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

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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

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.

Fighting “unwinnable” wars (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 10)

I promised my students at the beginning of the semester that we’d cover lots of ground when it came to theories of politics, and after covering labor movements last Thursday, we swung back today to puzzling over some of the earliest fighting in the war. We finally got onto the battlefield, you might say—looking in particular at Austria’s ill-fated 1914 campaign against Serbia. Two facts were of note in the early-going, because they’ll pop up again: atrocities against civilians and the near impossibility of achieving a breach against well-positioned modern firepower. However, our puzzle today was a simple one: why do some countries, like Serbia in 1914, fight wars that they don’t seem to have any reasonable chance of winning?

We developed two answers, familiar to readers of this blog, based on the idea that war is costly, destructive, wasteful—which gives even strong states incentives to strike bargains that avoid it, to say nothing of weak states that already expect to do poorly on the battlefield. Put differently, after a war, it’s pretty easy for the erstwhile belligerents to consider the treaty that ended their war, then look back and say, “Why didn’t we sign a treaty on these terms back then, before all the bloodletting?” We developed two answers, based on Fearon’s explanations for war.

First, it’s possible that, if states disagree about the likely outcome of a war, they can’t agree on what bargains are mutually preferable to it. In that case, my opponent may propose terms that I find unacceptable, leading me to fight, because I was unable to disabuse her of her belief that she could best me on the battlefield. Even if I’m relatively weak in this case, I’m not expecting a fight to the finish, because—once my relative strength has been demonstrated—my opponent has an incentive to propose terms that reflect her updated beliefs about my relative strength, ending the war and saving further bloodletting. So why fight an “unwinnable” war? One answer is that I might fight to prove I deserve better terms than my opponent deigns to offer me.

Given Austria’s surprise at (a) Serbian fighting prowess and (b) assertive Russian intervention, we could imagine just such an informational component to the fight; Austria thought it could win and win easily, while Germany kept the Russians at bay, leading it to make a pretty outlandish set of demands of its smaller neighbor. However, we also know that some Austrian leaders wanted to make sure that their demands of Serbia were rejected, which means that it wasn’t just an Austrian underestimation of her ally’s strength (though you’ve got to think that made them optimistic enough to aim for “crushing” as opposed to merely punishing Serbia). We’ve mentioned before that Austria’s motives were preventive; it wished to fight Serbia now, averting a future in which a growing Serbia might further undermine the Dual Monarchy’s control over its Slav nationalities. In that sense, Serbia’s decision was made for it, but the reasoning still applies to weak states quite well.

Here’s our second answer. If Serbia accepted everything in the Austrian ultimatum, it would cede parts of its own sovereign authority—judicial and police powers, in particular—and it would have been hard to imagine Austria-Hungary credibly giving those powers back. In other words, peace on Austrian terms would’ve shifted power substantially against Serbia, leading to what its leaders believed would be a further deterioration in its position against its enemies; war, on the other hand, might not have offered great prospects, but the worst outcome wasn’t all that different than what peace would’ve offered with near certainty: the end of rising Serbian power in the Balkans. So why fight an “unwinnable” war? Our second answer is that I might fight today because, whatever my prospects, the costs of future weakness are greater than the costs of war in the present.

Of course, it’s interesting that Serbia’s shifting power fear came as the result of the Dual Monarchy’s; if Austria hadn’t wanted to crush Serbia and dole her territories out to other states in the region, it might never have put such terms in front of Serbia in the first place. But we can still see this playing out when the shift in power doesn’t come about as the result of an opponent’s harsh demands, but armament programs: plenty of Germany’s leaders didn’t think their chances against Russia were great, but, by the same logic, in 1914 those chances were as good as they’d ever be—making an ostensibly “unwinnable” war against the combined industrial power of the Entente, however much a “leap into the dark” it was, an acceptable risk in the face of (what was believed to be) certain decline.

The puzzle of labor’s support for The Great War (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 9)

After spending most of the first third of the course knee-deep in the diplomacy and military strategy that would touch off the war, we switched course—a bit—and looked into another puzzle: the apparent willingness of socialist, workers’, and labor parties (adamantly opposed in principle to war) to support the war, whether by voting to fund it or accepting positions in national unity governments. Were they sellouts, as some of their more extreme ideological brethren claimed? Or were they simply nationalists first, when all the chips were down?

As you might guess, we developed a rather different answer. In doing so, we introduced the notion of sequential rationality into our game-theoretic toolkit, allowing the class to think about the problem from the perspective of state-society bargaining. Where we’d boiled things down to normal-form games in the past, now our goal is to think harder about sequential moves, the credibility of threats and promises, and how the anticipation of threats alters behavior in the present.* The games likely won’t need to get more complicated, and we’ll still rely on the normal form for quite a bit to retain some consistency, but the extensive form game (and stealth applications of subgame perfect equilibrium) will pop up from time to time.

As to today’s content, we noted that, typically, the more the government needs from society, the more it must yield in terms of rights, privileges, and power, because society can threaten to withhold what the government needs. In 1914, appearance of a true “people’s war” that would mobilize virtually all of society—the soldiers on the battlefield and the industrial laborers that would supply them—required a level of concession to labor that had heretofore been unnecessary, but also one that some labor leaders were more eager to accept than we might expect. Specifically, moderate socialists appeared to see an opportunity to win some long-term policy influence, because the genie of modern industrial war, with its voracious need for manpower both at and behind the front, wasn’t likely to disappear any time soon. Get them in the government, with their ability to bring along the industrial masses, and they were likely to remain a force to be reckoned with—and, arguably, that came to pass.

So, in the end, were the socialists that supported the war sellouts? Were they nationalists? Some of them, maybe (and it’s probably possible to be all three). But the rationale for accepting political concessions from a government that needs your constituents and will likely continue to need them for the future is a savvier, more strategically-minded move than either of the more common stories suggests.

* It also involved an example wherein I would demand a cup of coffee on pain of detonating a grenade. Not sure, exactly, how incredible the students found that.

The preventive motive behind Pearl Harbor (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 9)

Sometimes lectures write themselves. Unsurprisingly, I like it when that happens.

Today, we focused on Japan’s decision to expand its regional war, focused on pacifying China through the late 1930s, into a global war by attacking not only Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 but, in the same timeframe, Thailand, Malaya, The Philippines, Wake Island, Guam, Hong Kong, and the International Settlement at Shanghai. Knowing that the first target would likely draw the United States into the war—though hoping to cause a significant delay—why would Japan turn some of its focus away from its main theater in China?

This won’t come as much of a surprise to IR folks, but Paine’s account of the decision framed it quite well as an escalation of the war driven by a commitment problem—specifically, the fact that the United States, which has been mobilizing for a while and had embarked on building a two-ocean navy, would soon outstrip Japan in naval power; Japan’s leaders calculated roughly even odds of defeating the United States by late 1941, given their respective shipbuilding programs and future potential, followed by a sharp decline—which would allow the US to prevent the fall of China, which Japan had long viewed as critical to its survival as a great power.

In fact, the United States made a series of peace proposals before December’s attack, most of which involved withdrawals from China—but which, ex post, were clearly preferable to the outcome of the war. Why didn’t Japan cut such a deal? Paine is worth quoting here:

[P]eace on American terms, entailing a withdrawal from China, would lead to the gradual impoverishment of Japan and would undo the efforts of generations of Japanese to transform their country into a modern power. War with the United States, on the other hand, offered a 50-50 chance of success (p. 185)

In other words, cutting a deal would allow US power in the region to grow unchecked, and such increased power could be used, down the road, to force Japan out of China anyway. If the worst outcome of a war would be similar, then rolling the dice before military prospects got worse—as Japan’s leadership expected—might’ve looked pretty attractive.

Interestingly, we’ve also got a story about the timing of war in the shadow of shifting power, but rather than the typical rising-declining state story, we’ve got one where in the late 1930s Japan expects to improve in the short term—so it waits before attempting a knockout blow—but to decline in the long term. So while some work finds that there’s no particular time during a shift in power that’s more war-prone than others, I wonder if taking a step back temporally, considering a short-term versus long-term changes in power, might alter those expectations…

Information problems and the end of the Russo-Japanese War

Turns out that teaching the Russo-Japanese War yesterday gave me a lot more food for thought—or, at a minimum, things I want to talk about—than I realized. 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 alia, this, this, 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.

(Incidentally, war termination is also the subject of today’s grad international security class…)