War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 7

Today we dipped back a little deeper into theory, using the logic of commitment problems to understand a few salient things about the Long Chinese Civil War that touched off after the Revolution of 1911: specifically, its length and the extremity of each side’s war aims.

It’s often tempting to explain the former with the latter—the reading for today did just that—but the upshot of lecture was that something more fundamental can drive both: the fact that, to settle a civil war, one side must lay down its arms. Governments, after all, typically need to exercise a monopoly on the use of organized violence; and a settlement that leaves a rival military power intact is hardly a settlement. Given that civil wars end with a reestablishment of that monopoly, laying down arms for power-sharing or reintegration is an invitation for the newly minted government to go back on its promises, because it represents a basic shift in power that, as the now-exclusively armed side, it can’t resist the temptation to use. In other words, saying “C’mon, folks. Just lay down your arms and I’ll give you what you want” isn’t sufficient to secure an agreement.

What’s the result? Well, first, both sides will be driven to seek not settlement (power-sharing, etc.) but the whole of the pie—control of the government—because anything short of that is an agreement that won’t stick. Second, that means both sides fight on until military victory, leading to wars that would be longer if the same two belligerents could credibly commit to sharing power. Note, however, that it’s not a clash of ideologies driving this; it’s canny political actors who are choosing their goals and aims as they see fit (far more realistic, to my mind, than ideological automatons), given the strategic environment and constraints in which they and their opponents find themselves.

Can we tell a story about leaders being hamstrung to follow international or external ideological programs by domestic pressure, leading to extreme demands? Sure. But it’s worth noting that we can explain both extreme aims and long, destructive civil wars without reference to ideological clashes; rather, the commitment problem might explain why extreme political programs become so attractive during civil wars.

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