The Return of World War I in Real Time (WWI in Real Time II, Lecture 1)

I started the 1915 version of World War I in Real Time today (syllabus here), and apart from getting to talk even longer during the “how did we get here” first part of the lecture, it was like riding a bicycle—if that bicycle pedaled itself, dispensed beer, played Pearl Jam, and charged a cellphone. I can’t wait to get back into this class.

Not much to note about this first lecture, apart from having a full extra year’s worth of table setting to draw the class in on the first day: Japan, Turkey, and Italy joining the war; Japan’s note to China; Gallipoli and the Arab Revolt; the British blockade; the Lusitania, the Arabic, unrestricted German submarine warfare, and the stirrings of American sentiment for war. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something in the retelling, but it’ll be interesting to see if the “real time” hook works as well this time, given that I’m doing even more violence to the real time conceit than I did in 2014.

It’s allowed some changes that I’m happy with, though: some less than satisfying lectures jettisoned, new ones brought in on new topics (especially on the empires in the war and fighting outside Europe), a more clearly defined set of and role for writing assignments, etc. More in this space to come, though until we get into new lectures, it’ll mostly be inside-baseball stuff on the teaching side.

More on the Iran deal: Living with (and without) coalition partners

Two days ago, I posted some thoughts about how to judge this week’s deal between Iran and a coalition of great (and some maybe not so great) powers. One of the important questions I said needed to be answered involved something that virtually none of the popular criticism of the deal has mentioned: the coalition of large economies that had been leading the sanctions regime alongside the United States. Especially for the hawkish end of the critic spectrum, the argument seems to boil down to “well, the US should’ve done more.”—more sanctions, more chest-thumping, more apocalyptic language, more…well, something equated with “tough,” unilateral (I guess) action.[1] Keeping in mind that “more” is pretty ambiguous here (just to be clear, “more tough stuff” isn’t exactly a policy alternative), let’s take these criticisms at face value. Could the US have been tougher on Iran? I’m going to argue that the answer is “maybe not,” and, further, that the current level of “tough” might still be a better option than the US trying to do “more” without the support of the coalition.

The key, as I see it, is the centrality of that great power coalition, the P5+1, in actually applying coercive leverage to Iran. In my forthcoming book, The Politics of Military Coalitions, I build and test some theories about just how countries build coalitions, what it takes to keep them together, and what they mean for coercive diplomacy. I’ll draw on some insights, especially from Chapter 4, to argue that, even when some partners force you to “water down” your threats, you might still be better off that way than doing something on your own would be even less effective.

The short version of the argument the P5+1 coalition goes something like this:

  1. The US can’t pressure Iran effectively unless other big countries impose sanctions, too. Otherwise, Iran can just buy stuff from/sell stuff to the other big economies. So, just like the US couldn’t invade Iran without the cooperation of nearby countries, it can’t cripple Iran economically by itself, either.[2]
  2. So, if Iran is to be made uncomfortable in pursuing nuclear weapons and thus tempted to give up materials and allow inspections, the US has to keep the coalition together.
  3. Keeping the coalition together means adjusting strategies to account for the fact that Russia, China, and the European partners can’t keep with the sanctions for as long as the United States can (economically or politically). In other words, to successfully deal with Iran, the US has to first deal with its own coalition partners, because it can’t achieve the kind of leverage it wants and needs on its own.
  4. So, if a state can’t go it alone at an acceptable price, sometimes it has to sacrifice the pie-in-the-sky really “tough” strategy for a less-tough one in order to keep the source of its leverage (the coalition) in place. Nonetheless, if it’s practically impossible to be as tough as one wants to be when going it alone, then the watered-down threats coming from the coalition are still better than the next best alternative.

All of this, of course, is built around the idea that the P5+1 coalition is central to the strategy of sanctioning Iran for pursuing nuclear weapons—and given the nature of sanctions, trade, and the global economy, I think that’s eminently reasonable. (It also assumes that a full-scale war is unattractive, which—bluster aside—even most hawks acknowledge.) If the US doesn’t keep the coalition together, say by delaying a deal and allowing some partners to reach the breaking point at which they opt out (which may be quite close), then it ends up with no more leverage over Iran and nothing to show for all the work in these last nine or so years since the P5+1 really got going. Keeping the coalition together does sometimes require showing more restraint than coalition leaders like, but if coalition partners are that critical for the leverage in the first place, there really isn’t a “more tough stuff” option out there. Again, it all comes down to choosing the right basis for comparison: an a unilateral sanctions regime is probably not the most effective option out there.

In other words, hopes and wishes aside, sometimes “more tough” just isn’t on the table without being tremendously counterproductive. Even when coalition partners are skittish, difficult, inconsistent, and miserly, they’re oftentimes worth the compromise.

[1] Sure, some of this comes from hawks who want more “tough” because, well, they’re hawks and that’s what they do: talk tough. Those are minds I won’t change. I’m fine with that.

[2] This, of course, sets aside the idea that the best way to make a country want nukes to defend itself is to give it a reason to want to defend itself—like attacking it.

How should we judge the Iran deal?

Before we get going, a disclaimer. I’m going to lay out a reasonable way to judge the deal struck this week between the P5+1 and Iran over its nuclear ambitions. I’ll get to my own tentative assessment later (maybe in another post), but for now it’s worth noting that the process I use to evaluate an international bargain is not guided by the answer I want to end up with.

(Isn’t it said that I have to clarify this? But with the state of discourse being what it is…

AmbJohnBolton
The #IranDeal is a diplomatic Waterloo, it will pave the way for a #NuclearIran
7/14/15, 6:33 AM

…I feel like this bit of information is critical. Waterloo?

LawDavF
Didn’t we win Waterloo? So must be good. https://t.co/LMCylUqeph
7/14/15, 7:03 AM

My thoughts exactly.)

So, as always when a political scientist talks about politics, this post will probably be as notable for what it doesn’t mention as for what it does.

I got an email from my mother today: “What do you think of the Iran deal?”

Before I answered, I had to sit down and think about how to judge the deal right now, and I came up with three requisites—three questions one needs to address in order to really have a good answer to the question. (And by “good” I mean something intellectually useful, coherent, sound, and, well, responsible. And not partisan.) So here are those three questions that, it seems to me, any good judgment of the Iran deal has to have answers for:

  1. What’s the likely consequence of the current deal at some arbitrary time point in the future? (In other words, with the phased easing of sanctions tied to verified compliance, what do we expect to see vis-a-vis Iran’s weapons program in the next five years? How easy will it be to catch noncompliance, then rally support for punishment? Will it be easier than in the absence of an agreement?)
  2. Where are we likely to be (say, in five years) if, as sometimes suggested, the United States tries to solve this problem by launching a war? (What outcome would it take to end nuclear ambitions in Iran? Would the public be in for that kind of campaign? And would it even work—i.e., what if getting attacked when one doesn’t have nukes really makes one want nukes? What’s the risk of starting a bigger regional or global war? Would the P5+1 coalition stay together? How would it affect our ability to fry bigger fish, like the looming Russian threat to Eastern Europe and a potential arms race in East Asia?)
  3. What’s the likely scenario (in five years, say) if we do nothing and maintain the status quo? (Would the coalition behind the sanctions regime hold together despite the cracks already beginning to show? How easy would it be for Iran to take the final step to weaponization? If Iran got too close, how easy would it be to rally the required support, compared to under the new agreement? And let’s just say, for the sake of everyone’s sanity, that we don’t trust elected officials or their appointees to tell us what the timeline for breakout is, okay?)

The key is that we need to compare the deal just struck not to an “optimal” deal (whatever that is), not to a best-case war that magically eliminates both a nuclear program and the desire to carry it out successfully, but to the most realistic alternatives—and their likely consequences. Here, that means (a) the war that hawks have been clamoring for and (b) the continuation (and likely degradation) of the status quo sanctions regime.

Reasonable people can answer each of these responsibly and come to different conclusions—though of course I’d defend mine as more reasonable—but it seems to me that a serious debate about the merits of the deal has to begin with answers to these questions before we get to any others.

Looking back on WWI in Real Time

After a few weeks of reflection following a semester of teaching World War I in Real Time—which, by the way, was insanely fun—I figured that a few broader observations about the course, as opposed to the war itself, were in order. It was, after all, a unique experience for me as a teacher.

  1. The topic itself [just part of one war? in real time? what was I thinking?] might’ve seemed narrow, but the sheer breadth of theories of politics we covered was actually pretty remarkable; the war was overflowing with puzzles to be solved. Collective action, bargaining and war (several variants thereof), coordination problems, coalition- and alliance-building, international law, state-society bargaining, war expansion and duration…the list went on. And I think that the history of a single event provided a sufficiently common substantive vocabulary in the room that teaching a wider range of theories was *easier* than it would’ve otherwise been.

  2. At the same time, it’s always a bit staggering that we can use so few strategic problems to explain or gain insight into so many questions about politics.

  3. Also, the right draw of students can do a lot for the quality of the course.

  4. Blogging a course wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected, but it’s surely a grind. Still, whether I wrote the posts right before a lecture or right after, I found that I almost always got something out of it. Teaching two grad courses this spring, I’m not sure just how much of the same style of blogging I’ll be doing, but I do hope that I can keep up the habit.

  5. I firmed up some ideas about what it looks like when I’m at my best in the classroom, largely because (a) the blogging forced me to put some structure to lectures I otherwise might not have and (b) I was seeking out a new question to ask, a new puzzle to solve, in class nearly every week. It even carried over to the other course I was teaching at the same time.

Of course, there’s still one question left to ask: would I teach this course again? Absolutely. In fact, it’s in the queue for Fall 2015. Sure, it’ll look a bit different, and maybe only the last third will be straight-up fall 1915 events “in real time,” *but* the selection of material from 1914 that opens the course will be pretty lean and pretty damned mean. (Of course, holding on to the best of that set of lectures will also cut down on new stuff to prep—and that’s tough to complain about.)

Until then, we’ll see just how reliable I can be about blogging the teaching of a grad course on Research in International Relations…

Why did the Great War last so long? (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 24)

When it comes to international politics, World War I pretty much has it all. That’s a blessing in some ways—there’s lots to be puzzled by, to explain, and to learn from—but in others, it’s not so great: any one event looks overdetermined when you look closely enough, and it’s inferentially impossible to prize some explanations over others. That said, we spent some time today talking about why the war lasted as long as it did. We finish the “real time” part of the course in December 1914/2014, but there were/are 46 more months of war to go. Why, after Germany’s defeat at the Marne, the onset of trench warfare on the Western Front, and the stalemating of the East, did the war continue until 1918? After all, while Germany suspected it was beaten in December 1914, it pretty much knew that it was in December 1917…and yet the war dragged on.

There’s a lot to draw on here, and if you want some accessible treatments of war termination in general check out this and this (both of which figure prominently in today’s story). To summarize the discussion, though, we emphasized that wars often end when fighting solves the problem that stood in the way of a settlement in the first place. When wars are driven by commitment problems, for example, they tend to end when either (a) commitments are made credible by removing incentives or abilities to renege or (b) the source of incentives to renegotiate (like rising power) are eliminated. This, of course, tends to push states towards particularly extreme war aims, from dismembering states to “ending” them as great powers to replacing their governments. On the other hand, when wars begin with states disagreeing about how a total war would play out, they end once fighting produces sufficient agreement that both sides can agree to save the costs of further fighting. (This happens a lot; there’s a damned good reason the vast majority of wars end short of what we talk about colloquially as military “victory.”)

Our first step was to see if these stories helped us explain why the war lasted so long, and they got us pretty far. Germany, for its part, was fighting a preventive war against Russia and its French ally, the solution for which was ending their run as great powers. The British, likewise, were fighting to make Germany’s commitment not to dominate the Continent credible. Both, of course, drive war aims towards totality, because solving them requires the ability to dictate some pretty harsh terms—terms you can only successfully dictate when your opponent is well and truly prostrate. Defeating an army in the field, especially when prevailing technology and doctrine favor the defense, simply takes a long time, and that helps explain why the war was so long. Total-ish aims didn’t come out of nowhere (though plenty of scholarship acts like they do), and here they emerged from commitment problems. Nice. Okay. One factor in favor of a long war.

But what about information problems? Some work argues that information problems can’t be a compelling account of long wars (here, here), but—especially in the case of WWI—I’m not sure that’s so hard and fast. Consider what our belligerents were uncertain about: the ability to hold out, to wage an attritional conflict by sustaining a war effort that drew over and over from a limited pool of labor and manpower, to bring (and keep) the whole of the population into the war effort, to outlast the other on the way to a “peace of exhaustion.” As opposed to valuations of the prize, per-battle chances of winning, or per-battle costs of fighting, it seems that the only way to prove how long one can hold out is to…well, hold out. In that sense, uncertainty over which side could sustain mobilization likely kept the war long as well—fighting before full mobilization wouldn’t be revelatory (and those involved knew this), but after that (1916, roughly), verbal claims of one’s ability to outlast the other simply couldn’t be credible. Fighting on was the only way to demonstrate that one could fight on, and that likely lengthened the war as well.

However, one can argue that this only gets us so far. By late 1917, with American troops arriving en masse to negate whatever advantages Germany won from the Russian separate peace, the game was clearly up; even gambling to try to hold on to parts of Belgium was likely a dead letter. Why did Germany still fight on? One possible answer is that the German elite was “gambling for resurrection“; expecting a pretty grim personal fate if they settled short of victory, they opted to throw everything into a pair of desperate gambles (unrestricted submarine warfare, then Operation Michael) that bet everything on slim chances of victory. After all, if peace would be disastrous, while the worst possible outcome of fighting on was also a disaster—why not fight and hope for a slim chance of survival?

It’s possible, then, that the commitment problems that drove belligerents to seek military victory, as well as the informational obstacles to judging the relative chances of success in a war of attrition, could explain why the war was a long one. However, why it ended in 1918—and in the way that it did, with a precipitous bottom-up collapse of the will to resist on the front lines—might require an appreciation of the fates awaiting the German leadership (at this point, dominated by the Army) if they did what in 1917 an outside observer might expect of them: settling on Allied terms.

What made the Western Front the “decisive” one? (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 22)

We spent Tuesday (a lecture about which I forgot to blog) talking about the expansion of the war, particularly the decisions made by neutrals like Italy, the Ottoman Empire, and (later) the United States to join the war. Today, though, by zeroing in on other neutrals like Romania and Bulgaria, we might have stumbled across an interesting explanation for why the Western Front was the decisive one of the war—not because it was fated to be so, but because of some key strategic problems posed by the two-front nature of Germany’s war. Here’s how.

Suppose, first, that Germany has two goals (among many, of course): fighting an attritional materialschlacht in the West, where decision—though delayed—is possible against the Western Allies, while ensuring that Eastern neutrals like Bulgaria and Romania don’t jump over into the allied camp. Second, suppose further that Germany expects that many neutrals’ decisions will be driven by which side is believed likely to win on the Eastern Front (Hastings has a discussion of this in Chapter 16), beliefs that Germany is in a position to shape as the Dual Monarchy’s armies stagger from disaster to disaster in Galicia and Serbia. To pursue its goals, Germany has an allocation decision to make: how many of a limited number of troops should it send to each front?

Faced with this problem, Germany weakened its forces in the west, ensuring that breakthroughs, if possible, couldn’t be turned into broader successes, sending troops to shore up Austro-Hungarian forces fighting the Russians. Germany is often criticized for this diversion of attention from the “decisive” Western Front, but I’m not sure that’s the right way to think about this. Consider, for example, what would happen if Germany threw its whole effort into the West; a possible Hapsburg collapse, a cascade of neutrals bandwagoning with the Allies, and disaster in the East—which, of course, would make the East the decisive front. On the other hand, if Germany focuses too much on the East, the Western Front can’t sustain attrition, and the Western Allies might win. Faced with the prospect of full-on defeat on one front or the other, Germany accepted an attritional stalemate on both. Stopping a loss in the East, it prevented (in the short term) critical neutrals from taking undesirable actions, but doing so required stalemating the West at the same time. However, had it taken the frequently-given ex post advice of concentrating in the West, the Eastern Front might well have been decisive. In short, the Western Front was decisive in equilibrium, but it wasn’t fated to be so.

Interesting right? Germany and the Allies all bet on attrition in the West, horrific as it was, because (a) the Allies had no better options, and (b) nor did the Central powers, who chose to make the stalemated West the critical front rather than an Eastern Front that might have turned out worse under another strategy. This also means that, in a way, Bulgaria and Romania, at least early on, played a role in which front would be decisive in the Great War before either fired a shot. Is it any wonder that no one really likes fighting two-front wars?

Comparing the Eastern and Western Fronts (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 20)

After a break to take the second exam last Thursday (a break in which I forgot to do a “let’s look back” filler piece), we spend some time today on the Eastern Front, which—if I’m being honest—I’ve short-shrifted a bit in the course thus far. That’s too bad, because I think we can use the Eastern Front to learn a lot about the reasons behind the consuming indecisiveness of the war’s early years…on both fronts.

Last week, we showed why military technology and the strategic environment produced an attritional equilibrium on the Western Front, where each side sought to return to mobile warfare but was unable to do so without opening up its own lines to the breach that the opponent’s (similar) strategy denied it. The end result, of course, was a long period in which a military decision was impossible. Two factors often put up to explain the lack of decision on the battlefield are (a) the compactness of the Western Front, where ratios of soldiers per mile were always higher than the East, and (b) a lack of “imagination” amongst each side’s commanders—that is, the lack of an appropriate strategy. However, in class today we show that neither of these is a terribly strong explanation for the lack of decision, because the Eastern Front was, while much longer and less densely-manned and home to a wider variety of tactical combinations, almost equally indecisive.

The Eastern Front was never as deeply entrenched or as static as the Western, meaning that the fighting was certainly more mobile; commanders had the room in which to maneuver their troops, and whether or not we call it incompetence, we saw a variety of attempts to break the stalemate that the belligerents on the Western front didn’t have available. Nonetheless, with cities changing hands back and forth in both East Prussia and Galicia, as well as Russian Poland, the reality of modern firepower and the limits of logistics in newly-captured territories ensured that, as in the West, no local successes could be converted into a genuine, sustained breakthrough—that is, into a more general success.

Thus, even though it wasn’t as static as the Western Front, the war in the East was still one of reserves, indecision, and grignotage—of attrition, albeit with a different face. Only when reserves and populations were used up, pulled out of the line by collapse or by exhaustion (or, you know, the Bolshevik Revolution), did the character of the war in the East change. Years later, with the wearing-down of German reserves in the face of Allied weight of numbers, similar factors would presage the end of the war in the West…the length of the front or “imaginations” of the generals notwithstanding.*

* For one of the best accounts of the similarities on Eastern and Western Fronts, check  out William Philpott’s War of Attrition. It’s excellent.