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.

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.

The Russo-Japanese War Pt1 (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 6)

After exploring the information problems at the root of the First Sino-Japanese War on Tuesday, today’s lecture lets us see the working out of a different story—one based on shifting military potential, or bargaining leverage—even as the war breaks out over (essentially) the same stakes: dominance in Korea and Manchuria, which we might view as the twin keys to dominating the East Asian mainland. By 1904, with Imperial China’s star on the wane and Imperial Japan’s on the rise, another great power enters the regional picture in the form of a Russian Empire aiming to deepen control over its easternmost holdings. At this point, sure, it owns Siberia, and while it’s not clear that it really controls it just yet, the expansion of the Russian rail network eastward to the port of Vladivostok (literally, “Ruler of the East”—which is about as aspirationally bold as you’re gonna get) signals that Japan, the region’s new great power, is about to face some competition.

Of course, it wasn’t inevitable that rising Russian military strength—and it’s hard to read a new railway connecting the (populated) European and the (vast, empty, valuable) Asian ends of the Russian realm as anything but—should’ve led to war with Japan. Plenty of countries grow militarily stronger, better able to concentrate and apply military force, without provoking other countries to attack them. Yet because of the significant increase in military potential that would be signaled by the completion of a solid railway network, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 is one of those cases where things got violent. Japan launched a surprise attack on the Russian Far Eastern Fleet (basically ending it as a combat-capable force) and ultimately knocked the stunned Russian forces back across Manchuria, and it appears to have done so not literally because of the Trans-Siberian Railway but because of what it represented: the imminent ability of Russia to move large numbers of troops into northeast Asia and challenge Japan’s hard-won (and thanks to the Triple Intervention of 1895, only partial) ascendancy in the region. So, the Russo-Japanese War looks a lot like a war driven by commitment problems at its outbreak, but that doesn’t mean that information problems can’t play a role during the war, as I discussed the last time I blogged about this lecture:

Near the end of Connaughton’s account of the war, we see some contemporary puzzlement about why, despite destroying the Tsar’s fleet and driving the Russians from Manchuria, the terms of the Treaty of Portsmouth gave Japan no indemnity (just some interests on the Liaodong peninsula) and dictated a mutual withdrawal from Manchuria. This quote from the New York Times is telling (quoted on p. 344):

The judgment of all observers here…is that the [Russian] victory is as astonishing a thing as ever was seen in diplomatic history. A nation hopelessly beaten in every battle of the war, one army captured and the other overwhelmingly routed, with a navy swept from the seas, dictated her own terms to the victory.

But, really, is it all that puzzling? Just a few pages before, we learn some crucial facts about the military situation at war’s end: Japan totters near bankruptcy, while Russia, despite her dim record on the battlefield, has access to cheaper credit and the ability to continue to pour troops into the region. Both sides, moreover, seemed to know this. Japan couldn’t hold out too much longer in Manchuria itself, and Russian reinforcements likely could’ve taken advantage of the deteriorating Japanese position if the war were to continue (though, to be fair, the Revolution of 1905 was brewing at the time).

Still, it seems that by this time, Japan and Russia has similar expectations over what the rest of the war would look like, which according to informational accounts of war termination (see, inter aliathisthis, and this), can facilitate peaceful settlement, as states will strike a bargain that looks like the ultimate outcome (roughly) but saves the costs of getting all the way there. Granted, this doesn’t mean they’ll strike a bargain that reflects the current military situation—and the Treaty of Portsmouth was manifestly not that—but that reflects their shared assessment of what fighting to the finish would look like.

In the final accounting, did Russia pull off a diplomatic coup that produced a settlement at variance with what “should” have happened, given the course of the war? It depends on your perspective, I suppose, but if the “course of the war” is the story of the information transmitted to each side about (a) Russia’s ability to reinforce and (b) Japan’s ability to fund the war, then the answer would have to be a pretty emphatic “no.” It’s a subtle, but oft-missed point: accounts of war termination can explain why the final settlement might look nothing like the final battlefield dispositions yet still prove stable: a war fought to the finish might look quite a bit different than where the belligerents happen to be when they sue for peace.

Even when information problems aren’t enough to get potential belligerents all the way to war, the latter can still play a role in determining precisely when and how wars driven by commitment problems come to an end (on combining bargaining problems, see this). Still, there’s another puzzle here: why would the Tsar order the construction of a railway that he had to suspect would lead Japan to think about a preventive war to maintain its position in Manchuria and Korea? William Spaniel argues that it might have to do with the very information problem that characterized the fighting—Russia might’ve been uncertain over just how willing Japan would be to accommodate Russia’s growing military potential in the region—prompting it to risk the construction of a railway that might (but might not, if Japan is hesitant to fight) result in a preventive war. This problem, the fact that some instances of shifting military power are choices (and thus need not be chosen) will emerge over and over again throughout the class, so it’s worth thinking about just how countries can choose to embark on armament or development programs that provoke the very wars they hope to deter as a result of growing strong…

The First Sino-Japanese War (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 5)

Today’s topic is the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, which marks the beginning of Part II of the course: The Rise (and Fall) of Japan (see the syllabus here). Before we get around to how we can use last week’s explanations for war to account for this conflict’s outbreak and termination, though, it’s worth linking the underlying issues to the war to our characterization of the international system in the second lecture. If you’ll recall, we noted that in a system of territorial states (or “states” in the case of surviving empires) under a decentralized, nominally anarchic institutional environment, we can expect two broad sources of conflict to emerge over the terms of that global settlement: (a) the placement of borders and (b) who controls the lands enclosed. The latter can include a few types of war, from civil conflicts to wars of conquest and deposition, and in each case the result can range from the simple revision of borders to the replacement of governments to changes in the global hierarchies of power, wealth, and prestige. As luck would have it, today’s conflict ends up with consequences for all three; Japan gains colonies, which represent a middle ground between (or maybe a hybrid of?) changing borders and replacing governments, and it completes the displacement of Imperial China from its place atop the regional power hierarchy, which had been eroding at least since the mid-17th century.

As for the causes of the war—the bargaining problem that caused an uneasy peace to break down in 1894 and whose resolution led to a new settlement in 1895—I’ll quote the relevant blog post from the last time I taught this course:

Today [in September 2013, ed.] was one of those days where a gamble really pays off. I assigned a chapter of S.C.M. Paine’s The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, hoping that it would give the class some clues as to why the two main belligerents couldn’t reach a deal over the governance of Korea and avert what turned out to be a pretty significant war. As it happened, we were treated to a textbook story about mutual optimism leading to inconsistent expectations about the likely outcome of the war, rooted in what were essentially different theories of how wars are won: the Qing [Imperial China] expected numbers to carry the day, while Japan was willing to bet on its qualitatively superior Westernized forces.

As it happened, war quickly laid bare whose forces were superior, as Japan decimated the Chinese navy and was making quick work of its military forces on the Liaodong Peninsula when China ultimately sued for peace. So it’s a great story for our understanding of war—especially war termination—and asymmetric information, but what I found most fascinating was the account of the debate within Japan about just how far to press the advantage once they had the Qing on the ropes: fearing foreign intervention, especially the Russians and Germans, elements of the Japanese elite wanted to limit their aims in order to guarantee they could keep what they got. So they moderated their aims a bit, and while they still took off a little to much, being forced by the Russians, Germans, and French (the Triple Intervention) to cede the Liaodong Peninsula back to China (who subsequently leased it to the Russians), it was a pretty clear example of the dynamic Suzanne Werner analyzed here: where states that don’t intervene in a war can still have a profound affect on its aims and its course.

So we built on the basic informational account of war by tracing (a) how battlefield outcomes affect war aims and (b) how the shadow of outside intervention can affect war outcomes, even when that intervention may not materialize.

That’s a fairly clean(-ish) information story, even with the pretty substantial interference of the other great powers in shaping the final settlement, but it’s also illustrative of another key point to which we’ll return all semester: states generally fight wars not for the sake of fighting, but for the sake of shaping the order that will follow fighting, forcing their opponents to accede to a new set of arrangements—a new network of bargains—that peaceful diplomacy failed to achieve. In the First Sino-Japanese War, Japan wrested from China not only imperial possessions but also a place of prominence in other states’ estimates of their relative power and prestige, both of which would go on to shape in profound ways Japan’s experience of being a great power in the first half of the 20th century.

Explaining War, Part 2 (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 4)

Two days ago, we developed our first answer to the inefficiency puzzle of war. If war is the costliest way to resolve disputes, while negotiations (which themselves typically follow war) are cheaper (if you can use them first to get to the same outcome), why fight? Our first answer involved disagreements about the likely outcome of the war and communication difficulties that stood in the way of creating agreement (the information problems explanation), but today we focus on a second broad answer to the puzzle: war as a commitment problem (for academic treatments, see this and this.)

(Before we get going on that, though, a quick note is in order: the inefficiency puzzle is a difficult one to grasp. When we say that war is inefficient, we don’t mean that the costs always outweigh the benefits; we only mean that the costs (a) exist and are (b) less than the costs of negotiations that can produce the same result as fighting. In fact, if both sides are fighting over something they didn’t have beforehand, they can both be better off than they were at peace, yet the war would still be inefficient—the belligerents still destroyed stuff to divide this new thing up rather than divide it up without destroying that stuff. I digress, but, students, take note: this is a difficult and subtle point, so don’t assume you’ve internalized it just yet. Keep thinking about it.)

Now, on to the topic of the day. How else might we explain why war occurs if not by information problems? Our second main answer to the problem derives from two facts: (a) nothing stops states from starting or threatening a war if it’s in their interest and (b) their ability and willingness to start or threaten war can change over time. More after the fold. Continue reading

Explaining War, Part 1 (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 3)

Last week, we discussed the salient features of the international system, which allowed us to say something about the issues over which states disagree and (sometimes) fight: the placement of borders and who governs the territories within those borders. This week, we’re moving down one level, from the system as a whole to the disagreements that emerge between those states that populate the system. What we want to know now is why some of these disagreements are resolved violently while the majority are resolved peacefully. (This is “War and Peace in East Asia,” after all.) War is deadly, destructive, and wasteful, yet most of the time it produces something that states can have without having to fight first: a negotiated settlement. Why fight, only to produce a treaty that one could’ve written down beforehand and that doesn’t waste blood and treasure?

Answer number 1 below the fold… Continue reading

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.

The Return of World War I in Real Time (WWI in Real Time II, Lecture 1)

I started the 1915 version of World War I in Real Time today (syllabus here), and apart from getting to talk even longer during the “how did we get here” first part of the lecture, it was like riding a bicycle—if that bicycle pedaled itself, dispensed beer, played Pearl Jam, and charged a cellphone. I can’t wait to get back into this class.

Not much to note about this first lecture, apart from having a full extra year’s worth of table setting to draw the class in on the first day: Japan, Turkey, and Italy joining the war; Japan’s note to China; Gallipoli and the Arab Revolt; the British blockade; the Lusitania, the Arabic, unrestricted German submarine warfare, and the stirrings of American sentiment for war. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something in the retelling, but it’ll be interesting to see if the “real time” hook works as well this time, given that I’m doing even more violence to the real time conceit than I did in 2014.

It’s allowed some changes that I’m happy with, though: some less than satisfying lectures jettisoned, new ones brought in on new topics (especially on the empires in the war and fighting outside Europe), a more clearly defined set of and role for writing assignments, etc. More in this space to come, though until we get into new lectures, it’ll mostly be inside-baseball stuff on the teaching side.

More on the Iran deal: Living with (and without) coalition partners

Two days ago, I posted some thoughts about how to judge this week’s deal between Iran and a coalition of great (and some maybe not so great) powers. One of the important questions I said needed to be answered involved something that virtually none of the popular criticism of the deal has mentioned: the coalition of large economies that had been leading the sanctions regime alongside the United States. Especially for the hawkish end of the critic spectrum, the argument seems to boil down to “well, the US should’ve done more.”—more sanctions, more chest-thumping, more apocalyptic language, more…well, something equated with “tough,” unilateral (I guess) action.[1] Keeping in mind that “more” is pretty ambiguous here (just to be clear, “more tough stuff” isn’t exactly a policy alternative), let’s take these criticisms at face value. Could the US have been tougher on Iran? I’m going to argue that the answer is “maybe not,” and, further, that the current level of “tough” might still be a better option than the US trying to do “more” without the support of the coalition.

The key, as I see it, is the centrality of that great power coalition, the P5+1, in actually applying coercive leverage to Iran. In my forthcoming book, The Politics of Military Coalitions, I build and test some theories about just how countries build coalitions, what it takes to keep them together, and what they mean for coercive diplomacy. I’ll draw on some insights, especially from Chapter 4, to argue that, even when some partners force you to “water down” your threats, you might still be better off that way than doing something on your own would be even less effective.

The short version of the argument the P5+1 coalition goes something like this:

  1. The US can’t pressure Iran effectively unless other big countries impose sanctions, too. Otherwise, Iran can just buy stuff from/sell stuff to the other big economies. So, just like the US couldn’t invade Iran without the cooperation of nearby countries, it can’t cripple Iran economically by itself, either.[2]
  2. So, if Iran is to be made uncomfortable in pursuing nuclear weapons and thus tempted to give up materials and allow inspections, the US has to keep the coalition together.
  3. Keeping the coalition together means adjusting strategies to account for the fact that Russia, China, and the European partners can’t keep with the sanctions for as long as the United States can (economically or politically). In other words, to successfully deal with Iran, the US has to first deal with its own coalition partners, because it can’t achieve the kind of leverage it wants and needs on its own.
  4. So, if a state can’t go it alone at an acceptable price, sometimes it has to sacrifice the pie-in-the-sky really “tough” strategy for a less-tough one in order to keep the source of its leverage (the coalition) in place. Nonetheless, if it’s practically impossible to be as tough as one wants to be when going it alone, then the watered-down threats coming from the coalition are still better than the next best alternative.

All of this, of course, is built around the idea that the P5+1 coalition is central to the strategy of sanctioning Iran for pursuing nuclear weapons—and given the nature of sanctions, trade, and the global economy, I think that’s eminently reasonable. (It also assumes that a full-scale war is unattractive, which—bluster aside—even most hawks acknowledge.) If the US doesn’t keep the coalition together, say by delaying a deal and allowing some partners to reach the breaking point at which they opt out (which may be quite close), then it ends up with no more leverage over Iran and nothing to show for all the work in these last nine or so years since the P5+1 really got going. Keeping the coalition together does sometimes require showing more restraint than coalition leaders like, but if coalition partners are that critical for the leverage in the first place, there really isn’t a “more tough stuff” option out there. Again, it all comes down to choosing the right basis for comparison: an a unilateral sanctions regime is probably not the most effective option out there.

In other words, hopes and wishes aside, sometimes “more tough” just isn’t on the table without being tremendously counterproductive. Even when coalition partners are skittish, difficult, inconsistent, and miserly, they’re oftentimes worth the compromise.

[1] Sure, some of this comes from hawks who want more “tough” because, well, they’re hawks and that’s what they do: talk tough. Those are minds I won’t change. I’m fine with that.

[2] This, of course, sets aside the idea that the best way to make a country want nukes to defend itself is to give it a reason to want to defend itself—like attacking it.

How should we judge the Iran deal?

Before we get going, a disclaimer. I’m going to lay out a reasonable way to judge the deal struck this week between the P5+1 and Iran over its nuclear ambitions. I’ll get to my own tentative assessment later (maybe in another post), but for now it’s worth noting that the process I use to evaluate an international bargain is not guided by the answer I want to end up with.

(Isn’t it said that I have to clarify this? But with the state of discourse being what it is…

AmbJohnBolton
The #IranDeal is a diplomatic Waterloo, it will pave the way for a #NuclearIran
7/14/15, 6:33 AM

…I feel like this bit of information is critical. Waterloo?

LawDavF
Didn’t we win Waterloo? So must be good. https://t.co/LMCylUqeph
7/14/15, 7:03 AM

My thoughts exactly.)

So, as always when a political scientist talks about politics, this post will probably be as notable for what it doesn’t mention as for what it does.

I got an email from my mother today: “What do you think of the Iran deal?”

Before I answered, I had to sit down and think about how to judge the deal right now, and I came up with three requisites—three questions one needs to address in order to really have a good answer to the question. (And by “good” I mean something intellectually useful, coherent, sound, and, well, responsible. And not partisan.) So here are those three questions that, it seems to me, any good judgment of the Iran deal has to have answers for:

  1. What’s the likely consequence of the current deal at some arbitrary time point in the future? (In other words, with the phased easing of sanctions tied to verified compliance, what do we expect to see vis-a-vis Iran’s weapons program in the next five years? How easy will it be to catch noncompliance, then rally support for punishment? Will it be easier than in the absence of an agreement?)
  2. Where are we likely to be (say, in five years) if, as sometimes suggested, the United States tries to solve this problem by launching a war? (What outcome would it take to end nuclear ambitions in Iran? Would the public be in for that kind of campaign? And would it even work—i.e., what if getting attacked when one doesn’t have nukes really makes one want nukes? What’s the risk of starting a bigger regional or global war? Would the P5+1 coalition stay together? How would it affect our ability to fry bigger fish, like the looming Russian threat to Eastern Europe and a potential arms race in East Asia?)
  3. What’s the likely scenario (in five years, say) if we do nothing and maintain the status quo? (Would the coalition behind the sanctions regime hold together despite the cracks already beginning to show? How easy would it be for Iran to take the final step to weaponization? If Iran got too close, how easy would it be to rally the required support, compared to under the new agreement? And let’s just say, for the sake of everyone’s sanity, that we don’t trust elected officials or their appointees to tell us what the timeline for breakout is, okay?)

The key is that we need to compare the deal just struck not to an “optimal” deal (whatever that is), not to a best-case war that magically eliminates both a nuclear program and the desire to carry it out successfully, but to the most realistic alternatives—and their likely consequences. Here, that means (a) the war that hawks have been clamoring for and (b) the continuation (and likely degradation) of the status quo sanctions regime.

Reasonable people can answer each of these responsibly and come to different conclusions—though of course I’d defend mine as more reasonable—but it seems to me that a serious debate about the merits of the deal has to begin with answers to these questions before we get to any others.