Explaining War, Part 2 (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 4)

Two days ago, we developed our first answer to the inefficiency puzzle of war. If war is the costliest way to resolve disputes, while negotiations (which themselves typically follow war) are cheaper (if you can use them first to get to the same outcome), why fight? Our first answer involved disagreements about the likely outcome of the war and communication difficulties that stood in the way of creating agreement (the information problems explanation), but today we focus on a second broad answer to the puzzle: war as a commitment problem (for academic treatments, see this and this.)

(Before we get going on that, though, a quick note is in order: the inefficiency puzzle is a difficult one to grasp. When we say that war is inefficient, we don’t mean that the costs always outweigh the benefits; we only mean that the costs (a) exist and are (b) less than the costs of negotiations that can produce the same result as fighting. In fact, if both sides are fighting over something they didn’t have beforehand, they can both be better off than they were at peace, yet the war would still be inefficient—the belligerents still destroyed stuff to divide this new thing up rather than divide it up without destroying that stuff. I digress, but, students, take note: this is a difficult and subtle point, so don’t assume you’ve internalized it just yet. Keep thinking about it.)

Now, on to the topic of the day. How else might we explain why war occurs if not by information problems? Our second main answer to the problem derives from two facts: (a) nothing stops states from starting or threatening a war if it’s in their interest and (b) their ability and willingness to start or threaten war can change over time. More after the fold.

Today’s explanation for war actually relies on complete information, on states agreeing about the likely outcome of the war both today…and tomorrow, when they expect things to have changed. Suppose, for example, that we have two states, one growing more powerful over time while the other is either staying in place, growing weaker, or growing more powerful at a slower rate; the former state is a “rising” state, the latter “declining,” because their relative power is changing. Today, these two countries can strike a deal that both prefer to war, because they both agree about the likely outcome and the costs of fighting, but what happens once the rising state gets stronger? Since states live in legal anarchy, where they are free to—and do—threaten war to get their way, the rising state will be able in the future to impose on the declining state to make concessions that reflect the new distribution of power. It won’t require war, of course, because once power has shifted in one side’s favor, and everyone knows it, peace will prevail—but it’s a peace that the declining state, looking into the future, realizes that it doesn’t have to take lying down, as long as it can act before power shifts against it.

What do I mean by that? The declining state knows that whatever deal it secures today, however efficient, will be renegotiated (and not in its favor) in the future as the rising side grows stronger. (And why not? States that aren’t great powers today can’t promise not to act like them once they become great powers in the future, whatever their prior statements and however grandiose their language about power when they didn’t have any. Nothing advances your peace-loving worldview like the power to impose it.) So, a declining state looks at a rising state, sees that today’s deal will only progressively erode over time as the rising state grows stronger, and this declining state might decide that war today, despite its costs, is better than weakness in the future. So it launches what we call a preventive war, a war designed to hold on to what gains it can by destroying the ability of the other state to continue rising—which in some cases means destroying the rising state entirely. In any case, war is caused by the fact that the costs of future weakness are greater than the costs of war in the present.

This war is certainly inefficient, because after the fact, both sides can say, “Well, we would’ve been better off had the rising side just never exploited its own advantage too much. Then we could’ve avoided this costly war.” But, of course, that promise wouldn’t have been credible (hence, the commitment problem). It’s the equivalent of asking today’s China to act like the China of 1979, or of asking the United States of today to act like the United States of 1832—someone might make that request in the respective early years, but whatever answer is given, no one would believe that either (a) a country beginning to emerge from decades of economic stagnation into sustained growth or (b) a recent colonial backwater would continue behaving that way if it didn’t have to. As such, bargains exist that both sides prefer to war, but they’re neither credible nor sustainable. The result is that the side that expects to lose out in the future decides that the deal on offer today—however generous—won’t stick, and war is preferable to lock in gains from the currently favorable distribution of power. If I can’t commit not to use growing strength in the future, you just might decide to fight me now—before it’s too late.

We’ll see a lot of wars in East Asia driven by this logic over the course of the semester, but for now I think one of the best examples of the commitment problem working out in the heads of the people who made decisions over war and peace is Europe in 1914. Rising states have every interest in peace today, in delaying war, because they want to exploit their strength in the future, hence Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov’s comment in 1913: “We must be content with what we shall receive, regarding it as an installment, for the future belongs to us.” Russia, in other words, is waiting out its own rearmament program, begun earlier and projected to be completed by 1917. Germany, though, views things differently, as evidenced by Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s comments in 1914 before the outbreak of World War I: “The future belongs to Russia, which is growing and growing and is becoming an ever-increasing nightmare to us.” (Both of these quotes can be found here, by the way.) If that’s the case, Germany’s now-or-never bid for war against the Tsar in 1914 is no less tragic than any other war—but it’s definitely explicable. And we’ll see all too many situations like this through the rest of the semester.

1 thought on “Explaining War, Part 2 (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 4)

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

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