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.

The Laws of Neutrality in War – Redux

I’m currently on the way to UC Merced to present the same paper I gave at Maryland last week, so I won’t belabor this, because I haven’t gotten around to incorporating last week’s (excellent) feedback yet. However, I’m pretty excited at the prospect of getting feedback on such an early project twice in such quick succession. Just to make sure this isn’t just so much airport-terminal-boredom-blogging, I’ll keep it short.

That said, it’s worth noting that, when it comes to my WWI course next fall, the German decision to violate Belgian neutrality will certainly play a large part, not because it’s a notable violation of neutrality but because my theory doesn’t see it as a failure of the laws of neutrality per se (even if it is a failure, so to speak, of legal deterrence). Rather, the law might’ve done a very important job by making British intervention easier than it would’ve been otherwise.

Yep. The laws of neutrality might be successful even when they’re violated, and even when the countries ostensibly “punishing” violations care very little about the principle of neutrality.

For the details, I’ll just point you to the paper (generally updated) on this page.

In the meantime, I’ve got some local Minnesotan beer to sample…

A theory of neutrality rights in war – paper and slides

I’m giving a talk today at Maryland on a topic that’s pretty new to me—the laws of neutrality in war—though I guess I did hint about the genesis of this project several months ago. It’s a project that’s in its early stages, but it’s one I’m sufficiently excited about to publicize a bit, so here are links to a draft of the paper and the slides I’ll be using to confuse the audience today.

As I’m also hesitant to give said talk unshowered and in a *very* rumpled shirt, I’m cutting this short. Hopefully, though, there’ll be more to report in the days ahead.

Showing Restraint, Signaling Resolve (talk slides)

In lieu of lecture musings today, I’m posting the slides (PDF) for my talk this afternoon as part of Rochester’s Watson Seminar Series. I’ve presented this particular paper around quite a bit, and the theoretical model is coming out (soon, I hope) at AJPS, but the empirics are new and part of the effort to integrate this model and a few others into a book manuscript. I’m slowly learning how to fit both theoretical and empirical models into a talk and do it well—we’ll see how close I get to that goal this afternoon.

Chiang Kai-Shek’s Two-Enemy Problem (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 8)

Continuing last week’s focus on the Long Chinese Civil War, today’s lecture spent some time exploring the dilemma facing Chiang Kai-Shek as he tried to manage two simultaneous but very different threats: a civil war against Communists at home and a potential international war against Imperial Japan. Fighting one would leave his Nationalist government exposed to the other, and to make matters worse, each enemy had to be fought in two different ways, given its organization: the Communists still a guerrilla force at this point and Japan a modern army in the field.

Plenty of ink’s been spilled over the consequences of Chiang’s plan to eliminate the Communists first before trying to eject Japanese forces from the Asian mainland—a plan he was pretty much compelled to abandon after the Xi’an Incident—but there’s a more general point to be made here about leaders, political survival, and war. I’ve seen it argued that Chiang made a mistake here, but from whose perspective? If we look at his own interests—which, since he was a politician, we’re going to assume involved staying in power—then his decision, albeit chosen from a menu made up exclusively of bad options, was a sensible one.

How so? Well, Chiang knew that, if he fought the Japanese, domestic power would shift pretty significantly against him and in favor of the Communists, who (a) weren’t a regular military force and therefore wouldn’t be terribly useful against Japan and (b) would undoubtedly use the time to regroup, reconstitute, and refocus their efforts on defeating the Nationalists. He also, frankly, didn’t expect to defeat Japan in the mid 1930s, either. Yet while fighting Japan would’ve been a ticket to losing office, cutting a deal with the international enemy would at least keep domestic power tilted (however precariously) in his favor—which would help him stay in office. As a result, Chiang consistently turned down chances to resist the expansion of Japanese influence into northern China, choosing the path that gave him the best chance of holding on to political power. Is that so strange? I don’t think so.

So while leaders are often eager to fight international opponents when they can use the conflict to shift domestic power in their favor (see this also), they should also be pretty eager to avoid conflict when it would shift domestic power against them—even to the extent of trading territory for political survival (I’ve got a paper on this, but it’s under review, so not linking to it just yet). Chiang’s case is also an interesting one, because when he was denied the choice of trading territory for survival after Xi’an (that is, when an exogenous shock forced the game off its equilibrium path), his fears came true: the war weakened his position relative to the Communists who would ultimately force Chiang and the Nationalists to Taiwan by 1949.

War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 4

Today was the last lecture in Part I of the course, where we set up the historical and theoretical background for actually talking about war and peace in East Asia, delving into the theory of war as a commitment problem: that is, since countries can’t credibly promise not to act powerful before they become powerful, others might choose to fight them before that happens—nipping the problem of shifting power in the bud, as it were.

We also talked a little about how war actually solves commitment problems, and it made me wonder if we spend enough time thinking about how that might be the case. Dan Reiter‘s book considers foreign imposed regime change following total war as one possible solution, Leventoğlu and Slantchev have a story about war destroying a sufficient amount of the surplus, and Harrison Wagner suggests that preemptive wars might be short, since they’re aimed at eliminating opportunities for surprise attack, but that might be just about all I can come up with off the top of my head.

The former and the latter both focus on fighting aimed at destroying the very sources of shifting power—governments or tactical windows of opportunity—but I wonder what additional purchase we might gain by linking specific sources of shifting power (say, long run demographic growth, weapons programs, etc.) to specific war aims, then seeing how prevailing military technology interacts with those aims to produce issue specific variation in war duration…

Making course prep work for you and your research

I took on a new course this semester, thanks to a generous course development grant from UT’s Department of Asian Studies: War and Peace in East Asia. While I’m blogging about the lectures as they happen, I also wanted to take some time to talk about what preparing for the course over the second half of the summer has done for me in terms of my research—and why new preps, if you’ve got to take them on, can work to your advantage as a researcher.

The key, for me, was to choose my background readings carefully. While this is certainly a new prep, requiring case examples and empirical work devoted to a particular region (as opposed to the globe, which my causes of war class focuses on), I did my dead-level best to make sure that the readings I focused on paid dividends on at least one of my research agendas. In fact, that one little strategem is precisely why this course, before I gave a single lecture, has enriched my research.

My first big post-dissertation project has been on international military coalitions (see here and here for articles that will be incorporated into the book manuscript), and as a result of focusing my class cases on multilateral crises and wars, I’ve come across tons of great material for it, from negotiations between the United States and the Soviets over the latter’s entry into the war against Japan in 1945 to the terms of American cooperation with South Korea once North Korea stormed across the DMZ.

As a result, I managed to tell myself that I’m multitasking when I’m prepping for an upcoming course—and actually believe it. For me, that’s no small thing.