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.)

On things said for the sake of argument, or why “assumption” isn’t a four-letter word

I’m not going to rehash Phil Arena’s (excellent) post on the role—and ubiquity—of assumptions, but I do want to take the opportunity to talk about how I view the assumptions I make in my own work. Specifically, I want to make a case for why “assumptions” aren’t at all a necessary evil—rather, they’re a necessary and powerful good for doing the stuff of social science. I’ll make two points. First, they help us isolate causal mechanisms when we build theories, enabling us to develop expectations over when and why some set of factors can have an independent effect on an outcome of interest in the absence of some other factors—which helps when we move to empirical models. Second, and I’m repeating myself here (I think), they’re really the only things that we, as social scientists trying to explain the things we observe, bring to the table when it comes to building theories. So, yes, all assumptions are “false” in the sense that they strip away things we would think important if we were to create a complete rendition of something, but they’re also essential—and unavoidable—when it comes to the development of theories (whether formal or informal). Those things we assume away should always come back in our empirical models, to be sure, but I’ll also argue that we have a better sense of what those controls should be when we’re mindful of the assumptions we put into our theories.

First, on the issue of isolation, let’s say that I want to develop a theory of how some factor—say, leadership change—affects temporal patterns of international conflict. If I’m interested in whether there can be a valid link between leadership tenure and war (that is, a valid argument from premises to conclusion), what do I need to do? Let’s say, for example, that my hunch is that new leaders know more about their own willingness to use force than their opponents, such that they take office with private information over their resolve. How should I model this? Well, two things I’d want to do immediately are assume that, while consecutive leaders of the same state can differ in their resolve, there is no other source of variation in preferences that occurs with leader change, and, second, without leadership change, war would not occur in the theory. Do I think either of these are true? Well, of course not. First, partisan change, state-society dynamics, and time until the next election (in democracies) can also produce changes in state preferences across leadership transitions. Second, wars can of course happen for other reasons (if they didn’t, I’d be the first person with a valid argument about the causes of war, and while I’m a little arrogant, I ain’t that bad). But if I want to see what the independent effect leader change is, I can (and should, at this stage of model-building) strip these other things away—so that if war does happen in my model, I’ll know the mechanism driving it. (Put more pithily, if outcomes are overdetermined in your theory, you really can’t say much about the things you’re presumably interested in. And whether they are overdetermined in your theory is totally up to you.)

My next step, of course, is to analyze the model. This amounts to seeing what valid conclusions follow from my premises (assumptions)—no more, no less. Let’s say that I analyze the model and find that, indeed, when new leaders’ personal resolve is private information, we see turnover-driven cycles of reputation-building and conflict. But what do I really have here, if I’ve assumed away all these other sources of potential changes in state preferences? Well, I’ve got a somewhat parsimonious theory of leader change, tenure, and conflict behavior driven by a particular mechanism—reputation dynamics. I don’t have a theory of every possible cause of war, but what I do have is a sense of exactly what patterns my independent variable of interest (time in office) should have on some outcome variables of interest. I have this, notably, because nothing else apart from the proposed mechanism could have caused war in my theoretical model. My model isn’t the world, nor is it the historical record, and when it comes time to take my predictions to the data—to test them against the historical record—I’ll know some important things to control for on the right hand side of my regression: all the things I assumed away. Particularly, those things I believe will affect both temporal changes in state preferences and war should go into the empirical model as controls. That’s pretty useful, as far as I’m concerned. So by being intimately aware of what my theory assumes and what it doesn’t, I have strong expectations about the independent effects of my independent variables, controlling for other relevant factors, and I have an equally strong sense of what I need to control for. And by isolating the factors around my particular proposed causal mechanism/independent variable, I can also be sure that my proposed mechanism can do independent work on its own and the precise conditions under which I expect it to play out. With less precise (or, worse, hidden or implicit) assumptions—that is, with multiple things that could cause war under the same conditions—that would be much more (and unnecessarily) difficult.

Second—and I saved this one because it’s shorter—assumptions really are all we bring to the table when we build theories and try to explain things. If a model is just an argument, then assumptions are just premises—-i.e., things said for the sake of argument. Now, it’s true that if our assumptions can never hold (in my running example, if leaders are all the same in their resolve and it’s always well and publicly known) then my proposed mechanism won’t explain observed phenomena. Sure. That’s trivially true. But let’s think about the elements of our theory/argument; what’s it made up of? Premises, some logical connections drawn between them, and conclusions; in other words, assumptions, some logical connections drawn between them, and implications/hypotheses. The implications depend on the premises and the logic, so I’m clearly not adding hypotheses directly, and logic is, well, pretty much given; so my only contribution—the source of our creativity and power and, in very real sense, our ability to explain—are the premises I use as inputs into my theoretical construct.

That means I value my assumptions pretty highly—again, since I’m not trying to re-write the rules of logic, that’s what I’m really contributing here, and that’s as it should be. My goal in the not-so-hypothetical model above was to see how a particular factor influenced a particular outcome, independently of other factors, if at all; I wanted to know what would have to be true for the proposed relationship to exist. If I didn’t make a ton of false assumptions along the way, I’d get nowhere. But here’s the thing—everything I assumed away that could be related to both IV and DV must come back if I’m going to build an empirical model that controls for potential confounds or sources of spuriousness—but it’s just not necessary (or prudent) to include in the theoretical model I designed for my particular research question.

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

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.

Faulty arguments about the end of the Iraq War

I started writing this post quite some time ago and just found it in my “drafts” folder, so while it’s a little dated with respect to the news cycle, I still think it makes a useful point (not unrelated to this one) about how to assess the end of the Iraq War. So, enjoy.

So American troops are out of Iraq—a campaign promise has been fulfilled, soldiers are reunited with their families, and an unpopular war has been brought to a pretty anticlimactic close. It may have ended with a whimper militarily, but politically we’re already seeing a struggle over how to define the narrative, however popular ending the American presence in Iraq is with the majority of the voting public. Predictably, we’re seeing some accusations that the US has now “lost” Iraq, especially as the Shiite Prime Minister has ordered the arrest of a Sunni Vice President who’s now hiding out Kurdish territory.

Iraq, the story goes, might erupt into civil war, making it and the region worse off than they were before the invasion of 2003. Ergo, the US shouldn’t have withdrawn just yet. It shouldn’t surprise you that I’m going to call this a less-than-convincing argument. Presumably, by this line of thinking, the American presence might have prevented the current political crisis. (This, of course, ignores two facts: (a) the US and Iraq couldn’t reach an agreement on the retention of American troops in-country, and (b) the United States is honoring a commitment to withdraw when it is.) Still, traveling yesterday [I started writing this on December 29th – Ed.], I made the mistake of acknowledging what I do for a living and ended up in a conversation with some other delayed passengers about this very issue: has the US, by withdrawing now, somehow “lost” Iraq?

You can see where this is heading, but I did what any good academic should do: I disappointed by fellow travelers. By withdrawing now, I’m not inclined to say that the US has either “lost” nor “won” Iraq. In fact, the timing of the withdrawal may have very, very little to do with the answer to that question. Why? Because I’ve yet to see a convincing argument linking a lengthier American presence to something that would change the basic facts on the ground—the underlying issues in Iraq’s governing coalition—that have sparked the current political crisis and potential civil war. In short, remaining in Iraq wouldn’t have prevented the crisis; it would likely just delay it.

Yes, the United States’ presence might have made al-Maliki’s move of trying to imprison a Vice President impractical, preventing it from happening while American troops remained in the country. As soon as American troops left, then, al-Maliki might have moved against his rival because it was easier to do so. Fine, but it’s not clear to me that a similar move wouldn’t have been made following a US withdrawal that would occur at a later date. The issues at the heart of keeping Iraq together—Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds all trying to credibly promise not to exploit one another for advantage, the interference of neighbors like Iran and Turkey, etc.—would still be present whenever the US might choose to leave (at least, I’ve yet to be convinced otherwise). If that’s the case, then something like the current crisis would’ve happened if the US withdrew in 2010 or if it were to wait until sometime in 2012 or 2013.

What could the US have done in a further-extended occupation apart from delay the (somewhat) inevitable? I’m not sure, to be honest, because cajoling and lecturing and threatening weren’t going to do it. An Iraq with a pluralist government will have to deal with these issues as soon as it has to figure out how to govern itself as a sovereign country again. If that’s the case—if Iraqis were going to have to figure these things out whenever the United States left—then it’s hard to attribute anything but the timing of this political crisis (and, sure, potential civil war) to the American withdrawal. The US, at this point, couldn’t have forced a new regime on the country, nor could it have promised to guarantee peaceful power-sharing deals between these groups in light of an inevitable future withdrawal. If the basic issue here is groups in Iraq having trouble promising not to exploit one another when in power, then that’s just not something an extended American presence is likely to change.

And that, to me, is the key here: unless staying in Iraq could’ve solved the basic commitment problem at the heart of the current political crisis, ensuring that it wouldn’t pop up following withdrawal, then the simple timing of the final withdrawal really has nothing to say about whether we “won” or “lost” in Iraq. Sadly, the current issues might have just been inevitable.

Obama, Romney, and the Taliban

Thanks to Phil Arena, I saw two tweets from Andrew Exum today (both highly recommended blogs, by the way) that caught my eye:

abumuqawama
I wonder if Mitt Romney’s “no negotiations” stance actually strengthens the hand of the Obama Admin. as it negotiates with the Taliban.
1/17/12 6:57 AM
abumuqawama
In a way, Romney is the bad cop to Obama’s good cop in negotiations with the Taliban.
1/17/12 6:58 AM

As it happens, I just finished making revisions a “conditionally accepted” paper (this one) that relates pretty directly to this question (it’s also a topic dealt with in my dissertation and hinted at here, but gated): how does the threat of leadership change affect an incumbent’s international bargaining fortunes? Specifically, the question here is how the threat of Romney (more hawkish than Obama?) winning the presidency affects what Obama can get out of negotiations with the Taliban now.

What does this paper have to say about it? For the most part, the answer to this question turns on two things: (a) the extent of differences between the successor and the incumbent and (b) just how sensitive the incumbent’s electoral fortunes are to bargaining outcomes. I won’t get too heavily into the details of the model, but if we take it that Romney would be more willing to continue the war in Afghanistan than Obama (which we’re going to take the “no negotiations” position to represent), then we’ve got an intriguing possibility: something the paper calls “preemptive appeasement.”

Essentially, preemptive appeasement is softening one’s bargaining position in order to bolster a pliant incumbent in office, forestalling the rise of a more resolute successor that one would rather not deal with. If Romney will fight longer than Obama and the Taliban believe that playing ball with Obama will keep him in office through the next election, then they might well do so—trading some concessions now to increase the chances that Obama stays in office in return for extracting a better deal in 2013 than they would against Romney.

Of course, if they don’t think Obama can be bolstered in office with concessions—or if his reelection becomes a foregone conclusion–then their strategy will switch to one of getting what they can now, striking while the iron is hot, and the prospect of Romney waiting in the wings won’t have as much of an effect. Which is all to say that there may well be a pretty consequential connection between primary season, the pace of economic recovery, the general election, and the war in Afghanistan.

Stay tuned. I know I will.