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.

North and South Korea: Caught in the Turnover Trap?

It’s been hard over the last few weeks not to get caught up in the near-constant stream of gloriously hyperbolic threats and invective coming out of North Korea (especially in Austin, which appears to be one of several places targeted for destruction just this week). However, while the overheated rhetoric, retro nods to Cold War-era ideological struggles, and visionary mashups of “We Are the World” and Call of Duty may be uniquely North Korean, the situation in which the leaders of both North and South Korea find themselves is certainly not. In fact, it’s a special case of what in my own research I call “the turnover trap“: since neither Kim Jong Un nor Park Geun-hye have been in office very long, both have powerful incentives to ratchet up tensions on the peninsula, however little either side may actually wish for the pot to boil over into a fresh conflict.

The answer to all your questions, after the jump… Continue reading

What’s next in Venezuela? (Foreign policy-wise, of course.)

The Hugo Chavez era has ended in Venezuela, and I’m not going to wade into what’s already an extensive public debate about his legacy and what impending change means for Venezuela itself (see, for example, this, this, and this). Being the IR conflict guy that I am, I’m going to address a different question: what can we expect out of Venezuela’s next leader when it comes to foreign policy?

Whether Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor, wins the next round of elections or someone else does, we can already say quite a bit about what we can expect from a new Venezuelan leader by knowing only two things: first, the risk of losing office in a coup or revolution, and, second, the simple fact that whoever takes office will be new. Unfortunately, it’s possible that these things add up to a more belligerent foreign policy, at least with respect to regional rivals. (Bizarre fantasies aside, the prospects for war against the US are really pretty damned low.)

Let’s start with the first question. Giacomo Chiozza and Hein Goemans have shown that, while the risk of losing an election doesn’t do much to encourage leaders to fight, the risk of losing office through a coup or a revolution certainly does. So, if Maduro or some long-shot successor finds the risk of being toppled violently high enough, war might be the best way to ensure survival—by sending plotters to the front, cracking down on dissent, or disrupting bases of rebel or dissident support. Whatever the specific strategy, it does seem that an increased risk of a coup or revolution—more so than losing an election, which is easy to survive—also increases the risk of international conflict.

On the second issue, Venezuela will—no matter what—be led by a new executive whose resolve (or willingness to use force) is more or less unknown to Venezuela’s rivals. How does one demonstrate resolve? Words won’t do it, but fighting will. How do one’s rivals gauge one’s resolve? You guessed it: pressing them to see if they’ll fight. I call this “the turnover trap,” in which new leaders have an incentive to demonstrate resolve, hoping to cultivate a reputation for toughness, and their opponents have an incentive to test them—a potentially dangerous combination, both for the escalation of disputes and, as Toby Rider recently discovered, arms races.

So, regardless of who’s in office, Venezuela’s new leader is likely to be a bit more belligerent than a longer-serving leader, to the extent that (a) Venezuelan politics is a violent place (particularly for toppled leaders) and (b) there are opportunities to cultivate a reputation for resolve with one’s rivals. Here’s the good news, though. Not only is the probability of war at any given time pretty damned low, I’d wager that its neighbors, including Colombia, Guyana, and Dominica (all of which have ongoing border disputes with Venezuela) would be more likely targets of any conflict that does break out than the big superpower country way up North. (Rhetoric aside, of course.)

What could the UNSC actually do in Syria?

Russia and China are catching a lot of heat for preventing UN Security Council action on the Syrian Civil War, and sure, the other members of the P5 seem marginally more likely to want to see something done to bring the killing, the displacement, and the threat of contagion to a halt. Quite apart from whether it *will* act, though, I think it’s worth asking what the UNSC could actually do to bring an end to the fighting. To do that, we need to know something about the war’s likely course in the absence of any intervention and, second, what the UN could conceivably do in terms of changing that trajectory.

I’m going to argue, below the jump, that the UN’s “best” hope is to alter the course of the fighting, ensuring one side’s victory, rather than attempt to put together an unworkable settlement short of military victory.

Continue reading

Planning for a post-Assad Syria?

It looks as though at least some Syrians are looking ahead to the fall of the Assad government, hoping to ensure that ending Assad’s reign also ends the war. Sectarian strife seems to be a big worry—and perhaps rightly so—but it’s important to look at *why* we might see continuing violence on sectarian lines after the immediate objective of toppling the government is achieved. In other words, why would some rebels think that continued war is better than peace, even with Assad gone? Well, the answer isn’t necessarily about religion—it’s just as much about the politics of war.

If the war continues beyond the fall of the current government, my guess is that expectations about the future—beliefs about who’ll be in charge of what (and how effectively) in a new government—will be a big reason. The committee that put these recommendations together focuses in large part on repatriation, but they also mention a disarmament program that re-establishes the line between the military and civilians. In principle, this is necessary for being a modern nation-state, and while it’s hard to dispute in principle, it’s precisely this kind of provision that can cause serious problems for rebels that have to consider what their fates will be after they lay down their arms in apparent victory.

Put yourself, if you will, at the head of some rebel faction—defined geographically, religiously, ethnically, whatever—and think about the choice you face. Fighting is expensive and risky, but it gives you a chance to ensure by force of arms some favorable outcomes. On the other hand, laying down your arms and trusting in a new government makes you vulnerable—all the more so if you don’t trust that whoever’s in charge of the new government won’t use its monopoly on force to renege on whatever promises they made to get you into the peace agreement in the first place, shutting you out of the rights or privileges you were previously fighting for.

What does that mean? The success of any nationwide peace agreement—essentially, whatever the new constitution looks like—will depend on how well it commits the newly powerful to not taking advantage of the currently powerful once they return to civilian life. If any group feels that they’d be better off fighting than signing on to an agreement they don’t think will stick—that is, submitting to a government that they can’t trust not to victimize them—then we’ll have even more bloodshed. Yes, political allegiances often overlap with sectarian ones, but it’s important to note that it’s not religious differences themselves behind such a problem but basic questions of politics (who gets what, who makes those decisions, etc.). For the most part, each faction—however latent—currently fighting will need to have its military prospects reflected in any kind of postwar settlement that it’ll ultimately accept, and that means structuring a political settlement that reflects military realities. However much we like to think that peace and war can be separated, the former is best sustained when it reflects a good understanding of the latter.

A deleted scene from “Incumbents, Successors, and Crisis Bargaining”

More often than not, shepherding a paper through the publication process requires cutting things out we’d like to keep in (and, often enough for me, plenty of stuff that had no business being in there in the first place). In this particular case, I had to cut an extension of the model in “Incumbents, Successors, and Crisis Bargaining,” freshly in print at the Journal of Peace Research (and mentioned here), that just didn’t fit well with the rest of the paper. However, I think it’s an interesting look at the potential connections between leadership change and war, so I decided to post the deleted scene, as it were, here.

The essential point of this little extension is that, if we tweak some assumptions about (a) what leader change means for a country’s military prospects and (b) the extent to which war can “lock-in” a settlement into the future, we can get an additional leader-based explanation for war. Here, it’s successor-driven war, in which an incumbent known to be willing to make deep concessions is nonetheless attacked by an adversary, who prefers war in the present against an irresolute incumbent to the possibility of facing her much more resolute successor.

I’m not sure what I’ll do with this model just yet. If I end up putting the collection of leaders-and-war papers into a book, it may go there, but in the meantime, I think it’s a sufficiently interesting contribution to the literature on leaders and war that it merits—at the very least—a little shameless promotion on the blog.

Why the Syrian opposition isn’t negotiating…and why it makes perfect sense

I came across this story today about how the Syrian opposition, populated by an increasing number of former generals and high-ranking officials, has rejected the UN’s (via Kofi Annan) attempts to bring the belligerents together for peace talks aimed at ending the civil war in their country. While some readers may lament the fact that the opposition is turning down a chance at “peace,” or think that this says something about their ultimate aims in the conflict, I’m (obviously) going to dispute that here. In fact, we’ve got every reason to believe that under the current circumstances, any deal that leaves the current government even partially intact will be a non-starter, and reasonably so.

There are two reasons for this. First, as the article indicates, the opposition is starting to attract some more powerful defectors from the Assad regime, meaning that their relative power is likely on the rise, and they expect to do better in the future. Sitting down at the negotiating table now runs the risk of locking in an agreement that reflects the current military situation. However, the opposition clearly prefers fighting to whatever stopping now might look like, and they’re likely to require even more in the way of concessions from the top if they can continue to attract more defectors. This, of course, assumes that there would be some third party able to enforce a deal between government and opposition…

…which may not be all that likely.

That leads me to the second point. Even if the opposition didn’t think it could do better by fighting on rather than accept some UN-brokered deal, it probably has little reason to suspect that any deal agreed upon today would actually stick. If some new power-sharing agreement required either disarming or letting up on the military pressure it’s currently putting on the regime, then Assad’s government would be free to renege—it would certainly have the incentives and restored power to do so—and undo all the gains that the opposition won in the agreement. In other words, an agreement that would shift bargaining power away from the opposition wouldn’t be credible, and the opposition has every incentive to fight for a better deal than take the fool’s gold of a bargain that their enemies could renege on easily. (On the other hand, Assad’s government would probably also rather fight than give the opposition enough in a power-sharing agreement to take advantage of it in the future, too.)

In that sense, this isn’t unlike the Egyptian opposition’s refusal to leave the streets of Cairo in response to empty promises of reform last spring. What’s the point of all this, then? Well, first, as well-meaning as calls for negotiation might be, there’s little reason to expect that it’s in either party’s interest to participate in them in good faith. Second, any deal that would require the rebels to disarm in a power-sharing agreement likely just  won’t stick if there is some kind of attempt to implement it. And, finally, third party attempts to mediate or, especially, to impose a settlement aren’t likely to be all that stable…something we all might wish to keep in mind as the debate over what to do about Syria moves forward…