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.

Is dealing with China about to get a lot harder?

This piece in the NYT over the weekend really caught my eye, because it reminds me of this paper that Toby and I finished a draft of not too long ago. Before getting to that, however, the meat of the story about China is that Hu Jintao may not be as “in charge” as he’d like–and as we’d like–him to be, what with the PLA running what is oftentimes its own foreign policy and state-owned enterprises flouting nominal concessions over stopping the piracy of American technology and media. The Times attributes some of this to the impending leadership change (see here for a discussion of those in North Korea), but if current premier doesn’t have enough institutional control over the military when it comes to making foreign policy, then new leadership may or may not change that. The basic problem is that the folks that Hu needs to comply with the deals he strikes internationally don’t feel that they need to, because Hu can’t do much about it. The result?

Divided leadership has made it harder to resolve disputes with China, much less strike grand bargains like the reopening of relations between the two countries under Mao.

I think they’ve got an important point here, and it’s got some interesting implications for what to expect and how we might handle China down the road. Continue reading

South Korea ups the ante…but war (probably) isn’t much more likely.

Woke up this morning to see this story about South Korea’s new rules of engagement with respect to further military provocations from North Korea, where the new defense minister says that the South will respond with airstrikes to future hostile actions from its northern neighbor. Plenty of people will focus on the explicit mention of the tactic to be used—airstrikes, in which the South has a comparative advantage—but the most important part of the piece is right here:

Mr. Kim, 61, a former infantry commander who headed the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the new rules of engagement would also give more authority to commanders in the field.

See that? The South is delegating the decision to use force to a lower level, commanders in the field, who in principle should be more willing to resort to violence with their own troops under attack than political leaders in Seoul, who we know would rather not see a war. You’ll recall, as well, that neither does the North, hence the use of “threats that leave something to chance” to enhance one’s bargaining position. In this particular case, the South’s political leadership is doing what it can to say, “Look, the decision to escalate might be out of our hands, because if you shell our troops again, they’re primed and ready and free to act in self-defense, because their commanders now have the authority to retaliate in a big way.”

It’s brinkmanship, as we talked about before, and it’s an expected step in the process. Neither side wants war, yet neither knows just how much of a risk of war the other side is willing to tolerate, so you see incremental steps, a bidding process as it were, to signal just how far you’re willing to go. All it takes to win a game of brinkmanship is to escalate just far enough to convince your opponent that you’ll run bigger risks than him (you’ll always raise the risks as little as possible, given what you must do to convince the other side, at each step, because the risks of things getting out of hand are real), and the recent nearby training exercises in the Yellow Sea and, now, the decision to take the decision for using force out of the hands of the political leadership shows that South Korea is upping the ante on its own.

So what happens next? Well, the North will have to decide whether it can tolerate this increased risk of retaliation from the South; if it can’t, then the South wins the bidding, and the North doesn’t provoke them again for a while. If it can tolerate this level of risk to get what it wants, then it may raise the risks a little bit more (but not a lot), and the game is, once again, back in the South’s court. Should be interesting, and, no matter what the North does, we’ll learn something from their response…

Is North Korea “irrational”? No.

It’s been common for quite some time to call Kim Jong-Il irrational, and North Korea’s well-known ability to keep the world “guessing“—careening from talks to no talks, compliance to noncompliance, calls for aid to sinking ships and lobbing shells across the border—has done little to discourage this kind of talk. However, it’s dead wrong to infer “irrationality” (whatever that means) from unpredictability. In fact, one can argue that, in North Korea’s position, being unpredictable is quite shrewd and, yes, quite rational. Far from delusional or incoherent, I’d go so far as to call North Korea’s actions over Kim Jong-Il’s reign “rationally unpredictable.” What do I mean by that? More after the jump…

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Wikileaks and coalition building against Iran

As the latest batch of Wikileaks documents hits the web, it’s hard to keep track of too much, but here’s a brief comment on something that caught by eye: a discussion of how the Obama administration won cooperation from formerly reluctant great powers on a new, tougher sanctions regime against Iran.

You’ll recall John McCain’s criticism of Obama’s willingness to talk to Iran back on the campaign trail (odd, to me, since that’s the best way to convey even threats), calling it a sign of weakness. Turns out that critique falls flat once you see exactly what the administration was up to, which was ensuring that those countries better able than us to put economic pressure on Iran (Russia, China, Germany) were on board. Let’s face it: without these countries on board, we just can’t do enough damage to make any real difference on Iranian calculations.

Two things stood out to me. (1) The administration might, and I stress might, since there’s no obvious quid pro quo here, have used the bargaining chip of the missile defense station in Poland to get Russia on board with punishing Iran. Not long after taking office, Obama delayed the cancellation of that program, and at the time I posted that I suspected he did so in order to keep a bargaining chip in his pocket with the Russians, and it might have paid off in this case, as they’ve now signed on to the latest two rounds of big-time sanctions. (2) Knowing that China’s cooperation would hurt Iran but that it also gets almost 12% of its oil from there, the US worked out a deal by which the Saudis would guarantee to sell oil to China to make up the shortfall caused by disrupted trade with Iran. As a result, the Chinese are on board.

All in all, not bad, because it’s very shrewd diplomacy, and recent indications are that the sanctions are beginning to bite. Now, will they have an effect? Certainly not in the short term, but should further developments dictate more stringent action, we’ve certainly got the beginnings of a coalition in place, and that might be one of the more reassuring things to come out of this whole mess.

Some quick Sunday thoughts on Korea

While much of the commentary on the most recent round of tensions on the Korean Peninsula seems concerned with why it might escalate to war, I think it’s equally useful at this point to give an accounting of the reasons why it probably won’t. (And, thankfully, there are a few.)

You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that domestic politics in North Korea, what with an impending leadership transition and worsening food shortages, probably has a lot to do with the decision to lob around 180 shells onto a small Yellow Sea island west of the peninsula. Perhaps the Kims feel the need to look “tough” and “in control” in anticipation of the accession of a new, untested leader to the throne of the DPRK. Granting that, though, below the jump are a few reasons why a general war probably won’t be in the offing. (Probably.)

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In the shadow of the successor

It seems that fewer and fewer Russia watchers doubt that Vladimir Putin will find a way to return to the presidency in 2012, and the consensus seems to be that this ain’t gonna be good for the US. Here, we’ve got a case where the US has a pretty good idea of who Russia’s next leader is going to be and what he’s going to be like: a lot more difficult to deal with than the incumbent, Medvedev.

More after the break…

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Yemen and the problem of sovereignty

Much has been made lately about Yemen as a new front in the American military effort against Al Qaeda and its affiliates (in this case, it’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP). An already ill-defined border with Saudi Arabia has long caused problems in the control of militants, criminals, and illegal immigrants, and as AQAP continues to operate and, perhaps, grow in strength, the Yemeni government’s inability to run its own household has led to some interesting strategies on the Saudi side for dealing with the problem, detailed in this article I ran across in the Times a few weeks ago. Turns out that my paper with Toby Rider, “War, Peace, and Internal Sovereignty,” has something to say about this problem (in fact, Toby’s working up a case discussion of Yemen for the next draft of the paper as I write this), so let’s dig into it a little deeper.

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Leaders, elections, and preemptive bargaining

From the archives. I posted this one around Halloween, and it’s self-promotion of the most blatant sort…

Dan Drezner’s Halloween post on horror, fear, etc. in IR has an interesting tidbit about the Tea Party that reminded me of a chapter in my dissertation that’s currently under review in a (quite drastically) different form. You can find it on the Research page; it’s called “Leadership Turnover as a Commitment Problem.” Drezner makes the point that foreign fear of a Tea Party takeover (and Sarah Palin presidency) might lead other countries to give the United States a little more of what it wants internationally, perhaps to bolster the incumbent and his party in office.

Turns out my paper has a little to say about this, a phenomenon I label “preemptive appeasement.” The story goes something like this: when an incumbent might be followed by a successor I’d rather not deal with, I might try to give the incumbent a “win” in order to help his reelection chances that I’d otherwise by happy to deny him. This does require a few things, though I’ll give the two most relevant: (1) whatever “win” I give him must make a sufficiently large difference in boosting his chances of staying in office (so it’s got to be a salient issue that the voting public really cares about); and (2) the successor mustn’t be too different from the incumbent, lest I just decide to fight a war to lock-in whatever I can before the successor takes office.

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