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…

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?

Didn’t we win Waterloo? So must be good.
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.

Leaping into the dark, Bethmann-style (Teaching WWI in Real Time)

As the realization of what I committed to with my World War I In Real Time fall course starts to dawn on me—centennials will do that to you, I suppose—I figured the anniversary of the Sarajevo assassinations would be an opportune time to share what I’ve been doing in preparation for the course, as well as what I’ve learned, not so much about the War but about prepping a new, and highly specific, course.

  1. This is going to be a lot of work. (Shocking, right?) I suppose this dawning realization is also apropos, at least with respect to the war itself; committing to this course was a leap in the dark, so to speak, one taken with no small amount of blind enthusiasm, but I don’t think I’ll be quite so regretful as Bethmann Hollweg was after his. <fingers crossed>
  2. I’m almost relieved that, on the first day of class (28 August), we’ll be past the July Crisis. Sure, the immediate sparks of the war can be found there, and I won’t be able to make proper use of “Take me Out” by Franz Ferdinand (h/t YL), but I have a sense that I’d be as impatient as Germany waiting for Austria to get off the blocks—and spending too much lecture time on pre-war crises than I really want.
  3. It’s too bad that the Battle of the Frontiers will have just ended, but the day of the 28th is fraught with contingency, choice, and uncertainty—-the perfect stuff, I think, of a first lecture. German armies have crashed through neutral Belgium, hoping to achieve a modern-day Cannae on a massive scale, only to be lured into turning south too soon, foregoing the envelopment of Paris while chasing the possibility of eliminating the French now in the field. General Joffre, on the other hand, has come to the conclusion that attrition might be the only way to win the war, and his famous General Instruction No. 2 will have just gone out, precipitating a massive retreat and repositioning Allied forces so as to set up what would become known as the Battle of the Marne—the moment(s) when Moltke’s version of the Schlieffen plan would be dashed for good, and when the Western Front would begin to settle into what we all know it, now, to look like. 28 August also sees Joffre meeting with Sir John French, trying to keep the British Expeditionary Force in the line, setting the stage for years of (what I, at least, think are) fascinating intra-coalitional politics. With plans wrecked, opponents adjusting, and the strategic picture in remarkable flux, what will the generals, the soldiers, the statesmen, and the home fronts do in response? Forgive me if that’s a goosebump moment for me; I can’t wait to give this lecture.
  4. Lengthy geek-out aside, I’m assigning Max Hastings’ Catastrophe,  which pretty much covers the war from August to the end of the semester—and which I hope my undergrads find to be sufficiently readable. (Well, those that read enough to judge readability, I should say.) As for the other readings…well, up in the air at this point, apart from this (which, if you’ve not read it, is excellent). Had thought about Herwig’s book on The Marne, which I’m finishing now, but the timing is all off. At any rate, you’ll hear more about this decision shortly.
  5. And, finally, I think I’ll be able to sketch out some simple game-theoretic models for many of the topics we’ll consider, from the high politics of diplomacy, statecraft, and intrawar bargaining, to military strategy, to labor-management tensions at home, and to the dynamics of resistance and reprisals behind the front, etc., which should lend some unity to the whole thing. Let’s hope so, at least. Again, fingers crossed.

Broadly, I think that we can learn a lot from the war—sure, maybe not much about some things on which it’s an outlier—but specific instances of general trends can be awfully illuminating when we place them in theoretical context, and my hope is that the anniversary fever for the seminal tragedy in modern history can be put to good use (translation: my students are going to get ambushed with more science than they expect). Keep an eye on this space in the coming weeks and months as I try to figure out how to do just that.


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.)

Scouting combines, the Wonderlic, and game theory

It looks as though the NFL is adding a new mental aptitude test to evaluate players at the scouting combine. Why put that on a blog about political science? Well, because Gregg Doyel’s Twitter response below lets us think hard about some basic problems that plague cooperation across varying contexts, whether political, environmental/ecological, or—in this case—economic. Here’s what Doyel says:

GreggDoyelCBSCollege players should band together and refuse to take the Wonderlic, etc. If the results get leaked, and low scorers mocked, why take it?2/17/13 4:29 PM

Now, given the recent Wonderlic fallout, Doyel’s reaction is totally reasonable. (And for the record, I’m a big fan of Doyel’s work; his “Hate Mail” columns are priceless.) Who wants to take a test and run the risk of getting humiliated? *If* the players *could* band together and refuse to take these tests, then the league *would* be stuck, and it *would* have to accept the new reality; with the league unable to refuse to draft or sign anyone, the players would likely carry the day.

Maybe they *should*, but they likely *won’t*, because—if, as professionals, they care about their careers—individual players have no incentive to band together like this. Yes, this comes at the cost of low scorers getting mocked, but there’s just no real collective incentive to band together.

Why wouldn’t players want to cooperate here? Well, it depends on what players care about—their career or other players’ feelings. Here’s what I mean. Imagine that those who take it get treated better (say, signed to higher salaries or signed at all) than those who don’t. True, if none take these tests, the league can’t do anything, *but* what’s to stop one or a few people from thinking “Well, if I take it and the others don’t, I’m in a great position with the league after the combine.” Sure, the ones who maintain solidarity are made worse off—because the league can single them out with smaller or no contracts, which it couldn’t do if they all cooperated—but the ones who *do* take the tests have more of the pie to share amongst themselves. So if everyone else isn’t taking the tests, it benefits any given player to take it and prove his willingness to “play ball” (pun intended) with the league. And here’s the kicker (an unintended, but surely better, pun)—there’s no incentive to be left out, so if you know that the other guys are taking it, then you have to as well if you don’t want the punitive contract (or, again, no contract at all). Yes, you’re all back in the situation you were in before, but that’s better than not getting *anything*, which is what you get if you’re one of the few that doesn’t take the test.

So what does this all mean? To the extent that players are ambitious and care about their careers (which, presumably, is what professionalism is about), most if not all will take the Wonderlic and associated tests—despite the fact that it comes with all the bad stuff Doyel hits on, and despite the fact that *if* all the players refused, they all might be collectively happier. But, ultimately, if the league rewards those who take it over those who won’t, then this tragic outcome—the result of what is essentially a multiplayer prisoner’s dilemma—will be the most likely outcome, and we won’t see much of a change in how things work, however much better the alternative that Doyel points out might be.

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