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…

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?

Didn’t we win Waterloo? So must be good.
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.

Battle Plans, Strategy, and Equilibrium (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 4)

It’s hard to talk about the First World War without at least a nod towards the war plans and strategies that the belligerents carried into the war—and that subsequently went pretty poorly for nearly all of them. Today, following Tuesday’s discussion of the crises that made a general war feel inevitable, we spent some time in the heads of the generals and civilians that would plot out how such a war would be fought. However, rather than look at France’s embarrassment in the Battle of the Frontiers, Germany’s disaster on the Marne, or Austria’s failure to crush Serbia to judge war plans, we looked at the strategic environment in which the plans were made—which makes even the Schlieffen/Moltke plan look a lot less crazy than folks often think it is.

To illustrate the problem today—that of planning a battle when you’d like to meet an opponent’s attack, while she would like to attack around your defenses—we rely on the Colonel Blotto game, which looks something like this:


The first thing we establish is that, if we’re looking at pure strategies (that is, choosing one with probability one given some action of the other player), there’s no obvious way to play the game: 1 wants to attack the right (left) if 2 defends the left (right), while 2 wants to defend where 1 attacks. As a result, each possible pair of choices has a profitable deviation; one player wants to change her action at any possible equilibrium.

How, then, should players (read: military planners) approach this problem? Technically, we say that players solve the problem by playing mixed strategies—that is, randomizing over their actions at a specific rate—but the essential idea behind it is being unpredictable: by making it difficult to guess where I’ll defend or attack, I can blunt any advantage my opponent would have by knowing the placement of my army, and vice versa. Since one’s opponent isn’t sure of where the attack will come from, she assigns probabilities to each one, which is what gives the “mixing” part of the strategies their substantive bite. This, of course, is why planners try to keep their strategies secret, why states work so hard to uncover one another’s plans, and why successfully learning another side’s battle plan can play such a critical role in the outcome of battles.

So what’s the relevance of the Blotto game for military planning ahead of World War I? I’d say it boils down to a few things:

  • since each side can try to blunt the other’s advantage, no one is going to do as well as possible in expectation
  • in fact, every possible outcome (1 running into 2’s defenses and 1 running successfully around them) occurs with some chance
  • these two facts make it very difficult to judge the wisdom of a military strategy ex post, because being unpredictable, being secretive, etc. opens up a range of possible outcomes
  • the best way to judge a strategy, then, is to look at the strategic environment in which it was formed.

This, I think, is pretty instructive, especially in the complex environment of strategizing before World War I. After walking through the solution to the Blotto game, we took each of the principal belligerents in turn—France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Britain—and assessed the extent to which their plans aimed at (a) blunting potential opponents’ advantages and (b) overcoming opponents’ attempts to blunt their own, and it turned out to be pretty fruitful. When we see battle plans—even the Schlieffen/Moltke plan—as compromises among what are often a lot of bad options…we see them a bit more accurately than we do when judging them only on their outcomes.

Next week, though, we get to see these plans put into action—Germany’s attempted envelopment of Paris, France’s attack into western Germany, the Dual Monarchy’s decision to prioritize Serbia over Russia, and the latter’s attempts to shore up Poland by engaging in both East Prussia and Galicia—as the July Crisis erupts and ultimately turns into the Great War. I, for one, can’t wait.

Leaping into the dark, Bethmann-style (Teaching WWI in Real Time)

As the realization of what I committed to with my World War I In Real Time fall course starts to dawn on me—centennials will do that to you, I suppose—I figured the anniversary of the Sarajevo assassinations would be an opportune time to share what I’ve been doing in preparation for the course, as well as what I’ve learned, not so much about the War but about prepping a new, and highly specific, course.

  1. This is going to be a lot of work. (Shocking, right?) I suppose this dawning realization is also apropos, at least with respect to the war itself; committing to this course was a leap in the dark, so to speak, one taken with no small amount of blind enthusiasm, but I don’t think I’ll be quite so regretful as Bethmann Hollweg was after his. <fingers crossed>
  2. I’m almost relieved that, on the first day of class (28 August), we’ll be past the July Crisis. Sure, the immediate sparks of the war can be found there, and I won’t be able to make proper use of “Take me Out” by Franz Ferdinand (h/t YL), but I have a sense that I’d be as impatient as Germany waiting for Austria to get off the blocks—and spending too much lecture time on pre-war crises than I really want.
  3. It’s too bad that the Battle of the Frontiers will have just ended, but the day of the 28th is fraught with contingency, choice, and uncertainty—-the perfect stuff, I think, of a first lecture. German armies have crashed through neutral Belgium, hoping to achieve a modern-day Cannae on a massive scale, only to be lured into turning south too soon, foregoing the envelopment of Paris while chasing the possibility of eliminating the French now in the field. General Joffre, on the other hand, has come to the conclusion that attrition might be the only way to win the war, and his famous General Instruction No. 2 will have just gone out, precipitating a massive retreat and repositioning Allied forces so as to set up what would become known as the Battle of the Marne—the moment(s) when Moltke’s version of the Schlieffen plan would be dashed for good, and when the Western Front would begin to settle into what we all know it, now, to look like. 28 August also sees Joffre meeting with Sir John French, trying to keep the British Expeditionary Force in the line, setting the stage for years of (what I, at least, think are) fascinating intra-coalitional politics. With plans wrecked, opponents adjusting, and the strategic picture in remarkable flux, what will the generals, the soldiers, the statesmen, and the home fronts do in response? Forgive me if that’s a goosebump moment for me; I can’t wait to give this lecture.
  4. Lengthy geek-out aside, I’m assigning Max Hastings’ Catastrophe,  which pretty much covers the war from August to the end of the semester—and which I hope my undergrads find to be sufficiently readable. (Well, those that read enough to judge readability, I should say.) As for the other readings…well, up in the air at this point, apart from this (which, if you’ve not read it, is excellent). Had thought about Herwig’s book on The Marne, which I’m finishing now, but the timing is all off. At any rate, you’ll hear more about this decision shortly.
  5. And, finally, I think I’ll be able to sketch out some simple game-theoretic models for many of the topics we’ll consider, from the high politics of diplomacy, statecraft, and intrawar bargaining, to military strategy, to labor-management tensions at home, and to the dynamics of resistance and reprisals behind the front, etc., which should lend some unity to the whole thing. Let’s hope so, at least. Again, fingers crossed.

Broadly, I think that we can learn a lot from the war—sure, maybe not much about some things on which it’s an outlier—but specific instances of general trends can be awfully illuminating when we place them in theoretical context, and my hope is that the anniversary fever for the seminal tragedy in modern history can be put to good use (translation: my students are going to get ambushed with more science than they expect). Keep an eye on this space in the coming weeks and months as I try to figure out how to do just that.


Showing Restraint, Signaling Resolve (talk slides)

In lieu of lecture musings today, I’m posting the slides (PDF) for my talk this afternoon as part of Rochester’s Watson Seminar Series. I’ve presented this particular paper around quite a bit, and the theoretical model is coming out (soon, I hope) at AJPS, but the empirics are new and part of the effort to integrate this model and a few others into a book manuscript. I’m slowly learning how to fit both theoretical and empirical models into a talk and do it well—we’ll see how close I get to that goal this afternoon.

Showing Restraint, Signaling Resolve: Slides

I’m headed to SUNY Buffalo this week for a min-conference on Mathematical Modeling of Political Behavior (thanks for the invite, Phil Arena), and to help tie my hands against spending all my time editing them, I’m putting the slides for my presentation, “Showing Restraint, Signaling Resolve,” up here on the blog.

I’ve presented this paper around quite a bit (see here and here)—and since it’s under review, I’m not going to put it up here—but the essential point is that coalition partners—specifically, the desire to ensure their cooperation—can have a profound impact on bargaining, signals, and the probability of war. Against strong targets, the desire to keep a skittish partner in the fold discourages a coalition leader from bluffing; so, although its partner “waters down” the threat, it helps discourage war. Against weak targets, preserving military cooperation discourages a coalition leader from signaling its resolve; instead, it acts like an irresolute state, tempting the coalition’s target to risk war. As it happens, this pattern shows up pretty strongly in the data (which, trust me, was no small relief), and while the empirics aren’t in the version currently under review, I’m sure they’ll show up somewhere eventually…

And it appears that Buffalo’s going to be a bit, ah, chilly:

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 1.20.55 PM












Damn it.

Tomorrow: The Texas Triangle

Tomorrow, Texas A&M is hosting the annual Texas Triangle IR Conference, which highlights grad student and junior faculty research.

I’ll be presenting “National Leaders, Political Survival, and International Military Coalitions”, (co-authored with Emily Ritter), which tries to explain a specific type of cooperation: when and with whom states build military coalitions during crises (here are the slides). It’s part of a broader project that understands coalitions as crisis-specific instances of military cooperation, where building a coalition yields military benefits but requires that partners be compensated for their efforts. In this paper, we analyze how political survival incentives affect this tradeoff. We show that politically insecure leaders will be more willing than secure leaders to make side payments at the expense of the public interest to reduce the risk of defeat—which harms their chances of retaining office. Thus, insecure leaders are both more willing to build coalitions and less selective about the partners they choose, compromising a larger share of the public interest in the pursuit of retaining office.

As a side note, I’ll also be live-tweeting conference highlights at @nocodecub using the hashtag #TexasTriangle. It’s my first such attempt at live-tweeting, so I make no promises as to the consistency and quality of the effort, but if it helps publicize what I think is a pretty strong group of IR scholars in the state, then we’ll call it a win.

Texas Triangle Post-Mortem and UVA Slides

I got some great feedback on my coalitions and signaling paper at the Texas Triangle conference a few weeks ago (it looks like I’ve not even posted since then), and I’ve spent the time since editing, revising, and prepping the paper for another talk Monday at UVA. Biggest mistake I made in the first version? I didn’t realize that I had coalitions forming endogenously in the model the whole time, and explaining that would’ve obviated some questions from the crowd [Way to go, Scott. –Ed.], but things look a bit better at this point, and I’ll be excited to see what a new set of eyes think about it.

I’m not posting the paper yet, but here’s the current draft of the slides I’ll be using on Monday. Broadly speaking, the points are similar to the previous version, if a little more refined:

  1. Skittish coalition partners disincentivize bluffing against strong targets, reducing the probability of war.
  2. However, they raise the probability of war against weaker targets by discouraging costly mobilizations that would reveal resolve.
  3. Acting unilaterally can be a signal of resolve, but it requires abandoning potential coalition partners.

So we have what seems to be a nonobvious interaction between intra-coalitional politics and the strength of the coalition’s target, and we have a new way of thinking about the “watered down” or “weak” threats that coalitions often (as they do in this model) form around: while they sometimes prevent the revelation of resolve, they can at other terms be a sign that states have chosen not to engage in the kinds of bluffing that would otherwise risk war.

More to follow, including a draft of the paper, after the talk and another round of revisions…