Why Did Belgium Resist in 1914?

Another entry in a series of blog posts about World War I, political science, and my textbook: The Politics of the First World War: A Course in Game Theory and International Security. You can read the previous entry here.

On 3 August 1914, Belgium refused the previous day’s “request” that Germany be allowed to pass through its territory on the way to a clash with France in the opening days of the First World War.

Germany’s note made the consequences of refusal pretty clear:

Should Belgium oppose the German troops, and in particular should she throw difficulties in the way of their march by a resistance of the fortresses on the Meuse, or by destroying railways, roads, tunnels, or other similar works, Germany will, to her regret, be compelled to consider Belgium as an enemy.

In this event, Germany can undertake no obligations towards Belgium, but the eventual adjustment of the relations between the two States must be left to the decision of arms.

Its request ultimatum denied, Germany duly invaded Belgium on 4 August, and King Albert’s troops mounted a gallant resistance, slowing down Moltke’s right hook as it tried swung around the main French force in an (ultimately vain) attempt to create a modern-day Cannae.

Yet the question of why Belgium resisted near-inevitable defeat rather than accept Germany’s terms, which included promises of restituted territory and financial compensation, looks puzzling after the fact.1 Why did Belgium send its modest army into the field only to suffer entirely predictable death, destruction, and dislocation, to be pushed back to Antwerp as the Germans did what they pleased? And why forfeit the chance that Germany would follow through on its ostensibly generous promises of restitution and compensation?

Reiter and Stam, defending a unilateral model of war onset, put it down to national honor: better to go down fighting than surrendering (p. 380).2 Vasquez, in his wide-ranging and fascinating book on the spread of the war, also nods to national honor but argues further that Belgium’s resistance is an “anomaly” for bargaining theories of war (pp. 111-114)—that is, for theories that view war as a wasteful alternative to negotiations that can (and often do) produce the same outcomes as war-ending negotiations.

It won’t surprise you that I disagree with the “anomaly” take. Here’s why.

The version of bargaining theory Vasquez addresses makes a couple of basic points. First, since war is costly, states have strong incentives to avoid it by striking deals that reflect the likely outcome of a war. Second, if (a) states don’t know what bargains others will accept in lieu of war or (b) bargains struck today will only get worse in the future, then states might knowingly fight costly wars. (For more, I recommend Phil Arena’s venerable breakdown of the seminal piece in this literature.)

Let’s take a look at Vasquez’s argument. He first notes that Germany’s ability to overwhelm Belgian defenses, including the forts at Liège, wasn’t much in doubt (pp. 111-114). And, in the absence of shifting power that would make that bargain obsolete in the future, we’d expect Belgium to cut a deal; why fight a costly war when the offer on the table reflects the likely outcome minus all the death and destruction? What’s more, Germany’s offer of restitution looked pretty generous; Belgium could hardly hope to achieve that much by fighting. So far, so good. Acceptance would be consistent with bargaining models of war…

…but only if Belgium believed that Germany would’ve honored those promises.

My issue with the anomaly claim is that it takes as credible the German prewar promise to evacuate Belgian territory and provide compensation after the war. But unlike the actors in the drama he recounts, Vasquez treats German talk credulously. He argues that Belgium should’ve expected Germany to honor its pledge, citing as evidence one of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s post-invasion Reichstag speeches (a) apologizing for the violation of international law and (b) reiterating restitution promises. Vasquez’s argument that Belgium should’ve accepted Germany’s terms rests on Germany’s 1914 description of its own war aims…precisely when it had incentives to lie about just how expansive its aims were.

Yet one of, if not the, most important parts of the story in August 1914 is that those on the receiving end of German promises about limited aims didn’t believe them. I argue in The Politics of the First World War that one of the animating strategic problems on the soon-to-be Western Front was the question of whether Germany was, as it claimed, fighting a defensive war or, as its actions indicated, using the opportunity of a general war to unhinge the balance of power (see Chapters 4-6 in particular).3 The problem for Britain and Belgium was that Germany would’ve made these same promises whether or not its aims were truly expansionist. Whether we might be able to say after the fact that Germany’s aims were limited (and I’m not sure we can, tbh), what we see with hindsight doesn’t necessarily offer clues about what the actors in our story were thinking in real time.

Incentives to lie create incentives to disbelieve. And Germany’s opponents did just that: they disbelieved.

Yet Vasquez asserts that Belgium should’ve believed Germany in 1914. And this argument that Germany wouldn’t “go back on its pledge” to restore Belgium hangs on a claim that power wasn’t shifting between Germany and Belgium (p. 112).

As noted above, this requires us to credit Germany’s words when Belgium, to say nothing of Britain and France, didn’t. The question for those watching (and fearing) the approaching German right hook was what Germany would do with a prostrate Belgium if given the chance. And protestations of defensive intent simply weren’t credible as German footfalls echoed through Liège, Namur, and Mons.

The claim that power wasn’t shifting between Germany and Belgium elides the fact that, once in control of some chunk of Belgian territory, Germany would’ve been in prime military position to refuse its return. Merely by holding Belgian territory, Germany’s power over Belgium would’ve increased substantially. “Friendly” language in ultimatums, as Vasquez has it, and ex post apologies (as Bethmann-Hollweg hoped to have it) aren’t evidence that the Belgians believed other than they did, i.e. that a Germany aiming to reorder great power politics wouldn’t have relinquished its gains. (You show me an apologetic speech in the Reichstag, I show you the Septemberprogramm.) If the Kaiser held Belgium, Belgians and French and Britons believed, he’d have every reason to hang onto it. And whether we can say that Britain, France, and Belgium were wrong over a century after the fact doesn’t matter if we want to explain Belgian resistance in 1914; it matters what Belgium and France and Britain believed in 1914.

And Belgian resistance responded to a clear commitment problem: whatever promises Germany made in early August would’ve come due after German troops occupied Belgium. Attractive those terms may have been, but credible they weren’t. Demanding tomorrow the withdrawal of a German army already sitting on Belgian territory looked like a fool’s errand today, making war (with eventual Entente support) more attractive, even with long odds in the short term.

Unilateral control of Belgium would’ve allowed France, Germany, or Britain to menace the others, and that that fact wasn’t lost on France, Germany, Britain, or Belgium.4 And as I argue in Chapter 6 of “The Politics of the First World War” and a forthcoming article at Security Studies, violations of 1839’s Treaty of London guaranteeing Belgian neutrality indicated to observers that the violator had aggressive ambitions—i.e., a desire to overturn the European balance of power—even in the face of likely balancing responses by the other powers.5

So, if we take into account

  1. the fact that occupying Belgian territory would’ve shifted power dramatically in Germany’s favor, making it very easy to refuse to leave; and
  2. the international-legal environment, which framed the German invasion of Belgium against the 1839 Treaty of London,

we can see that Belgian defiance in the face of Germany’s note isn’t an anomaly for bargaining theories of war. An account of why Belgium resisted follows directly from those theories. We just have to remember that Germany’s contemporaries were skeptical of its promises, whatever we might believe today about the credibility of those promises.

If Belgium resisted to preserve the national honor (and would any belligerent government have said otherwise?), it also had good reason to believe that resistance promised the best (if long) odds on preserving independence. Had Belgium welcomed German troops, it would’ve compromised its independence if Germany won the war; and it might’ve fare less well at the eventual peace conference had Germany’s enemies won the war. In the final accounting, a commitment problem explains both Belgium’s resistance and its skepticism of German promises.

Vasquez’s account, on the other hand, requires us to (a) ignore what observers in 1914 saw and believed about German aims and (b) deny that it’s easier to hold on to most of a country’s territory than it is to take it in the first place. I’m unprepared to do either. Plenty of offers, even ultimatums, can look attractive, but they’re only acceptable if commitments to follow through are believed to be credible. And when the pain of a future weakened bargaining position is greater than the costs of war today, states may take the plunge into costly war…just as Belgium did in 1914.

TL;DR Belgian resistance to Germany’s 1914 ultimatum isn’t an anomaly for bargaining theories of war. States sometimes have good reason to fight in the face of unfavorable odds if the peaceful alternative is near-certain disaster, and King Albert’s decision is a compelling case in point.


  1. To call back to an earlier post, hindsight is great for generating puzzles but often shit for solving them. ↩︎
  2. I don’t think they needed to make that argument, though. War occurs because the side that wants war chooses to over-demand, not because the victim views defending “one’s own land as an insubvertible good” (p. 380). Countries can still have wars when they want them; they’ve just got to demand (or try to take) more than the other side will yield. ↩︎
  3. And not just in Europe, but globally. This was a bid for world power, in the sense of competing with other global empires, as Fischer notes; but it was a bid to dominate the pre-World War I world of empires, not the one produced by World War I. ↩︎
  4. Belgium was a valuable buffer state, a source of bargaining power to whoever controlled it. ↩︎
  5. Here’s an older post on the topic from the first time I taught “World War I in Real Time.” ↩︎

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.

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 Russo-Japanese Origins of WWI (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 6)

It’s not often that I write multiple entries on a single lecture, but there’s another point worth returning to in our broader discussion of the Russo-Japanese War. Like any region, East Asia is very often inseparable from the politics of broader international system, both shaping and shaped by events in other parts of the world in a way that makes focusing solely on the region more than a little problematic. Even an ostensibly bilateral war can have its roots in politics in other regions of the globe, and the results of that same, local, bilateral war can impact international politics on the other side of the globe.

The Russo-Japanese War is almost too easy as such a case. The Russian Empire in 1904 was both a European and an Asian power (it remains so today, just as the United States is both an Atlantic and a Pacific power). Bottled up in southeastern Europe, frustrated in its attempts to expand towards the Turkish straits, Russia turned east in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, responding to the imperialist scramble for treaty ports and influence in a declining Qing Empire (just like Japan did)…only to have its nose bloodied by an upstart great power (Japan) with a much better military machine.

Why is Japan’s superior military quality important? As we saw yesterday, its victory was blunted a bit in the political settlement by the other great powers’ relative willingness to lend to the Tsar, but Russia’s response to its (military, if not political) defeat in 1905 would go on to have some, ah, rather serious implications for relations between the great powers in Europe. After surviving a revolution in 1905, the Tsar (a) agreed to the Grand Programme of rearmament designed to make up for the weaknesses in organization, training, and operational arts that hampered it against Japan and (b) decided to orient Russian foreign policy back towards Europe, where it might yet bear fruit in peeling away friendly Slav nations from the slowly-shrinking Ottoman Empire. Why does this matter? As it happens (and as we mentioned in class last week), Russian rearmament after 1905, designed to be completed around 1917, was a serious cause of alarm in Germany…the country that ultimately managed to turn the Austro-Serbian July Crisis into the preventive war against Russia (and, by extension, her ally France) that became what we know today as the First World War. (For a brilliant account of the July Crisis, its background, and its consequences, read this. All of it.)

Russo-German (as well as Anglo-German) antagonism wasn’t rooted in Russo-Japanese relations—this triad has its own problems, over issues ranging from East Asia to Central Asia to the Balkans and Northern Africa—but the Russian decision to rearm and modernize its military and economy was prompted by the realization of its great vulnerability after defeat at the hands of Japan in 1905. Had it not embarked on such a massive rearmament, it’s not like Russia would’ve ended up with a vastly different array of friends and enemies than it had in 1914 (though things were slowly changing), but the twin problems of (a) a new East Asian great power and (b) the same East Asian great power having the capability to contain Russia in the east turned rearmament from a desideratum into a necessity…

…a necessity that we can’t disentangle from the root causes of the First World War. (If you want to see some of my thoughts on the outbreak of the Great War, see this and this.)

Focusing on the international relations of a specific region can be fun, especially as a pedagogical exercise, but it can only rarely be done without some appreciation of larger patterns in global politics. The Russo-Japanese War helped to cement Japan’s place in the East Asian hierarchy of power and prestige, to make Japan wary of economic and financial dependence on other powers (what if the Western powers had chosen to lend to it instead of Russia in 1905? what if it didn’t need credit?), and to throw Russia into a rearmament program that would upset the domestic and international bargains that had kept the European great powers at peace for decades—leading to what would (for a generation, at least) stand as the most destructive war in human history.

What is the international system? (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 2)

So, I’m back to blogging my undergrad class this semester. (Let’s hope I can keep it going this time.) Today is the second session of “War and Peace in East Asia,” which is basically a semester long exercise of using the history of a specific region to sneak in discussions of the modern theory of war and international politics. Tuesday, I compared colloquial understandings of war and its causes to pre-germ theory understandings of disease—basically superstitious and callously self-serving—and promised to overturn how the class thinks about war with a barrage of theories rooted in war as a political phenomenon. Today is a bit more table setting, but we get down to our first bit of substantive international relations theory.

Today’s goal is to lay some groundwork for the course by placing the region in the context of the broader international system. That means that we have to start big—identifying the relevant actors, ordering principles, and modes of change to the big, nasty network of bargains that defines international politics. That’s important, I think, not just because this is an IR class, but because it can be too tempting to dive into the region in isolation, which creates a kind of geo-historical small-sample problem: if we isolate the set of countries whose interactions we’re studying from the rest of the system, then we run the risk of over-attributing the effects of the local, or the idiosyncratic, at the expense of the global, or the structural. (King, Keohane, and Verba (1994) have something on this, talking about small-sample attenuations of regression lines, right?) As we’ll see later in the semester, viewing the current incarnation of the Sino-Japanese rivalry or Cross-Strait relations without the context of the broader world of great power politics would lead to some profoundly biased inferences about what makes these rivalries look the way they do.

So, before we get to the regional, we’ve got to start with the global—and in today’s reading (Chapter 1 of this) Paine even argues that the existence of this global system came into existence in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War (which we’ll talk about a few lectures hence). That might be a bit late, given the fact that British intervention in the Taiping Civil War was touched off by opening of American Civil War (how cool is that? – the interconnection, of course, not the fact that some Americans tried to fight a war for the right to own other people), but it’s undeniable that two new non-European great powers emerged on the world stage, and in the Pacific, in the last years of the 19th Century. By 1894, the international politics of East Asia aren’t just regional; they’re global. What, then, is this international system of which all the protagonists in our semester-long story—Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, American—are a part?

For the purposes of the course, I decided to focus on three things: the political units making up the system, its ordering principles, and the agents of change in units and ordering principles. For the most part, we’re talking about territorial states with at least nominal sovereignty, but there’s obviously a lot of variation in what those states look like, from ideal-typical national states to age-old empires masquerading as states to this day. But, generally, territorial states are the dominant actors in the stories we’ll be telling. Next, there are two, not always consistent, ordering principles: formal, legal anarchy but informal, de facto hierarchy. All states have a similar legal existence and set of rights and privileges, but hierarchies of wealth, power, and influence lead to a lot of variation in the extent states can (and choose to) act on their own. Finally, what drives change in either the units or the principles by which they’re ordered? The answer is simple: war…or its threat when states manage to accept the likely outcome of a war without having to fight it. Mao wasn’t wrong when he said that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, and nowhere is this more often acknowledged than in international relations: rights, privileges, even the location of borders and the autonomy of ruling elites are the results of bargains that generally fall along lines of the likely outcome of wars that could be fought to determine them. War destroys and creates states, hierarchies, borders, elites—it periodically recreates the international system along new lines, and we’ll be tracing these effects in East Asia throughout the semester.

A system organized in this way—territorial states in a decentralized legal environment—is also going to be prone to specific types of disagreements and conflicts. States will tend to dispute the placement of borders and who governs particular territories, and the latter—since controlling the state is inherently valuable—will also provoke wars within the states themselves. States will also fight in order to reorder their places in the hierarchy, to gain control over the behavior of other states or to prevent or reverse the rise of some others to great power status. So this isn’t just an exercise in definition and semantics, because a decentralized territorial order based on legally sovereign states will be prone to certain types of disagreements and certain types of wars as a consequence. As we’ll note next week, however, wars aren’t the inevitable consequence of demands for change to the terms of the global settlement: more often than not, states find diplomatic solutions to their problems without having to fight a war first…and figuring out why war sometimes precedes diplomacy and why states sometimes get straight to the diplomacy will be one of the dominant puzzles that we address in this course.

Further, changes in the number and identity of great powers—those states that sit collectively at the top of the power hierarchy, basically acknowledge each other as such, and muck around in the affairs of other states the most often—tends to be fairly dangerous, and the historical period we’ll cover (from 1894 to the present) is rife with such changes: we’ll begin with a region dominated by Imperial China, then by a Japan that vaults into the rank of great powers in the historical blink of an eye, then one in which numerous great powers—including a post-Civil War China, Soviet Russia, and the United States—interact, all in the shadow of a united China recovering its wealth and military power in more recent decades. Viewed in that light, any course about war and peace in East Asia has to begin with an appreciation of the broader system in which it exists and whose ebbs and flows buffet the powerful and weak alike in East Asia.

When class meets current events, Causes of War edition

With the university closed Tuesday morning due to weather (which is becoming something like a routine around here), I was granted a couple of more days to think about just how I’d address the crisis in Ukraine in my Causes of War class. In the intervening time, I was fortunate enough to see Jay Ulfelder’s post, “This Is Not a Drill,” and to have some lengthy discussions with colleagues about what, if anything, to say responsibly during a highly fluid—and potentially high-stakes—situation that bears pretty directly on the topic of my class. (And not only the class, as I’ll mention below: the very unit we’re in the middle of.)

One option in situations like this is, of course, to say nothing. “Folks, the schedule says we’re going to talk about Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941, so, by damn, that’s what we’re going to do.” There’s a lot to be said for that approach, to be frank: this early in any crisis, we know so very little about what’s actually happening on the ground, much less why these things are happening. Speculation is always in tremendous supply, and, entertainingly, often preceded by “I don’t want to speculate, but…”

However, I decided today while crafting a response to an email from a student asking about the crisis that, even in a tide of speculation, there’s still something to be said for analysis, or at least rigorous thinking, in light of the few things we do know. If nothing else, it gives us a guide for understanding subsequent events and a few things to look for.

So I’ve decided to talk about Ukraine. The next question, of course, is what to say. As it happens, the class is currently deep into thinking about the use of military force in response to commitment problems (e.g., here and here). We’ve been analyzing when countries will attack, invade, or occupy one another as a way to arrest or prevent a process of declining bargaining leverage that would invalidate deals that are otherwise perfectly acceptable in the present. The use of force may be costly up front, but states may nonetheless opt for it when those costs are are preferable to watching today’s bargain (the status quo) wither away in the future.

Part of our exercise will be to identify these motives in Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941, when it calculated that its naval power would be as close to that of the United States’ as it ever would be. Then, the question will be whether Russia might be intervening in Ukraine’s messy domestic situation to arrest its own potentially declining bargaining leverage. If we look at the current situation, it’s possible (though, of course, not yet definitive) that we see another species of commitment problem (and, of course, not one producing an attack on another great power, as we saw in 1941). Here’s how:

  1. Ukraine’s domestic upheaval might herald a prolonged shift to the West.
  2. Russia has secured basing rights in the Crimea (which it ceded to Ukraine in 1954), most notably at the port of Sevastopol—rights it would like to protect. These rights aren’t under direct threat now, but…
  3. If a Westward tilt in Ukrainian politics would erode Ukraine’s commitment to honoring leasing agreements, then the current deal might be ever more difficult to keep in place.
  4. Alternatively, if a descent into deeper political chaos were to occur, the current deal might be ever more difficult to keep in place.
  5. If either or both of (3) and (4) would lead to an abrogation of Russian rights in Crimea, and if the consequences of losing of those rights would be greater than the costs of using force (roughly), then Russia’ decision to occupy the region could plausibly be read as a response to a basic commitment problem.

Does that mean Russian actions have derived entirely from the desire to prevent the loss of military privileges in Ukraine? Maybe not, but this is a plausible story consistent with the facts as we (think we) know them. At a minimum, thinking in these terms can tell us where to look if, indeed, this is a response Russia’s expected “loss” of Crimea; if we’re looking at a commitment problem, Russian actions would be designed to secure access to Sevastopol, etc., in the event of further domestic change in Ukraine. How might that be achieved? More autonomy for Crimea? Reversal of the current process of domestic change? A renegotiated treaty? It’s difficult to say at this point, but putting a little structure on otherwise confusing events can’t hurt—as long, of course, as we’re willing to adjust that little bit of structure as required by the emergence of new facts.

And I’m sure my students will make sure that I keep an eye out for just such an eventuality.

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