What made the Western Front the “decisive” one? (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 22)

We spent Tuesday (a lecture about which I forgot to blog) talking about the expansion of the war, particularly the decisions made by neutrals like Italy, the Ottoman Empire, and (later) the United States to join the war. Today, though, by zeroing in on other neutrals like Romania and Bulgaria, we might have stumbled across an interesting explanation for why the Western Front was the decisive one of the war—not because it was fated to be so, but because of some key strategic problems posed by the two-front nature of Germany’s war. Here’s how.

Suppose, first, that Germany has two goals (among many, of course): fighting an attritional materialschlacht in the West, where decision—though delayed—is possible against the Western Allies, while ensuring that Eastern neutrals like Bulgaria and Romania don’t jump over into the allied camp. Second, suppose further that Germany expects that many neutrals’ decisions will be driven by which side is believed likely to win on the Eastern Front (Hastings has a discussion of this in Chapter 16), beliefs that Germany is in a position to shape as the Dual Monarchy’s armies stagger from disaster to disaster in Galicia and Serbia. To pursue its goals, Germany has an allocation decision to make: how many of a limited number of troops should it send to each front?

Faced with this problem, Germany weakened its forces in the west, ensuring that breakthroughs, if possible, couldn’t be turned into broader successes, sending troops to shore up Austro-Hungarian forces fighting the Russians. Germany is often criticized for this diversion of attention from the “decisive” Western Front, but I’m not sure that’s the right way to think about this. Consider, for example, what would happen if Germany threw its whole effort into the West; a possible Hapsburg collapse, a cascade of neutrals bandwagoning with the Allies, and disaster in the East—which, of course, would make the East the decisive front. On the other hand, if Germany focuses too much on the East, the Western Front can’t sustain attrition, and the Western Allies might win. Faced with the prospect of full-on defeat on one front or the other, Germany accepted an attritional stalemate on both. Stopping a loss in the East, it prevented (in the short term) critical neutrals from taking undesirable actions, but doing so required stalemating the West at the same time. However, had it taken the frequently-given ex post advice of concentrating in the West, the Eastern Front might well have been decisive. In short, the Western Front was decisive in equilibrium, but it wasn’t fated to be so.

Interesting right? Germany and the Allies all bet on attrition in the West, horrific as it was, because (a) the Allies had no better options, and (b) nor did the Central powers, who chose to make the stalemated West the critical front rather than an Eastern Front that might have turned out worse under another strategy. This also means that, in a way, Bulgaria and Romania, at least early on, played a role in which front would be decisive in the Great War before either fired a shot. Is it any wonder that no one really likes fighting two-front wars?

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Europe before the Great War(WWI in Real Time, Lecture 3)

After finishing last week with a discussion of the logic of the Anglo-German Naval Race, we did a more inferentially-minded exercise today, examining the four “big” great power crises of the early 20th Century: First Morocco, Bosnian Annexation, Second Morocco, and the First Balkan War. The reason we talk about them is quite simple: to understand why war happens, we must compare it to instances were war was averted, lest we find ourselves affirming the consequent in some bizarre claim that, say, great power crises (or armies, or uniforms, or maps, or alliances…) cause major war. So today was just as much about the logic of inference as anything else, but we got to do it by building up a narrative about the crises that led up to the war, revealing information over time about the extent of the Russian recovery from defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, both materially and over its willingness to impinge on Austrian interests in the Balkans.

The basic logic went something like this: in each of these crises, we saw great powers willing to match each other’s cooperation (that is, avoiding open conflict) with cooperation, and they were able to signal peaceful intent at key points by limiting their military mobilization—in some cases, foregoing substantial amounts of combat power by releasing conscript classes they could otherwise have held over (a costly signal of peaceful intent, indeed). Information problems arose over one great power or another’s willingness to fight, and they were able to use costly measures to back up statements of intent; interestingly, though, the challenge for the offensively-minded governments of early 20th Century Europe, it wasn’t about credibly signaling resolve but a lack of it—it was more difficult to say, “no, we really won’t fight” than to say “yes, we really will fight,” which might go some way to explaining why costly signals of reassurance, not costly signals of resolve, went a long way to explaining the peaceful resolution of these disputes.

It’s also instructive, I think, with respect to the preventive motives that would ultimately push Germany towards war; from 1905, when Russian weakness made France pessimistic about resolving the First Moroccan Crisis with war, to 1913, with the Russian economy recovering at a good clip and rearmament with French funds proceeding apace, Germany seemed to be watching for one thing: an indicator that Russia was rising fast enough—in arms and willingness to use them—to make a preventive war attractive. By 1914, when Russia tipped its hand over willingness to intervene on Serbia’s behalf, Germany’s information problem, which was a question over whether the time had come for a preventive war, was solved; we moved from a world dominated by informational problems, resolvable by costly signaling, to one dominated by the commitment problem, where uncertainty is beside the point.

Oddly, the July Crisis ultimately revealed information about Russian resolve, but the revelation of information isn’t necessarily a force for peace when what one learns is that preventive war has no become attractive

…but I’m getting ahead of myself. [Slow down, Scott.] Tomorrow, we pick up in 1913-14, as war looks inevitable to some on the Continent and demands that they firm up plans and strategies for how to fight it…

War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 6

Today we covered the Russo-Japanese War, but I ended up spending most class time on two things: (a) the terms of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and (b) Japan’s care to respect neutral ships at Inchon—foregoing opportunities to sink some Russian ones—even after nominally violating international law by initiating hostilities before a declaration of war. My thoughts on the latter are evolving, so I’m saving them, but the first point is, I think, fairly interesting.

The Anglo-Japanese treaty stipulated, according to Connaughton, that should one side become embroiled in a war in the region, the other would (a) act to keep the war from expanding but (b), if that failed and another party entered the fray, fight alongside its ally. It’s an interesting combination of a neutrality(ish) agreement and defense pact, and while it arguably helped keep the war limited—not many European powers would want to take on the Royal Navy far from the Continent, I suspect—it might well have emboldened Japan because of the assurance that its war with Russia would remain bilateral.

Entering the realm of speculation, I’m guessing that the British wouldn’t have been too broken up to see the war knock the Russians down a peg or two, so they wouldn’t have been terribly interested in restraining Japan. However, this does serve as a nice table setting for our discussion later of alliances, moral hazard, and strategic ambiguity across the Taiwan Strait later in the semester.

Oh, and I’m totally keeping this neutrality rights thing to myself for now. Totally.

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.

Conference expansion and game theory

Or, why four sixteen-team super conferences might be inevitable.

By all indications, we just might be witnessing a major reshuffle of major college sports these days, with reports indicating that we very well might see the demise of the Big XII and the Big East (at least as a football conference). While my own loyalties in their less-kind moments take some pleasure in certain unnamed teams being left standing in this high-stakes game of musical chairs, I’m struck by how many explanations we’re seeing out here for this kind of major reshuffle. Dana O’Neil calls it out-and-out greed, for instance, that leads Syracuse and Pitt to bolt the Big East for the ACC—with a healthy dose of blame also reserved for the commissioner of the Big East. (Of course, Texas A&M bolting the Big XII for the SEC is taken as more about fairness, given the unusual–cough, cough–revenue-sharing structure in the Big XII…but I digress.) So what is behind all this? It is greed? Callousness? An indifference towards “the fans” (where that usually means the columnist)?

Maybe those things are involved, and maybe not.

As far as I’m concerned, the best way to think about this is something (roughly) like a Prisoner’s Dilemma. With good TV markets up for grabs, even conferences that would prefer to stay small must take on new teams lest they be left with the garbage TV markets when a major reshuffle is all said and done. Take the SEC. My sense is that most people involved are fine with a 12-team league, but if everyone else is moving towards four 16-team super-conferences (the better to negotiate ESPN deals with?), then it doesn’t want to be stuck taking lousy teams or lousy TV markets—and the same is generally true everywhere. Therefore, the four major conferences considering expansion—SEC, Pac-12, ACC, and Big Ten (Plus Two)—could each all have standing pat, staying at something like 12 teams, as their most preferred option, but in the absence of a way for conferences to commit not to take new members, standing pat means getting stuck with colleges you’d rather not take. As a result, we’re seeing a re-alignment that very well might be everyone’s third-best option (first being, maybe, expanding while others don’t, then staying put at second), and it need not stem from greed or moral turpitude or callousness at all…just from a basic commitment problem: the inability to conferences to promise not to expand when it’s in their best interest.

What’s the solution? Short of taking expansion legally out of conferences’ hands, I’m not sure there is one. And if that’s the case, here’s hoping the SEC makes the right moves in getting us up to 16 teams…

Coalitions and Units of Analysis

So I’m finally getting to the point where I’ve got time to dive head-first into my first big post-dissertation research agenda, which is all about balancing the ledger sheet, as it were, on the use, effectiveness, and desirability of building foreign policy coalitions. You can find component papers here and here, as well as some recent slides for the latter paper that involve some early empirical tests of the conditions under which coalitions provoke counterbalancing. (On a side note, I put the slides together after the paper, but I still maintain that Hal Varian’s advice that the format of a good paper should follow the format of a good talk is the way to operate. So do as I say, not as I do…) Today, though, I want to talk about why IR scholarship hasn’t examined coalitions in the way I think we should, what my solution is, and what it might contribute to the larger project of understanding war in international relations.

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