Aging leaders and the risk of accidental war

World War I started with a series of accidents and miscalculations, when world leaders  “sleepwalked into the abyss…. None of these men understood the danger they faced.  None wanted the war they got.”  (Destined for War, p. xii, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book The Guns of August.)  And as a result of the bad choices made by a handful of national leaders, 37 million people died over the next five years.    

If World War III were fought with today’s sophisticated nuclear weapons, more than 37 million people could die within the first hour of war. And World War III could easily start in a similar way to World War I:  with a series of accidents and miscalculations, aided and abetted by the judgment of 70 and 80 year old leaders whose thinking is clouded by stress. 

When the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists updated their Doomsday Clock last January, they estimated that the planet is now just “two minutes to midnight, as close to the symbolic point of annihilation that the iconic Clock has been since 1953 at the height of the Cold War.” 

One possible flashpoint that could lead to war is in the South China Sea, where territorial disputes have increased the potential for minor confrontations to escalate into major ones.  About one third of global maritime shipping passes through the South China Sea, and China is one of several countries that claim the right to its rich resources of oil and natural gas.  Since 2014, China has been expanding its presence in the South China Sea by piling sand on top of reefs it claims hundreds of miles from its coast, and building airstrips, military structures, and port facilities on top of these newly created islands. 

In 2015, the US began conducting “freedom of navigation operations” to defend international shipping rights in the area.  This in turn has led to a number of close calls as US and Chinese ships assert their claims by “playing chicken” in the area.  For example, last April a Chinese destroyer narrowly avoided a collision with the USS Decatur, when it passed as little as 45 feet across its bow in the South China Sea.  If lives are lost in a collision like this, US and Chinese leaders in their 70s or 80s could be required to make some very quick decisions about how to react in an enormously stressful moment. 

In the Democratic presidential debate on September 12, Julian Castro was roundly booed when he tried to make a joke alluding to Joe Biden’s age and memory lapses.  The joke felt awkward and politically incorrect, but it opened the door to discussing a sensitive and important issue.  When 78 year old Bernie Sanders had a heart attack a few weeks later, even more voters began to talk openly about age.

By the time of the October 15 Democratic debate, all three leading candidates – Warren, Sanders, and Biden – were asked whether age would affect their performance.  To no one’s surprise, all three said don’t worry, I will be fine.

When Jimmy Carter was elected President in 1977 he was 52.  Now 95, he recently told a reporter:  “I hope there’s an age limit [on the Presidency]…  I don’t think that I could [have handled the challenges]… that I faced [as President] in foreign affairs… if I [had been] ‘just’ 80.”

This sensitive discussion is complicated by the fact that there are enormous individual differences in the effects of aging.  One person’s 80 is another’s 85, 75, or even 70. 

By the end of a four year term that ends in January 2025, Bernie Sanders would be 84, Joe Biden 83, Donald Trump 79, and Elizabeth Warren 76.  Three of the four would be the oldest US president to date, passing Ronald Reagan, who was a few weeks from his 78th birthday at the end of his second term in 1989. 

Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994.  But some believe that he was experiencing the early effects of Alzheimer’s much earlier, while still president.  Reagan’s son Ron wrote in his memoir My Father at 100 that the president “might himself have suspected that all was not as it should be. As far back as August 1986 he had been alarmed to discover, while flying over the familiar canyons north of Los Angeles, that he could no longer summon their names.”

In China, President Xi Jinping is no spring chicken either; he will be 71 in January 2025.  In the middle of a crisis, he is also likely to consult with older advisors.  In China leaders “who step down continue to possess decisive and direct influence… far more influence than in… the United States… Over the past six decades, sixty-one people have exercised authority and influence from the pinnacle of political power in the People’s Republic of China. As of 2012, these leaders had an average age of 79 years and… one-in-five Chinese leaders has lived beyond 90.”  (Arunabh Ghosh, Chapter 6 in The China Questions, p. 52-55.)

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy was just 45 when faced with decisions that could have easily led to a nuclear war costing hundreds of millions of lives.  The Cuban Missile Crisis began when aerial reconnaissance photographs showed evidence of Soviet missile site construction in Cuba, 90 miles off the coast of Florida.  Some of Kennedy’s advisors urged an immediate and forceful military response.  General Earle Wheeler, the Army’s Chief of Staff, recommended that the US should “go ahead with a surprise air attack, [a naval] blockade, and an invasion [of Cuba].” (Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F Kennedy, p. 153).  For thirteen days in October 1962, the world teetered on the edge of a global thermonuclear war when Kennedy decided to first establish a naval blockade of Cuba.  I was a teenager at the time, and can still remember the long lines at church and the widespread fear that we could all die at any moment.

Ultimately, war was averted when JFK made a secret agreement with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (aged 68) to remove US missiles from Turkey in return for removing Soviet missiles from Cuba.  Later, JFK told his brother Robert that he thought that the chances of a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis had been “between one-in-three and even.”  (Destined for War, p. xiii)  What would the odds of nuclear war have been if the negotiations were conducted between two older leaders who had just a little less energy, focus and/or impulse control? 

How much are we willing to risk even a mild cognitive impairment in our leaders, in a world in which North Korea, India, Pakistan, Israel, Russia, China, and others possess nuclear weapons.  A world in which one aging leader who is tired, stressed, or confused can make a single mistake that could literally blow up the planet.

In my opinion, we would be wise to choose leaders who will be less than 80 or maybe even 70.  But what else can be done to reduce the risks of war, accidental or otherwise?

In a recent speech in Beijing, Harvard professor Graham Allison briefly described a few of the ideas that he and others have come up with in the years since he first wrote about Thucydides’s Trap.  Allison concluded that after several years of discussing how to avoid war with experts, none of the ideas he’s heard “seem compelling to me at this point.”  That’s one of the reasons Allison’s research group is crowdsourcing ideas about how to escape Thucydides’s Trap in a contest entitled “Do You Have a Grand Strategy to Meet the China Challenge?”  

You have until November 27 to submit your ideas.  Assuming no old people accidentally blow up the planet before then.