Why Pearl Harbor triggered a world war, and September 11 did not


Yes, why triggered the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 – today exactly 75 years ago – a world war, and the attack on the WTC on September 11, 2001 did not?

It was obviously not a matter of the number of casualties, respectively almost 2500 (Pearl Harbor) and about 3000 (WTC).

Networks of dominoes.

This study shows that the underlying structure of the System – the connectivity of issues between states, and the amount of tensions that have accumulated in the System, at the time of the attacks – determine the System’s response, including the size of the war the System can – and will – produce.

On December 7, 1941 the System was almost in a global critical condition, as analysis of the war dynamics clearly shows (see study). The attack by Japan added a ‘final’ domino, that connected the network of issues (dominoes) in the System and then triggered a global chain reaction.

Issues between states in the System can be understood al dominoes, that are more or less linked. The attack on Pearl Harbor further linked issues in a global network of issues. The attack on Pearl Harbor ‘linked’ issues in Asia with the war in Europe that was already in progress since 1939. Linkage of issues allows accompanying tensions to further reinforce each other. This linkage in fact caused the first ‘real’ world war.

Pearl Harbor: A world-wide network of dominoes and globalisation of the System.

In response to the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941, Germany – an ally of Japan – declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941, making the United States a ‘lynch pin’ between both so-called ‘theatres of war’ (Europe and Asia). Through this German decision, the United States crossed a ‘decision threshold’ (to positive war decisions), responded accordingly, and became one of the main players in the fourth systemic war (better known as the Second World War, 1939-1941).

December 11, 1941 can be considered the moment when the international System ‘globalised’. The linkage that was accomplished resulted in the merging of the core of the System (that is Europe) and its non-core (the rest of the world), and eventually (1945) resulted in the implementation of the fundaments of a non-anarchistic order in Europe (what would later become the European Union), and a first global international order (better known as the United Nations). This was a next step in a long-term process of social integration and expansion.

Development stage of the cycle.

As I explained in previous articles, systemic wars were in all cases preceded by relatively stable periods. A relatively stable period and the systemic war that follows make up a single cycle. The System produced four accelerating cycles during the period 1495-1945.

Each relatively stable period typically has a tipping point, when the average sizes of (non-systemic) wars start to decrease as a consequence of the high connectivity of the network of issues. However, the build-up of tensions still continues at that stage, causing the accumulation of unreleased tensions and unresolved issues in the System. Once the tipping point is passed, until the moment the systemic war starts, the System is ‘charging’ with tensions (energy). As I explained in a previous article, the high-tensions during this phase result in the radicalisation of political processes, and the search for increasingly radical ‘solutions’, to problems that are not very well understood.


This figure shows the typical life-cycle of a single cycle: A relatively stable period (international order) during which only ‘smaller’ non-systemic wars take place, is typically followed by a systemic war. During the systemic war the tensions (energy) that have accumulated in the System – during the ‘charging’ phase of the relatively stable period – are released. The energy that is released is used to find and implement an ‘upgraded’ order that again allows for a lower energy-state (that is a relatively stable period) of the System. In the figure I show what the condition – the developmental stage of the cycle – was on December 7, 1941 and September 11, 2001, as well as of the current (very troublesome) condition of the System, based on analysis of war data. On December 7, 1941 the System was in the fourth cycle (1918-1945), and in 2001 and 2016 in the first cycle (1945-2020) of the globalised System. On September 11, 2001, the relatively stable period (the current international order, the United Nations) had not yet reached its tipping point, issues were insufficiently connected to cause a system-wide domino-effect, and the System was not yet charged.

Crucial differences between ‘Pearl Harbor’ and ‘September 11’.

On September 11, 2001 the System had not yet reached the tipping point of the relatively stable period (of the international order, the United Nations) that is (still) in place. That tipping point was eventually reached in 2011, this study shows. At that point (2001) the System was insufficiently ‘charged’ with tensions to produce a systemic response (world war). At that stage insufficient issues between states had accumulated that already ‘percolated’ the System, and could cause a system-wide domino-effect.

In other words, the number of dominoes (and the amount of energy in the System) was insufficient to ‘trigger each other’ and cause a system-wide response.

To make sense of the (war) dynamics of the System, it is important to analyse and understand the condition of the ‘underlying’ network of issues (dominoes), and determine the level of tensions in the System.

The phase of development of a cycle, in combination with analysis of war dynamics (data) make it possible to make accurate assessments. The response of the System can be predicted: systemic or not; a world war (as triggered by ‘Pearl Harbor’) or ‘only’ a local response (as triggered by ‘September 11’).

However, the attack on September 11, 2001, of course had a significant impact on what I define as the ‘contingent domain’ of the System: it shaped (future) (re)actions and relations between states in the System, and furthermore provided a ‘stage’ and a ‘scenario’ (narrative) for the release of future tensions.

And are we (finally) making this step?

Events (like ‘Pearl Harbor’ and ‘September 11’) do not determine that we fight wars (to release tensions), but what we fight for, and in what direction our System will develop. Energy release – wars – are inherent to anarchistic systems in which the build-up of tensions is unavoidable. Until we find an urgently needed alternative for war.

This ‘case study’ shows that there is much more to say about war dynamics, and our ability to make sense of them, as is believed (and understood) so far. These insights should be used to control and eventually prevent wars.

It is time for a paradigm shift in historical and International Relations research methods, in order to make better sense of current developments, and act accordingly, to avoid a next disaster.