Explaining War, Part 1 (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 3)

Last week, we discussed the salient features of the international system, which allowed us to say something about the issues over which states disagree and (sometimes) fight: the placement of borders and who governs the territories within those borders. This week, we’re moving down one level, from the system as a whole to the disagreements that emerge between those states that populate the system. What we want to know now is why some of these disagreements are resolved violently while the majority are resolved peacefully. (This is “War and Peace in East Asia,” after all.) War is deadly, destructive, and wasteful, yet most of the time it produces something that states can have without having to fight first: a negotiated settlement. Why fight, only to produce a treaty that one could’ve written down beforehand and that doesn’t waste blood and treasure?

Answer number 1 below the fold…

Suppose two sides fight a border war, which is horrifically costly yet results in a border that’s barely moved. After the fact, both sides can look back and say, “It’s the same border we had before. Why did we just spill all that blood and treasure, and wreck a bunch of good farmland, just to sign an agreement we already had?” (Just think about this for a second. A surprising number of wars fit this characterization.) War, in this sense, entails ex post regret; you can always look back and see that you could’ve written the same agreement down before the war—and states often try pretty hard to strike a mutually acceptable bargain—but sometimes they fail to do so, touching off a war that both sides know will entail costs they regret paying. War destroys things, and signing a treaty saves those same things. So why fight?

Today, we’ll discuss the first of two answers to this question that we’ll use throughout the semester, most notably developed here (see also Phil Arena’s great discussion of Fearon’s paper here). The argument is subtle, and often misunderstood, so part of blogging about this—again—is an exercise in pedagogical thoroughness. We’ll call today’s answer to the inefficiency puzzle “information problems,” where war occurs because (a) states know things about the terms they’d accept in lieu of war but (b) can’t convince the other side when they’re being sincere—leading the other side to make an offer that’s too miserly and the state in question to go to war rather than accept the bad terms on the table. These two elements are crucial: without either one, we don’t get war, so let’s walk through them.

Let’s start with a simple example. Suppose that, if two countries fight a war each get a share of the land, but fighting costs blood, treasure, foregone investments, etc. Next, suppose that they both know both how much they’ll get *and* how much the war will cost them. As long as neither of them just *likes* taking insane risks, then the states shouldn’t have trouble dividing up the land. They both know about how much they’ll get if they fight, but there’s more to go around if they don’t; and since you’d rather save lives, money, and your military if you don’t have to use them, it’s an easy deal. Suppose that fighting only destroys the land you’re fighting over. Even if that’s the case, and you I would each get half of the land after fighting, we’d get half of a destroyed little cinder. Wouldn’t half of the original, non-war torn land be better? Absolutely. And as long as we both agree on the likely outcome of the war, that deal is easy to strike. We’ve got to add some other problems, some obstacles to this nice, efficient bargain, if we’re to see war in our little thought experiment.

So what if we don’t agree on the likely outcome of the war? What if I think I’ll capture a lot, and you a little, but you believe the opposite? Let’s say that our states have private information about the likely outcome of the war—say, how much they value the stakes, the quality and number of troops, the willingness of the population to sacrifice, the reliability of allies, etc.—that their opponents don’t know. In that case, we both know that there are bargains that would leave us better off than fighting out there (it’s not like we forgot that war is costly), but we don’t agree on what those bargains are. If your war plans are better or your tanks more effective than I believe they are, I’m likely to offer you too little in a bargain—and you’ll quite reasonably opt for a war to the crappy deal I put on the table. It’s not that I’m trying to provoke a war when I make this insufficient offer (far from it), but I face a tradeoff: the more I offer you, the more likely to are to accept a deal, but the less I have in the settlement. So, when I’m optimistic enough that you’re weak, I’ll take a risk of war in order to get a better deal if you do happen to accept. In this case, I make an offer that doesn’t jive with how much you think you can get from a war, so you reasonably choose war. That’s one part of the story: I underestimate your ability willingness to fight, make a miserly offer, and you turn out to be tough enough to go to war.

But we still need another pillar, because you probably already raised to yourself the critical objection (and one that, before Fearon’s piece, a lot of people missed): why can’t you just tell me that you’re strong, capable, and willing to fight? If so, I’ll know what I need to offer to avoid war, we strike a deal, and we’re both happy getting both more than we could’ve had we fought and saving all that blood and treasure. Good question: as it turns out, when I tell you how willing my country is to fight, you don’t have much incentive to believe me, because I’d especially want to convince you of this if I wasn’t willing to fight. If I could just say, “We’re tough! Give us the land!” and you’d believe me, then I’d say that whether it was true or not. So, when I say it, of course you don’t believe me. This is what we’ll call the “credibility problem,” where my incentive to lie, to bluff about my strength, creates for you an incentive to disbelieve. If you don’t believe me when I say I’m willing to fight over a certain issue, there’s only one way left to prove it and convince you to offer me a better deal: and that’s fighting.

So we have our first explanation for war, one that recognizes both is costs (its tragedy and futility, even) and the fact that it’s very often a conscious political decision, not an accident. War can occur when states have private information, leading to disagreements about the likely outcome of the war, and incentives to lie about just how willing they are to fight, bluffing in hopes of achieving a better deal. We talk about some specific, and specifically non-East Asian, examples in class, including the Iran-Iraq War the 1991 Persian Gulf War, to get the students used to thinking in terms of the theory but also to make sure that they’re not bringing in too much case knowledge to confront the theories—yet. That comes later.

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3 thoughts on “Explaining War, Part 1 (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 3)

  1. Pingback: Explaining War, Part 2 (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 3) | The Wolf Den

  2. Pingback: Exam Day in War and Peace in East Asia | The Wolf Den

  3. Pingback: The abrupt end of the Chinese Civil War (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 12) | The Wolf Den

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