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.

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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Interstate Coalitions and Strategic Restraint

Today (today being, uh, long ago), I posted the first draft of a new working paper, “Interstate Coalitions and Strategic Restraint” ( find it on the¬†Research page). It’s the second paper in my broader project on coercion through coalitions, and this one—despite the absence of such references in the paper—came out of thinking about coalitions as sheriff’s posses: they collect a lot of power under one banner, but if they don’t break up after bringing in the first fugitive, they can be a threat to the order they’re nominally out to preserve. The posse analogy is surely not new to the field, but it seems to me that using it to think about the problem of strategic restraint is, and I use it to model the alignment decision of an observer that watches a coalition in action and worries about facing some or all of its members in a future crisis.

More after the jump…

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