On the (non) obsolescence of industrial war

Some years ago, I read Gen. Rupert Smith’s semi-memoir/discourse on “war amongst the people,” The Utility of Force. Most notable among some rather sweeping claims was that what he called “industiral war”—or war between states with standing armies, using mechanized forces that engage one another on the battlefield—is obsolete, that war has fundamentally changed to now involve something involving military forces against non-state groups organized to use violence. Quite apart from the rather strange invalid inferential logic used to justify this claim—i.e., just because we’ve not seen something in a while, it won’t come back—this line of reasoning really bothers me. In fact, we can see that it commits the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent:

  1. If industrial war were obsolete, we wouldn’t see it occur.
  2. We haven’t seen industrial war in a while.
  3. Therefore, industrial war is obsolete.
Straightforwardly, we can see that the conclusion, (3), doesn’t follow from the premises. Why? Because there are any number of reasons that (3) might be true without (1) and (2) being true: unipolarity, economic strain, a working great power concert, military technology, etc.

In fact, periods of peace between the great powers have certainly existed in the past, and just because we’re not seeing war between them now, I can’t imagine that this also implies that states with modern militaries in the future won’t have disputes that they might settle by force—force involving the instruments of industrial warfare. More after the fold, including my thoughts on why tanks are just as important when they’re not in use as when they are. Continue reading

NATO’s Libyan drawdown

David Bosco asks whether, in light of renewed violence in Libya—this time between former rebel allies—NATO might’ve ended its mission “too soon.” This is a good question. The implication here is that, with NATO around, these erstwhile allies might not be fighting. Maybe. But unless NATO’s presence would imply some solution to the problem leading to the fighting—that is, unless NATO being around a bit longer would make it such that each side would find a share of the spoils of victory that it would prefer over fighting in NATO’s absence—then NATO staying a bit longer would only delay this conflict a bit longer.

In other words, NATO’s presence might have made peace sustainable between rival factions for some reason—say, with the eyes of the world upon them (maybe?)—but unless it would contribute to making peace between rival factions self-enforcing, then the same problem that led to this week’s fighting would still be present whenever NATO decided to pull up stakes.

Granted, subsidies could work, but that’s a long-term commitment to doing something that NATO very clearly doesn’t want to do. So even if we cast the problem, as Bosco does, in terms of NATO ” involv[ing] itself on the ground or demonstrat[ing] the narrowness of its interpretation of the responsibility to protect,” then it’s not clear that the end of the NATO mission, whenever it might be, would do anything to resolve whatever fundamental distributive conflicts are driving former rebel allies to fight one another.

Upcoming talk at A&M

I’m giving a talk at Texas A&M next week on military coalitions, specifically when they provoke opposition from outsiders and when they can keep their targets isolated. The United States is prolific in its use of coalitions for coercing other states, and as military budgets tighten in the future, it doesn’t take much to imagine that acting with “friends and allies” against foreign opponents is going to remain the order of the day. In fact, multilateralism in general and coalitions in particular are often considered the sine qua non of signaling restraint and preventing counterbalancing.

This paper, though, takes a different approach. Coalitions have plenty of benefits, from aggregating power to burden-sharing to salving public opinion, but the fact remains that they can be aggregations of power more threatening as a whole than their individual parts. In fact, 17% of the time, they provoke counter-coalitions, which not only widen wars but can also undermine whatever other benefits to multilateral action we might expect.

To boil the model and its implications down to the essentials, powerful coalitions that are likely to disband—and therefore diminish potential threats to outsiders—are less likely to provoke the formation of counter-coalitions than similarly powerful coalitions that are likely to act together in the future. Observers who fear future coalitional action—think Iran in 1991 or 2003—can look at the diversity of interests in the coalition to judge its durability, and in fact more diverse coalitions are far more likely to keep their targets isolated than more homogeneous coalitions. Here’s one of the better graphs from the paper (I may post slides later), plotting the predicted probability that an American-led coalition provokes opposition (i.e. a counter-coalition) as a function of the diversity of the coalition’s interests. (Controls include the number of states, power, regime type, and UN support/opposition, among others.)

As you can see, that’s a fairly substantial drop in the probability of provoking opposition as the coalition grows more diverse. (As well as a source of relief for me after hoping that the implications of the theory would come out favorably.)

Granted, not all coalitions are matters of immediate choice based on this factor. For example, when alliance commitments explain the formation of a coalition, concerns over provoking opposition may be moot. So there may not be too much useful for partner choice here (after all, in 1991, working without the Saudis was an obviously dominated strategy, whatever other factors might’ve been in play), but in terms of what to expect, in terms of identifying the coalitions most likely to provoke wider, longer, or harder-to-win wars, it could be useful.

Let’s just hope my audience is inclined to agree.

More on the “world opinion” paper

After taking in all the feedback I got at APSA over this project (see here and here, too), I’ve managed to turn around a new draft. The angle’s a bit different, but it focuses more on the basic dilemma that powerful states face in international disputes: convincing their opponents that they’re willing to use force while, at the same time, convincing everyone else that they’re reluctant to do so. As you can imagine, that might be difficult.

Convincing my opponent that I’m willing to go to the mat gets me better deals and, oftentimes, a reduced chance of war. But when great powers move, plenty of parties other than their immediate adversaries are watching: other enemies, allies, even your friendly neighborhood middle power worried about more powerful states being a little to willing to use the military instrument. When these outsiders—alone or in concert—can take diplomatic actions designed to frustrate a great power’s ability to project power (i.e., “soft balancing“), then our great power is caught between two competing incentives:

Signaling resolve by escalating the crisis can facilitate a peaceful resolution of the crisis, but in doing so I provoke world opinion and end up taking a raw deal, because the seriousness of my threat to fight is undermined. On the other hand, if I don’t escalate, I can convince outsiders that I’m restrained, which leads them to impose diplomatic costs on my opponent, but since my opponent remains optimistic that I’m unwilling to fight, there’s still a risk of war.

You can imagine that this might cause some problems. When world opinion is strong enough, an otherwise resolute state may choose not to demonstrate resolve, showing restraint, winning outside diplomatic support, and discouraging its opponent from risking a war in which it will have world opinion turned against it. This is good for the great power in question, and it’s also what American decisionmakers hoped to do by limiting their escalation in the Berlin Crisis of 1961. However, the chance of avoiding outside diplomatic opposition in the first place can also prevent a resolute state from revealing its resolve when simply escalating would have averted war.

The upshot? Outsiders—especially those that want to reward the exercise of military restraint (and I don’t know many that don’t)—have at best a mixed effect on the probability of great power war. In other words,

while having won in the court of world opinion is a boon, trying to win in the first place can be especially dangerous.

If you’d like to see the new draft of the paper, find it here and at the research section of my UT website.

NATO’s effect on the Libyan Civil War

As it’s starting to look like Ghadafi’s regime is crumbling before the rebel advance into Tripoli (note the equivocation there? don’t want to get ahead of myself…), we’re also seeing the debate over whether American/NATO intervention was “worth it” (some seeing vindication, others saying we should’ve made it even faster). As to whether it was a wise decision to intervene, the best way to judge that is to consider not what ultimately happens but what information decision makers had when the decision was made. Still, we can learn a lot from ex post judgments of costs and benefits—it’s one more data point that can inform us about the future—as long as we’re careful to neither blame the lottery player for losing powerball nor call her a genius for winning it.

So how are we to judge the NATO decision to protect civilians and, by extension, help the Libyan rebels in their advance towards Tripoli? First things first: by any standard, this was an exceedingly short civil war. The average one drags on for years, and 5/6 months is a rounding error compared to most of these things. The cost to the US, at least, is estimated at roughly $1.1 billion, so it seems to me that the way to go is to use what we know about civil war duration and the data for this particular case and see what we’d expect the duration of the war to be in the absence of NATO intervention…

…not, of course, that I’m going to run that model this morning, but, you know, it would be a good idea.

When do rebels turn against each other?

Last week, we heard about the somewhat mysterious death of a Libyan rebel commander, leading to some speculation about rebels turning against each other as they inch ever closer to (possibly) capturing Tripoli. This reminded me of a toy model I wrote down several months ago (linked here) that, frankly, I didn’t know what to do with. Ergo, I’m putting it here to see what folks think.

Here’s the basic story from the abstract:

Why do some rebel groups divert resources from fighting the government in order to fight other rebel groups before the government is defeated? I analyze resource allocation decisions in which two rebel groups divide finite resources between fighting their common enemy, the government, and fighting one another to influence the distribution of power for the power-sharing contest that follows military victory. In equilibrium, the inability of rebel groups to commit not to exploit the loser in a power-sharing contest can lead them to divert resources away from fighting the government and towards undermining each other when the government is sufficiently weak. In other words, as the prospects for defeating the government improve, rebels become more likely to work against one another, further delaying their ultimate victory.

So when (1) there’s no guarantee that rebels can trust each other to share power once the government’s toppled and (2) the chances of defeating the government start looking pretty good, rebel groups will divert some resources away from the main war effort and husband them for using against one another once victory’s achieved. That, of course, gives us an explanation for why fortunes can be both difficult to judge and pretty volatile in civil wars. Or, from the (very bare-bones) write-up of the model:

Perversely, the better the rebels expect to do against the government, the fewer resources they devote to the war in order to husband their strength for the power-sharing contest that follows victory. Neither side wishes to let the other gain a sufficient advantage, and thus they reduce their chances of victory, perhaps even prolonging the war, because of the commitment problem created by postwar control over the state apparatus.

Now, of course, the question is what to do with this thing. There’s some other work out there linking the number of groups to the duration of war, but (if I remember correctly) for different reasons, but I am, as always, open to suggestions.

Does world opinion matter?

Just posted my APSA paper to my website that addresses just this question (presenting it Friday 8am, for better or worse). Decisionmakers—even scholars—invoke the notion of global public opinion pretty often, but it’s not entirely clear (a) what they mean by it and (b) that we have very good tools to asses whether and how it “matters” (or doesn’t) for the decisions great powers like the US in international disputes. This is the question I tackle in the paper, and I argue that it comes down to the fact that great powers face competing incentives in crisis bargaining: convincing their opponents that they’re willing to fight but reassuring fearful observers that they’re generally restrained in the use of force.

It’s not an easy line to walk—the motivating case is actually the US’s hotly-debated decision not to escalate the Berlin Crisis of 1961-62 too far—but the model gives some fairly interesting answers to the question. On the one hand, if a state has world opinion on its side, then the diplomatic costs that will be imposed on its enemy will discourage it from escalating, and the probability of war drops as the diplomatic costs associated with the opposition of world opinion go up. On the other hand, the promise of winning that kind of support can lead a resolute state that would otherwise escalate in order to prove its willingness to fight (thereby avoiding war) to mask its resolve, appearing restrained in order to win the favor of public opinion—all because fighting a war with its support is worse than achieving peace but losing the support of world opinion.

So it’s a story about bargaining, restraint, balancing, and, perhaps above all else, trying to really get a handle on one way that world opinion might very well affect the decisions of even the most powerful states in the system. Of course, the news isn’t all good, if it means that a strong, robust body of world opinion that favors restraint can actually encourage war, but we’ll see how well it goes over in Seattle…

Oil discovery, shifting power, and civil conflict

A former grad student, Curtis Bell, and I just finished a paper that provides (yet another) look (in a long line of them) at the link between resources and civil war, specifically fixed assets like oil. (Click here for a draft of the paper.) The argument is fairly simple: since oil wealth can directly strengthen governments against rebel challenges and increase the value of controlling the state, then the lag time between oil discovery and oil production should provide a window of opportunity for rebels to challenge the state before it becomes so wealthy that the status quo becomes obsolete and potential rebels find themselves in an even less favorable position.

We’ve got a fairly simple model of shifting power, bargaining, and war, where we show that the promise of increased wealth—i.e. the announcement of new proved reserves—increases the chances of conflict, but only when the state isn’t already wealthy (which would mean that further increases in resources aren’t that significant). Curtis got his hands on data for proved reserves around the world from 1981-2007, so we’ve got then-publicly available information that serves as a pretty good proxy for expectations over future government strength. Thankfully, our empirics bear the predictions out: poor countries with large announced discoveries of oil are quite vulnerable to civil conflict, but there’s no discernible effect for rich countries. There’s also an advantage here in that we’ve got a more precise mechanism behind oil wealth and civil war, which allows us to say something about when poor countries are more likely to see civil conflict, increasing our ability to predict—and maybe, just maybe—prevent civil wars.

In that spirit, we also decided to run some out-of-sample predictions for the years 2009-2010 and try to gauge the effects of a 50% increase in proved oil reserves for every country in the world, and we got some intriguing results.

Probably most intriguing is that West Africa, which is seeing a boom in exploration and from which the US and the West are expecting to get more oil in the future, is particularly vulnerable to civil conflict should there be a big find in the current time frame. Southeast Africa and chunks of south Asia are also potential hot spots should oil be discovered, and we talk (albeit briefly) in the paper about how, should poor countries be promised a windfall of resource wealth, international action to ameliorate the commitment problem—either helping temporarily strength the government or somehow making future commitments credible—might have some chance to be effective and stave off civil war. Of course, managing that window of vulnerability can be difficult and long and, as a result, expensive, but we prefer to open only one can of worms at a time…

Will the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation work?

What do you do when you’ve run out of steam on a couple of R&Rs that you should have gotten more done on? That’s right: revive a blog that’s been dormant since February.

Last Wednesday, we saw the announcement that Fatah and Hamas signed a reconciliation deal, one that will produce an interim caretaker government ahead of new presidential elections. Clearly, Israel’s not happy about this, and on some level we might also wonder why Fatah is, as well, since they’ve not exactly been friends with Hamas since the 2007 split that left the former in charge of the West Bank and the latter in charge of Gaza. So it got me thinking: when would the Palestinian factions go through with this election, and—even if they would—when might Israel nonetheless prevent it from happening?

A quick and dirty toy model follows after the break…

Continue reading

What does bargaining theory have to say about Mubarak’s decision?

So Hosni Mubarak promised not to seek a new term once Egyptian elections roll around in September, but the crowds of protesters have stayed in place. The question is: should we be surprised? I say no, and here’s why: unless he steps down, and soon, Mubarak’s promise is pretty incredible. If he promises to step down 7, 8 months from now, yet the crowds go home, they’ve lost their leverage over him. He’s free to renege on the promise, because with the populace once again demobilized and uncoordinated, the repressive apparatus can take steps to make a repeat more difficult…and without people in the streets, the pressure to step down when September rolls around won’t be as great. Returning to their homes means that the protestors lose their leverage, so Mubarak’s promise is just that—a convenant without the sword—and it’s no surprise that the crowds remain in the streets, despite the costs of maintaining a country-crippling protest.

What’s the endgame? Who knows? Revolutions have to be unpredictable to some extent if they’re to get off the ground (otherwise they’d be headed off by the state’s repressive organs), but it’s now become a waiting game, of sorts…but the only way to guarantee that the crowds get what they want is for Mubarak to blink first…

…and, at this point, we’re watching either history or one really big tease.