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

What’s next in Venezuela? (Foreign policy-wise, of course.)

The Hugo Chavez era has ended in Venezuela, and I’m not going to wade into what’s already an extensive public debate about his legacy and what impending change means for Venezuela itself (see, for example, this, this, and this). Being the IR conflict guy that I am, I’m going to address a different question: what can we expect out of Venezuela’s next leader when it comes to foreign policy?

Whether Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor, wins the next round of elections or someone else does, we can already say quite a bit about what we can expect from a new Venezuelan leader by knowing only two things: first, the risk of losing office in a coup or revolution, and, second, the simple fact that whoever takes office will be new. Unfortunately, it’s possible that these things add up to a more belligerent foreign policy, at least with respect to regional rivals. (Bizarre fantasies aside, the prospects for war against the US are really pretty damned low.)

Let’s start with the first question. Giacomo Chiozza and Hein Goemans have shown that, while the risk of losing an election doesn’t do much to encourage leaders to fight, the risk of losing office through a coup or a revolution certainly does. So, if Maduro or some long-shot successor finds the risk of being toppled violently high enough, war might be the best way to ensure survival—by sending plotters to the front, cracking down on dissent, or disrupting bases of rebel or dissident support. Whatever the specific strategy, it does seem that an increased risk of a coup or revolution—more so than losing an election, which is easy to survive—also increases the risk of international conflict.

On the second issue, Venezuela will—no matter what—be led by a new executive whose resolve (or willingness to use force) is more or less unknown to Venezuela’s rivals. How does one demonstrate resolve? Words won’t do it, but fighting will. How do one’s rivals gauge one’s resolve? You guessed it: pressing them to see if they’ll fight. I call this “the turnover trap,” in which new leaders have an incentive to demonstrate resolve, hoping to cultivate a reputation for toughness, and their opponents have an incentive to test them—a potentially dangerous combination, both for the escalation of disputes and, as Toby Rider recently discovered, arms races.

So, regardless of who’s in office, Venezuela’s new leader is likely to be a bit more belligerent than a longer-serving leader, to the extent that (a) Venezuelan politics is a violent place (particularly for toppled leaders) and (b) there are opportunities to cultivate a reputation for resolve with one’s rivals. Here’s the good news, though. Not only is the probability of war at any given time pretty damned low, I’d wager that its neighbors, including Colombia, Guyana, and Dominica (all of which have ongoing border disputes with Venezuela) would be more likely targets of any conflict that does break out than the big superpower country way up North. (Rhetoric aside, of course.)

What could the UNSC actually do in Syria?

Russia and China are catching a lot of heat for preventing UN Security Council action on the Syrian Civil War, and sure, the other members of the P5 seem marginally more likely to want to see something done to bring the killing, the displacement, and the threat of contagion to a halt. Quite apart from whether it *will* act, though, I think it’s worth asking what the UNSC could actually do to bring an end to the fighting. To do that, we need to know something about the war’s likely course in the absence of any intervention and, second, what the UN could conceivably do in terms of changing that trajectory.

I’m going to argue, below the jump, that the UN’s “best” hope is to alter the course of the fighting, ensuring one side’s victory, rather than attempt to put together an unworkable settlement short of military victory.

Continue reading

Planning for a post-Assad Syria?

It looks as though at least some Syrians are looking ahead to the fall of the Assad government, hoping to ensure that ending Assad’s reign also ends the war. Sectarian strife seems to be a big worry—and perhaps rightly so—but it’s important to look at *why* we might see continuing violence on sectarian lines after the immediate objective of toppling the government is achieved. In other words, why would some rebels think that continued war is better than peace, even with Assad gone? Well, the answer isn’t necessarily about religion—it’s just as much about the politics of war.

If the war continues beyond the fall of the current government, my guess is that expectations about the future—beliefs about who’ll be in charge of what (and how effectively) in a new government—will be a big reason. The committee that put these recommendations together focuses in large part on repatriation, but they also mention a disarmament program that re-establishes the line between the military and civilians. In principle, this is necessary for being a modern nation-state, and while it’s hard to dispute in principle, it’s precisely this kind of provision that can cause serious problems for rebels that have to consider what their fates will be after they lay down their arms in apparent victory.

Put yourself, if you will, at the head of some rebel faction—defined geographically, religiously, ethnically, whatever—and think about the choice you face. Fighting is expensive and risky, but it gives you a chance to ensure by force of arms some favorable outcomes. On the other hand, laying down your arms and trusting in a new government makes you vulnerable—all the more so if you don’t trust that whoever’s in charge of the new government won’t use its monopoly on force to renege on whatever promises they made to get you into the peace agreement in the first place, shutting you out of the rights or privileges you were previously fighting for.

What does that mean? The success of any nationwide peace agreement—essentially, whatever the new constitution looks like—will depend on how well it commits the newly powerful to not taking advantage of the currently powerful once they return to civilian life. If any group feels that they’d be better off fighting than signing on to an agreement they don’t think will stick—that is, submitting to a government that they can’t trust not to victimize them—then we’ll have even more bloodshed. Yes, political allegiances often overlap with sectarian ones, but it’s important to note that it’s not religious differences themselves behind such a problem but basic questions of politics (who gets what, who makes those decisions, etc.). For the most part, each faction—however latent—currently fighting will need to have its military prospects reflected in any kind of postwar settlement that it’ll ultimately accept, and that means structuring a political settlement that reflects military realities. However much we like to think that peace and war can be separated, the former is best sustained when it reflects a good understanding of the latter.