When class meets current events, Causes of War edition

With the university closed Tuesday morning due to weather (which is becoming something like a routine around here), I was granted a couple of more days to think about just how I’d address the crisis in Ukraine in my Causes of War class. In the intervening time, I was fortunate enough to see Jay Ulfelder’s post, “This Is Not a Drill,” and to have some lengthy discussions with colleagues about what, if anything, to say responsibly during a highly fluid—and potentially high-stakes—situation that bears pretty directly on the topic of my class. (And not only the class, as I’ll mention below: the very unit we’re in the middle of.)

One option in situations like this is, of course, to say nothing. “Folks, the schedule says we’re going to talk about Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941, so, by damn, that’s what we’re going to do.” There’s a lot to be said for that approach, to be frank: this early in any crisis, we know so very little about what’s actually happening on the ground, much less why these things are happening. Speculation is always in tremendous supply, and, entertainingly, often preceded by “I don’t want to speculate, but…”

However, I decided today while crafting a response to an email from a student asking about the crisis that, even in a tide of speculation, there’s still something to be said for analysis, or at least rigorous thinking, in light of the few things we do know. If nothing else, it gives us a guide for understanding subsequent events and a few things to look for.

So I’ve decided to talk about Ukraine. The next question, of course, is what to say. As it happens, the class is currently deep into thinking about the use of military force in response to commitment problems (e.g., here and here). We’ve been analyzing when countries will attack, invade, or occupy one another as a way to arrest or prevent a process of declining bargaining leverage that would invalidate deals that are otherwise perfectly acceptable in the present. The use of force may be costly up front, but states may nonetheless opt for it when those costs are are preferable to watching today’s bargain (the status quo) wither away in the future.

Part of our exercise will be to identify these motives in Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941, when it calculated that its naval power would be as close to that of the United States’ as it ever would be. Then, the question will be whether Russia might be intervening in Ukraine’s messy domestic situation to arrest its own potentially declining bargaining leverage. If we look at the current situation, it’s possible (though, of course, not yet definitive) that we see another species of commitment problem (and, of course, not one producing an attack on another great power, as we saw in 1941). Here’s how:

  1. Ukraine’s domestic upheaval might herald a prolonged shift to the West.
  2. Russia has secured basing rights in the Crimea (which it ceded to Ukraine in 1954), most notably at the port of Sevastopol—rights it would like to protect. These rights aren’t under direct threat now, but…
  3. If a Westward tilt in Ukrainian politics would erode Ukraine’s commitment to honoring leasing agreements, then the current deal might be ever more difficult to keep in place.
  4. Alternatively, if a descent into deeper political chaos were to occur, the current deal might be ever more difficult to keep in place.
  5. If either or both of (3) and (4) would lead to an abrogation of Russian rights in Crimea, and if the consequences of losing of those rights would be greater than the costs of using force (roughly), then Russia’ decision to occupy the region could plausibly be read as a response to a basic commitment problem.

Does that mean Russian actions have derived entirely from the desire to prevent the loss of military privileges in Ukraine? Maybe not, but this is a plausible story consistent with the facts as we (think we) know them. At a minimum, thinking in these terms can tell us where to look if, indeed, this is a response Russia’s expected “loss” of Crimea; if we’re looking at a commitment problem, Russian actions would be designed to secure access to Sevastopol, etc., in the event of further domestic change in Ukraine. How might that be achieved? More autonomy for Crimea? Reversal of the current process of domestic change? A renegotiated treaty? It’s difficult to say at this point, but putting a little structure on otherwise confusing events can’t hurt—as long, of course, as we’re willing to adjust that little bit of structure as required by the emergence of new facts.

And I’m sure my students will make sure that I keep an eye out for just such an eventuality.

The Laws of Neutrality in War – Redux

I’m currently on the way to UC Merced to present the same paper I gave at Maryland last week, so I won’t belabor this, because I haven’t gotten around to incorporating last week’s (excellent) feedback yet. However, I’m pretty excited at the prospect of getting feedback on such an early project twice in such quick succession. Just to make sure this isn’t just so much airport-terminal-boredom-blogging, I’ll keep it short.

That said, it’s worth noting that, when it comes to my WWI course next fall, the German decision to violate Belgian neutrality will certainly play a large part, not because it’s a notable violation of neutrality but because my theory doesn’t see it as a failure of the laws of neutrality per se (even if it is a failure, so to speak, of legal deterrence). Rather, the law might’ve done a very important job by making British intervention easier than it would’ve been otherwise.

Yep. The laws of neutrality might be successful even when they’re violated, and even when the countries ostensibly “punishing” violations care very little about the principle of neutrality.

For the details, I’ll just point you to the paper (generally updated) on this page.

In the meantime, I’ve got some local Minnesotan beer to sample…

Teaching WWI in real time (a hundred years later)

I’m developing a new undergraduate course for the fall, one that, in a very real way, can only be taught in the fall of 2014: The First World War in Real Time (A Hundred Years Later). I came to this idea a few months ago after spending, as anyone aware of my social media presence knows, a lot of time reading about the war over the last year or two. The plan is, after starting with The July Crisis and the outbreak of the war, the topics of the course will be dictated by what, exactly, had been happening that same week (roughly) one hundred years before: from Tannenberg and the Battle of the Frontiers to First Marne, from the strains of coalition warfare to the setting of war aims, and from the link between war and diplomacy to the domestic politics of mobilization and popular support. And that’s not even getting into all the alliance politics, logics of preventive war, decisions about war expansion, and the politics of the laws of neutrality, etc. that the course just begins with.

Can you tell I’m excited about this?

You might also notice that I’m posting about it well in advance. Part of the motivation here is to blog about my progress in preparing the course, to share ideas about the war, to work out possible paper topics that come out of it (War and Peace in East Asia, after all, did lead to my latest stuff on the laws of neutrality), and to get used to blogging regularly enough that I can maintain the commitment throughout the semester. So I’m hoping that these posts will be about teaching, research, the link between the two, prepping and developing courses, and, as well, a way to do something useful with my fascination for The Great War. If it works, there are certainly follow-on courses—1915 and the stabilization of the Western Front, 1916 and the Battles of Verdun and the Somme, 1917 with Russian implosion and American intervention, 1918 and war termination…you get the picture.

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So I’m embarking on this project a little publicly, and hopefully it won’t just be me promoting a class about a war that most of my friends are probably (and rightly) tired of hearing me go on and on about. Should be fun.

A theory of neutrality rights in war – paper and slides

I’m giving a talk today at Maryland on a topic that’s pretty new to me—the laws of neutrality in war—though I guess I did hint about the genesis of this project several months ago. It’s a project that’s in its early stages, but it’s one I’m sufficiently excited about to publicize a bit, so here are links to a draft of the paper and the slides I’ll be using to confuse the audience today.

As I’m also hesitant to give said talk unshowered and in a *very* rumpled shirt, I’m cutting this short. Hopefully, though, there’ll be more to report in the days ahead.

The end of the Chinese Civil War (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 12)

After a brief blogging break (giving a talk, then giving an exam), Part II of the course got started today, where we set the stage for the rest of the narrative by examining the end of the Chinese Civil War.

In what was (sadly, if you ask me) be the last reading by Paine for the course (Chapter 8), we were treated to the puzzle of why the war ended when and how it did—that is, while the Nationalists could still muster substantial fighting forces and with a rapid Nationalist retreat to Taiwan. Paine identifies, yet explains separately, three events that are part of the puzzle:

  1. Increasing defections of army units to the Communist side
  2. A public rapidly shifting its support to the Communists
  3. A hasty retreat to Taiwan before total military defeat

The task in class today was to see whether we couldn’t explain all three of these things with the same moving parts—and with fewer than Paine does. For the most part, I think we succeeded, because the key to understanding each of these events is, I think, the conversion of the Communists into a conventional military force and the related string of rapid and sizable battlefield victories. This, we concluded, revealed some important information about the likely outcome of a fight to the finish—in particular, that the Nationalist prospects in such a fight would be none too great.

As a result, we saw (a) more of the public being willing to side with the Communists, as individuals were more confident that others would be doing the same thing; (b) military units and their generals thinking along similar lines, hoping to preserve their authority and forces intact; and (c), finally, the Nationalist leadership realizing that cutting their losses and retreating to the relative safety of Taiwan was optimal.

In the end, we’ve got a story about battlefield outcomes revealing information that, in the case of the Nationalist retreat straightforwardly encourage an end to the fighting, but this is pretty conventional (see, inter aliahere, here, and here). What I found interesting was the apparent second-order effects of the same information—that is, raised estimates of the likelihood of ultimate communist victory—on the public and the military. In both cases, it seems there were those who could be swayed to defect, but only if they weren’t the only one to do so, and once such a clear public signal emerged of the relative strengths of the belligerents in the civil war, we saw large and massive—even unexpected, from some perspectives—defections that contributed to the rapid collapse Nationalist resistance and the end of the war.

I wonder if any other work has looked at these second order effects…

Showing Restraint, Signaling Resolve (talk slides)

In lieu of lecture musings today, I’m posting the slides (PDF) for my talk this afternoon as part of Rochester’s Watson Seminar Series. I’ve presented this particular paper around quite a bit, and the theoretical model is coming out (soon, I hope) at AJPS, but the empirics are new and part of the effort to integrate this model and a few others into a book manuscript. I’m slowly learning how to fit both theoretical and empirical models into a talk and do it well—we’ll see how close I get to that goal this afternoon.

The preventive motive behind Pearl Harbor (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 9)

Sometimes lectures write themselves. Unsurprisingly, I like it when that happens.

Today, we focused on Japan’s decision to expand its regional war, focused on pacifying China through the late 1930s, into a global war by attacking not only Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 but, in the same timeframe, Thailand, Malaya, The Philippines, Wake Island, Guam, Hong Kong, and the International Settlement at Shanghai. Knowing that the first target would likely draw the United States into the war—though hoping to cause a significant delay—why would Japan turn some of its focus away from its main theater in China?

This won’t come as much of a surprise to IR folks, but Paine’s account of the decision framed it quite well as an escalation of the war driven by a commitment problem—specifically, the fact that the United States, which has been mobilizing for a while and had embarked on building a two-ocean navy, would soon outstrip Japan in naval power; Japan’s leaders calculated roughly even odds of defeating the United States by late 1941, given their respective shipbuilding programs and future potential, followed by a sharp decline—which would allow the US to prevent the fall of China, which Japan had long viewed as critical to its survival as a great power.

In fact, the United States made a series of peace proposals before December’s attack, most of which involved withdrawals from China—but which, ex post, were clearly preferable to the outcome of the war. Why didn’t Japan cut such a deal? Paine is worth quoting here:

[P]eace on American terms, entailing a withdrawal from China, would lead to the gradual impoverishment of Japan and would undo the efforts of generations of Japanese to transform their country into a modern power. War with the United States, on the other hand, offered a 50-50 chance of success (p. 185)

In other words, cutting a deal would allow US power in the region to grow unchecked, and such increased power could be used, down the road, to force Japan out of China anyway. If the worst outcome of a war would be similar, then rolling the dice before military prospects got worse—as Japan’s leadership expected—might’ve looked pretty attractive.

Interestingly, we’ve also got a story about the timing of war in the shadow of shifting power, but rather than the typical rising-declining state story, we’ve got one where in the late 1930s Japan expects to improve in the short term—so it waits before attempting a knockout blow—but to decline in the long term. So while some work finds that there’s no particular time during a shift in power that’s more war-prone than others, I wonder if taking a step back temporally, considering a short-term versus long-term changes in power, might alter those expectations…