating becomes rampant.

Similarly, companies announce rules of employee conduct: employees should arrive to work on time, shouldn’t use work time to do personal errands, and should spend only a specified amount of time to eat lunch. Well-run companies impose escalating punishments on employees who break these rules: first a verbal warning, then a written warning, then probation, and finally firing. Again, extensive experience, at least in the U.S., shows that employees flaunt those rules if the rules are not enforced.

What will happen if countries with chronically tense relationships don’t give each other clear signals of how they will react if the other country goes “too far”? For example, North Korea has been testing nuclear weapons and missiles. Some of those tests are deliberately provocative — such as firing missiles out into the Pacific Ocean, or near or over Japan. North Korea is playing a risky game: the game of making provocative threats but trying to avoid threats that would certainly demand retaliation (such as deliberately aiming a missile to land in South Korea or in Japan).

But, as the Cuban Missile Crisis warned us, risk-taking dictators who don’t understand their adversary are prone to miscalculate. They may carry out a threatening display that the dictator considers tolerable, but that the adversary considers intolerable. What would the U.S. do if Kim Jong Un aimed a missile to land close to Guam or Hawaii? Just as President Kennedy was warned in 1962 that he would be impeached if he did not get Soviet missiles quickly out of Cuba, an American president who tolerated a North Korean missile launch toward Guam or Hawaii would risk impeachment.

It’s frightening and dangerous to confront a nuclear power like North Korea or Russia. But, as Britain’s and France’s experience with Hitler in the 1930s demonstrated, giving way out of fear guarantees facing the same danger again under more unfavorable conditions. Japan, South Korea and the U.S. all need to send unmistakable signals to Kim Jong Un.

Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond, a professor of geography at the University of California in Los Angeles, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and other international best-selling books.