The Politics of the First World War in the Classroom

The Politics of the First World War in the Classroom #WWIinrealtime

#wwi #textbook

My textbook, The Politics of the First World War: A Course in Game Theory and International Security, is out this week (Amazon). And I figure it’s worth talking about how I envision it being used in the classroom. The most important thing to note is that the textbook is supposed to be a bit, in Cambridge’s words, “weird.’’ It’s designed to do things that other IR textbooks don’t do, putting deep engagement with a historical case alongside a survey of the literature on international conflict and an undergraduate game theory course.

That ain’t normal.

But the book’s uniqueness puts the onus on me to convince instructors that it need not be used only for something like my “World War I in Real Time” course that inspired it. As a representation of said course, we can generously call this book “abridged,” apart from the game theory content. The relatively limited World War I content is more feature than bug, though, because those class sessions for which instructors don’t assign a chapter (it’s got only 15, after all) can go one of two different ways, creating two rather different courses:

  1. A game theory course. Deeper dives into game theory, even if only to get more practice with what’s already there or to expand the set of applications. (Practice is everything when it comes to writing and solving your own models. Everything.)
  2. An international security course. Assigning some of the journal articles and books that the chapters reference in their penultimate sections (or stuff in the same area), which the students can then use their developing theoretical skills to evaluate.

I’ve taught this course both ways over the years, and each has its merits. In this post, I’ll share some of the strategies I’ve adopted in both versions of the course, including two sample assignments, to give instructors a sense of what worked for me as I trialed and erred my way through early iterations of this material.

A game theory course

Choosing the right level of formality for the book’s game theory component wasn’t easy (and I owe Toby Rider a debt of gratitude for helping me make some crucial decisions on this, especially in the war termination chapters). Modelers will notice pretty quickly some things left out or treated only superficially, like iterated games with punishment strategies or restrictions on out-of-equilibrium beliefs in Perfect Bayesian Equilibrium.

Off-textbook sessions can easily dive into these topics, though, because the main-text material develops the foundations of equilibrium reasoning (the big payoff, IMHO) and emphasizes basic math practice. Chapter 11’s treatment of the Christmas Truce, for example, discusses how to use punishment strategies to induce cooperation in the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma (a workhorse model in the study of cooperation). But I don’t solve that game, leaving that for further skills development if the instructor wants to make this a game theory course. It’s easy to imagine an off-textbook session on how different punishment strategies (tit-for-tat, penance, grim trigger, etc.) induce cooperation of different quality and variable robustness under different conditions, allowing students to get extra practice with Subgame Perfect Equilibrium and to think about additional applications of repeated games.

An international security course

Games may be the centerpiece of each chapter’s theoretical work, but they need not dominate off-textbook sessions. If instructors prefer to highlight the international security component, the final few sections of each chapter contai reviews of the related literatures, from arms races (Chapter 3) and solutions to the collective action problem (Chapter 7) to the role of national leaders in international politics (Chapter 13) and the relationship between democracy and peace (Chapter 14). I survey the contemporary literature on these and numerous other topics, and instructors can assign a sample of the cited work to give students more direct exposure to the scholarly literature. An instructor might, for example, assign empirical work to expose students to the ins-and-outs of interpreting quantitative models or evaluating case selection in qualitative models. I’ve taken both tacks, and the book’s focus on rigorous theory helps students encounter unfamiliar empirical methods with appropriate standards of judgment—not just the all-too-pervasive (and unjustified) “math”-phobia.

Another option for this version of the course is to assign supplementary historical readings as applications of ideas introduced in the text. The book’s discussions of coordinating limits in the Korean War (Chapter 10), the termination of the Russo-Japanese War (Chapter 12), and the duration of the Chinese Civil War (Chapter 11) are all good candidates. But instructors may also assign histories of whatever crises, wars, and near-wars they know well—from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the War of the Pacific to the Iraq War—and encourage their students to analyze them in light of the theoretical models and literatures they’ve encountered in the textbook. I’ve not taught this analytical-history version of the course, but I plan to the next time I get a chance—sadly, in spring 2020.

Some assignments

Finally, I’d like to highlight two assignments that I’ve trotted out in both versions of the course, each of which the students (and this instructor) take to pretty well.

First, as an application of equilibrium reasoning and how it helps us think through counterfactuals, I like to give students the following writing prompt after Chapter 8:

Put yourself in [Chief of the German General Staff] Moltke’s shoes and come up with an alternative strategy—either in the initial execution of the war plan or in managing the offensive once [French General] Joffre orders the Allied retreat—and then analyze whether your alternative might’ve made a substantial difference in the outcome of the invasion of France in 1914.

Armed with some practice using logical tools and equilibrium reasoning, students typically don’t use this to engage in the loose speculation that every professor rightly fears would happen in response to such a question. (We can’t all be Harry Turtledove, who seems to just come by this stuff naturally.) Rather, the course’s focal formalities prove to be a nice source of discipline for counterfactual, “what-if?” reasoning. Students have to think hard about why countries attack who they attack and how and when they attack them, how likely targets respond, how that influences initial attack decisions, etc. Seriously, this might be my favorite thing I’ve ever assigned: the answers, as you might imagine, are often pretty varied (some workable, some not, and very many of them delightfully creative). But when we discuss and evaluate their alternative strategies as a class, I’m always impressed at my students’ ability to surprise me; with a shared set of logical standards, their discussions in the post-assignment session are insightful, productive, and just fun.

Second, I like to do a puzzle-focused class session, where students submit beforehand their own historical puzzles based on the First World War (this when they’ve been reading narrative histories of the war throughout the semester—I’ll have another post on my preferred sources for that version of the course soon). I sort (and edit for clarity where necessary) the submitted puzzles, then lead a discussion in which we devise collectively models to resolve those puzzles. We specify and solve these proposed games as a group, and it’s a blast. Students feel some legitimate ownership of the course material, and they see the fruits of using the theoretical tools they’ve been learning and practicing through the semester. It’s a chance to see their developing skills at work, of practicing the procedures of model-building that the chapters themselves cover at length. Lightbulbs go off in that session, and as an instructor, it’s superfluously fun to watch. I can’t recommend this exercise enough…but only in the latter part of the semester. Too early, and a few students will get lost; I like it as a kind of pre-Armistice exercise.


I’ll have more to say about the First World War, as well as the textbook, how I used it, and how other instructors might in the coming weeks and months. But I hope this initial post gives a flavor of just how flexible the book can be, its admitted weirdness notwithstanding.

The abrupt end of the Chinese Civil War (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 12)

Yesterday touched off the next unit of the course, which begins with two big events: a drastic reduction in the number of great powers and, our focus in this lecture, the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War. For all its shocking length–Paine argues convincingly that the war effectively started in 1911–the war seems to end somewhat abruptly (if not, from a military standpoint, prematurely) in 1949, with

  1. cascading defections of KMT (and KMT-loyal units) to the Communist armies
  2. a rapid shift in public opinion against the KMT
  3. Chiang’s hasty retreat to Taiwan,

all of them occurring well before the prospect of final military defeat loomed too large–which, given our understanding of how most civil wars end, is genuinely puzzling. Why, after seeing off Japan in 1945, and with massive armies still in the field, did the KMT not continue the fight but, in essence, resign from the war? And why was it not just the leadership, but also the soldiery and the citizenry making similar yet largely independent decisions?

Paine’s analysis (Chapter 8) treats these events somewhat separately, as I noted in the first run of this lecture a few years ago, they all seem consistent with a common root cause (I’ve edited the quote a little to clean up the language, btw):

…the key to understanding each of these events is (a) the conversion of the Communists into a conventional military force and (b) the related string of rapid and sizable battlefield victories. This revealed some important information about the likely outcome of a fight to the finish, which for the Nationalists would be long, horrifically costly, and likely not victorious.

As a result, we saw (a) more of the public being willing to side with the Communists, as individuals were more confident that others would be doing the same thing; (b) armies and their generals thinking along similar lines, hoping to preserve their authority and forces intact; and (c), finally, the Nationalist leadership realizing that cutting their losses and retreating to the relative safety of Taiwan was optimal.

In the end, we’ve got a story about battlefield outcomes revealing information that, in the case of the Nationalist retreat, straightforwardly encourage an end to the fighting, but this is pretty conventional (see, inter aliaherehere, and here). What I found interesting was the apparent second-order effects of the same information–that is, raised estimates of the likelihood of ultimate Communist victory–on the public and the military. In both cases, it seems there were those who could be swayed to defect, but only if they weren’t the only ones to do so, and once such a clear public signal emerged of the relative strengths of the belligerents in the civil war, we saw large and massive–even unexpected, from some perspectives–defections that contributed to the rapid collapse Nationalist resistance and the end of the war.

So the same event, as it happens, is at the root of all three of these mostly independent decisions: the loud-and-clear signal that, while the KMT could hold out for quite some time, it was by 1949 unlikely to be able to win at the end of that endeavor. This leads to rapid attempts to cut one’s losses, just as we would expect based on an informational account of how wars end; if you can guess the outcome and you can secure something similar by giving up the fight, we’d expect you to give up the fight.

I also think it’s worth mentioning that wars ending this way—rapidly and while resistance is still feasible—aren’t unprecedented. Paine attributes some of these decisions to cultural features specific to Chinese history, and while that might be a descriptively accurate rendering of how people and soldiers framed and discussed their decisions, the underlying story we told in lecture shows that the outcome isn’t quite so exotic. In fact, two examples of similar events, particularly for the armies in the field, spring to mind: the rapid German collapse in 1918, despite its territory never being conquered, and the evaporation of Iranian willingness to continue the war against Iraq in 1988.

When information from the battlefield both travels widely and portends bad things about the future, leaders, armies, and civilians can all make rather abrupt decisions to withdraw from a war, and it seems like we saw just such a process play out in the final act of a war that produced the politics of the Taiwan Strait as we know it today: two governments, never formally reconciled to the end of a disastrous civil war, divided by a narrow stretch of ocean, and on opposite sides of the current round of great power competition.

Exam Day in War and Peace in East Asia

Today is our first exam, so while I’m not lecturing on any new material, it’s worth looking back and seeing just where we’ve been so far in the course. We started with two pretty big questions—what is the international system, and (twice) why does war occur?—designed to put in place some simple analytical tools and ways of understanding the sequence of wars, both international and civil, that we’d encounter in subsequent weeks. We linked the outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War to information problems, in the form of disagreements about each side’s ability to force the other out of Korea, while commitment problems sat at the core of the stories for the Russo-Japanese War, the Chinese Civil War, the Second-Sino Japanese War, the entry of the United States into the Pacific War, and the end of World War II in Asia. It’s easy, though, to lose one of the main themes of the course, in that breakneck run through 50 years of war: the persistent, sometimes hidden and often overt, hand of great power politics in ostensibly local conflicts.

We’ve seen Japan rise to and fall from great power status over the course of the semester so far, but that narrative was only partially about its displacement of China in Korea and Manchuria, because Japan was also concerned with the eastward creep of Russian (then Soviet Russian) influence in those same areas. A group of European great powers both proved more willing to extend credit to Russia and limited Japanese gains in the Russo-Japanese War, which likely went some way towards convincing Japan that depending on the goodwill of other great powers was less attractive than establishing autarky and setting its own terms for its place in the international system. That gambit ultimately failed, and when we last left the overarching narrative of the course, the regional constellation of power had been radically altered. The European imperial powers are exhausted by the war in their own region. China is victorious but shattered, sliding back into civil war, a nascent great power whose trajectory is stalled by a fight over which faction will guide China back to prominence. The Soviet Union, bloodied and battered, has nonetheless gained a massive buffer zone in Central and Eastern Europe, and its army—as it proved in Manchuria—is a fearsome fighting machine. Finally, the United States, as the only great power to see no sustained combat on (or above) its home territory, has emerged from the war controlling an unprecedented proportion of global wealth and a monopoly on an unprecedented weapon: the nuclear bomb.

Now firmly entrenched in both Europe and East Asia, the United States and the Soviet Union will see their rivalry play out over issues as diverse as the outcome of the Chinese civil war, the bloody end of the French empire in Indochina, and the governance of the Korean peninsula—which, as we’ll see in a few weeks, called up the specter of another world war a bare five years after the Second one ended. However, we’ll see conflicts erupt over the same issues we saw before this radical change in the regional power structure, because the basics of the international system remain in place: territorial units governed by states, which live in a world of de jure anarchy and de facto hierarchy. So, states disagree over the placement of borders, who governs territories within those borders, and their relative places in the hierarchy, and sometimes those disagreements are resolved violently. We’ll pick up Thursday with the end of one such conflict: the Chinese Civil War.

Why did Japan surrender in 1945? (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 10)

Isolating the causes of Japan’s surrender in August 1945 is a fraught process, because it invokes so many difficult topics, from American firebombing of Japanese cities as soon as its bombers were in range to the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the rapid and brutal Soviet conquest of Manchuria, all framed against Japan’s own atrocities against civilians and soldiers alike in China, its other imperial conquests, and in battles with American forces fighting their way (and mistreating prisoners on their own) towards the Home Islands. Some arguments pride nuclear bombs as the war-ending weapons, some revisionist accounts credit the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, which followed the nuclear attacks and preceded the surrender, but we argued today in class that both claims—often ideological, sometimes for the contrarian or partisan fun of it, and frequently weak on theory—fail to consider a key aspect of the politics of surrender: the personal fates of the top-level civilian and military decision-makers in Japan. Seen in that light, both factors can be seen as necessary components of the surrender.

So we had two questions to answer in class today. First, why did Japan surrender when it did, in August of 1945, despite knowing that the war was as good as lost many months before (after all, its initial gambit based on 50-50 odds of defeating the United States in a short war clearly didn’t pay off)? Second, what ultimately drove it to surrender? As it happens, and as Paine argues pretty convincingly in Chapter 7, Hirohito’s decision to accept the Potsdam Declaration and capitulate (to all the Allies except the Soviet Union, which really did have a lot of trouble convincing people that it was the power least shitty to surrender to) was made possible by both the American attacks on Japanese cities (conventional and nuclear, though the former killed far more in total) and the Soviet destruction of Japanese military might on the Asian mainland.

Hein Goemans argues that leaders in some regimes, particularly those that mix democratic and autocratic institutions in such a way as to guarantee that losing office is both probable and deadly after failing to bring home the spoils of war, have strong incentives to fight on even in the face of terrible odds on the battlefield. Indeed, Japan’s civilian leaders, who competed with the military for control over the war effort by 1945, “feared a social revolution from below if the war continued and an army rebellion if Japan surrendered” (Paine, p212), meaning that and end to the war would require either (a) total victory, ensuring the survival of both civilian and military elites, or (b) a catastrophic event that made defeat inevitable and surrender no longer the worst option. In other words, for Japan to surrender, both civilian and military elites would have to be convinced that fighting on no longer held out any prospect of saving their skins; otherwise, fighting would represent a “gamble for resurrection,” a chance (however tiny) of avoiding the certain grim fate that would certainly follow surrender: exile, jail, or death.

Paine argues that the first step in this process was the bombing campaign against Japanese cities, capped off with (though not ended by) the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which convinced the civilian leadership that war no longer held out the prospect of survival. But it was the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, which hurled an army of 1.5 million soldiers against a Japanese army starved of resources after years of American submarine attacks against Japan’s merchant marine, that convinced the military of the same. The combination of both events, one imperiling the civilian leadership, the other imperiling the military, was sufficient to prompt the emperor to announce Japan’s acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration—a nominal unconditional surrender that nonetheless left the Emperor’s role intact and, a concern for the army especially, prevented a Soviet occupation of northern Japan. (In fact, Japan’s refusal to surrender to the Soviets has ensured that the latter’s territorial gains at the end of the war—none of which were previously held by the Russian state—remain disputed in a region full of territorial disagreements.)

So which event—the nukes or the Red Army—precipitated the Japanese surrender? From a logical standpoint, it’s impossible to say. Absent a Soviet menace to its position on the Asian mainland, it’s hard to see the army surrendering, especially after it not only refused to do so in the wake of the nuclear attacks but attempted a coup to prevent the civilians from surrendering after Nagasaki. Absent the nuclear attacks, on the other hand, it’s hard to see an otherwise insulated civilian leadership, confident in the army’s ability to bleed the Americans white if they attempted an amphibious invasion of the Home Islands, willing to throw in the towel when the prospect loomed of forcing the Americans into a negotiated settlement after drawing them into the equivalent of many more Okinawas (a seriously costly victory) just to make headway in Operation Downfall, the massive planned operation to invade and complete the conquest of Japan.

Thus, the nuclear attacks, the Red Army, and—of course—Chiang Kai-Shek’s years-long resistance, tying down massive numbers of Japanese troops on the mainland, all contributed to both why and when Japan surrendered. Take away one element, and it’s difficult to see the other two being enough to cause Japan to surrender when and under what terms it did—meaning that the debate over which particular factor was primarily responsible is fairly beside the point.

Why did Japan attack Pearl Harbor? (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 9)

Today’s lecture saw us focus pretty narrowly on a specific decision: Japan’s choice in December 1941 to attack the American naval base at Pearl Harbor (as well as numerous other foreign outposts throughout Southeast and Asia, including Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaya, etc.), bringing both the United States and the United Kingdom (the world’s two dominant naval powers) into what heretofore had been a local attempt to conquer China. Contrary to what the average American undergrad encounters on the way to this class, these other elements of Japan’s “Southern Advance” are key to understanding the rationale behind what has to be considered one of the boldest gambits of the Second World War. Yet at first blush they only seem to complicate the story; why, after all, did Japan launch a series of attacks far from its main theater of operations (China), that were virtually certain to create for it the problem of a two-front war when the main front was turning into a big enough problem on its own?

To understand Japan’s choice, we have to do two things. First, and here’s an underlying theme of the course again, we have to widen our view of the specific conflict we’re interested in, considering the ever-present interplay of great power politics. Second, we have to put ourselves as much as possible in the heads of the decision makers on both sides of this issue, which for us involves both the Japanese government and the United States—a new element in the region’s great power constellation. If we can pare the story down this way to isolate the essentials of Japan’s strategic context, we’re better poised to see that, given its predicament in 1941, Japan’s choice was not between the unmolested continuation of the war against China and a war with the United States, but between a series of bargains offered by the United States that would (in principle) both avert war and ensure Japan’s access to American oil, on which it was dependent for both domestic consumption and the working of its war machine. Japan was offered terms that looked a lot better than its ultimate outcome in the war, so why didn’t it take them?

Let’s frame the question even more starkly in terms of the inefficiency puzzle that’s been with us all semester. Looking back from 1945, Japan is defeated, occupied, economically troubled, and stripped of both its colonial possessions and great power status, yet throughout the late 1930s and into 1941, the country that would ultimately join the war and help force Japan’s surrender—the United States—offered it a variety of deals, some of which would ensure access to oil and the avoidance of war if only Japan would evacuate its post-1937 gains in China. That is, by most any standard, a better deal on its face than the realization of the near-certain defeat at the hands of the United States, China, and (eventually) the Soviet Union. Yet rather than accept such a proposal from the United States (backed up with a total oil embargo as negotiations continued to deteriorate), Japan chose to lurch outward from China, seizing the oil fields of Southeast Asia and securing a distant perimeter in the islands of the South Pacific in the face of what it knew was essentially inevitable American retaliation. Why?

Let’s start with the United States. Acting like a fairly normal great power in trying to limit the aggrandizement of other great powers (here, Japan), the US pursued this policy in a somewhat unique way: a grand strategy of ensuring both freedom of the seas (to facilitate global trade, like the British before them) and self-determination (i.e., the dismantling of other great power empires, something new and in the view of other great powers dangerously revolutionary). This nearly guaranteed a clash of interests over Japan’s war in China, aimed at closing off the later from the rest of the world trading system as an exclusive, autarkic market dominated by Japan, but it doesn’t explain why Japan and the United States came to blows in 1941, especially in light of what virtually all parties agreed was the foregone conclusion of an American victory in a protracted war. (Remember: disagreements are everywhere, but only some of them are resolved by war.) However, the combination of this great power rivalry and rapidly growing American naval power did prove sufficient to sour Japan on the possibility that any deal it struck in, say, 1941 with the United States would stick—that the American, and even Soviet and British, commitments to such a deal would be credible.

If we recall that Japan launched the war in China to preserve what it believed to be a great power position that would erode if it couldn’t ensure autarky, then we can see that a return to any kind of status quo ante that limited its position on the Asian mainland wouldn’t be credible; the Americans, for example, were building naval strength at a tremendous clip, approaching a multi-ocean blue water capability the world hadn’t yet seen, and once they reached sufficient capacity could not only muscle their way into the Pacific but also—critically—prevent the fall of China. The United States, rising rapidly in power, could hardly commit credibly to any deal that left Japan’s position on the Asian mainland intact. Put in starker terms, rising powers can’t promise not to act like great powers should they reach that status, their prior protestations—and commitments—to the contrary. The Americans could afford to build a massive fleet, and once built they could hardly afford not to use it. Paine is worth quoting here:

[P]eace on American terms, entailing a withdrawal from China, would lead to the gradual impoverishment of Japan and would undo the efforts of generations of Japanese to transform their country into a modern power. War with the United States, on the other hand, offered a 50-50 chance of success (p. 185)

In other words, cutting a deal would allow US power in the region to grow unchecked, and such increased power could be used, down the road, to force Japan out of China anyway. If the worst outcome of a war would be similar (and it was), then rolling the dice before military prospects got even worse—and Japan calculated that its chances of keeping the US out of the region long enough to consolidate its gains would peak at about 50-50 in December 1941—looked pretty attractive. Faced with a rising global power over the eastern horizon, one that would undoubtedly be able to enter the war and force Japan to yield its hard-won great power status (i.e., its potential imperial dominion in China), Japan rolled the dice and hoped to strike a decisive blow against American and British assets in the region, sending them reeling long enough to present them with a fait accompli. If the war could be kept short, and if the war in Europe would take a large part of American attention anyway, then a 50-50 shot at positioning itself to isolate China and win the war in its main theater was relatively attractive…

…but it was a gamble nonetheless, and one that failed to eliminate the American carrier fleet in Hawaii, which would go on to be the centerpiece of the campaign to approach and menace the Japanese Home Islands later in the war. We’ll talk about the end of this war, which will shatter the post-Qing regional order we’ve dealt with so far, on Thursday.

The Second Sino-Japanese War (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 8)

The last time I gave this lecture, we focused on the dilemma facing Chiang Kai-Shek as he faced a Japanese invasion of China proper in 1937 and a still on-going civil war against Mao’s Communists, and you can find that piece here. This time around, though, I think it’s worth focusing on something different: why, despite China’s vast size, Japan even bothered trying to subdue the whole country at all. Looking back from the costly stalemate of 1941, it certainly looks puzzling: what began in the early 1930s as steady encroachment south of Japan’s puppet state in Manchuria turned after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937 into a full-scale invasion, one that Japan, the strength of its arms notwithstanding, didn’t look terribly well-poised to pull off.

We argued in class that the decision to invade China, and to do it in 1937, had a lot to do not just with China itself but with…the Soviet Union. The sheer enormity of the conflict, which between 1937 and 1945 would turn nearly one quarter of China’s population into refugees, makes it easy to focus directly on Sino-Japanese rivalry, but for a couple of reasons, I’m not sure that’s sufficient to explain (a) Japan’s decision to invade in 1937 and (b) a set of war aims that expanded over time, even as the war stalemated. After all, it might’ve been easier to invade China earlier in the 1930s when the military-political situation was more chaotic, and expanding war aims even as military prospects worsened isn’t quite consistent with the idea that Japan really launched the war because it initially underestimated Chiang’s ability to marshal resistance. Why, then, did it begin to invade China in 1937, then around 1938-1939 really ramp up its attempts to conquer as much of it as possible?

For a clue, I think we need to look at two events usually not part of the story we tell about this war, both of which relate to the bigger picture of great power rivalry in northeast Asia that drove both the First Sino-Japanese and the Russo-Japanese Wars we talked about last week. Japan, increasingly convinced that it needed its own large, captive market to ensure autarky if it was to compete with other great powers, was worried not only about a potentially resurgent China but, in the shorter term, a Soviet Union embarking on rapid industrialization on its way to becoming a greater power than the Tsarist regime that preceded it. In fact, with control over Manchuria established in 1931, (1) Japan appears to have seriously considered a preventive war with the Soviet Union in 1932-1933, but ultimately opted to explore further gains in China instead. Next, following the Great Purge, which created widespread uncertainty about the Soviet military’s short-term prospects, (2) Japan fought an intense border war (called the Nomonhan Incident) against the Soviets in Mongolia, which forced a revision of Japanese beliefs about Soviet strength (the Soviets under Zhukov proved much more capable than expected), convincing its leaders that their hold on northern China might not be enough in the long run to ensure autarky—and survival.

Faced with what it believed to be decline as a great power if it couldn’t secure a massive internal market, Japan embarked on a war with low odds of success because it preserved some chance of breaking out of what it believed to be a geographic-demographic economic straitjacket. Cutting a deal and returning even to Manchuria itself was, to the leadership a non-starter, because the status quo ante was believed to be intolerable in the long-run. Ultimately, this means that Japanese war aims shouldn’t be tied directly to battle outcomes, as they would be if the war really were about uncertainty over relative strength with Chiang’s Nationalist government, but to what its leaders believed they would have to secure in order to arrest their country’s decline as a great power. And when states fight preventive wars of this sort, we know that they can be prone to some pretty big gambles (like unrestricted submarine warfare and massive invasions of Stalinist Russia) that court catastrophe…which will make our story of the stalemated war in China get a lot more interesting once we reach 1941 next week.

The Long Chinese Civil War (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 7)

Today’s lecture starts with S.C.M. Paine’s account of what she calls the Long Chinese Civil War, a nearly unbroken span of large-scale civil conflict that followed the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and lasted virtually uninterrupted through Japan’s invasion of China proper in 1937 and the Second World War until the Communists’ final victory in 1949. Grounding the narrative of the Second World War in China—which was Japan’s main theater through nearly the whole period—challenges many other national narratives of the conflict (American, Soviet, Japanese, and Chinese Communist, in particular). It really is a great book, but as noted in a previous blog post on the topic of the civil war, I think that it misattributes the causes of the war’s length and severity to the extreme aims of the participants (particularly the KMT and the CCP), when something more fundamental—the very nature of civil wars—can actually explain all three phenomena: the extremity of aims, the severity of fighting, and the length of the war.

To see why, it’s actually important to broaden the narrative, to look at other civil wars and other ideological conflicts (both in East Asia and elsewhere) in a broader theoretical perspective, as I did in Fall 2013:

Today we…[used] 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.

Lastly, it’s also hard to disentangle the length of the civil war from China’s increasingly problematic relations with Japan, which after seizing control of Manchuria in 1931, had been steadily expanding its presence and influence ever farther south…prompting calls from the Chinese public to fight Japan as opposed to fellow Chinese (i.e., Mao and the Communists), which forced Chiang into an impossible dilemma: solving the Japanese problem would make him domestically vulnerable, but defeating the Communists (precipitously close to collapse after the Long March and the Northern Expedition) meant yielding more and more of Chinese sovereignty to Japan. No matter his choice, Chiang would have been vilified here—and we’ll talk about the consequences of this dilemma on Thursday.