German aims in the July Crisis (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 5)

After a week that saw us talk about prewar crises and military planning for the big one, should it ever break out, today we dived directly into the strategy of the July Crisis following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Rather than follow the crisis in a linear fashion, though, we tried to tackle a part of the story: German preferences over the many possible outcomes of the crisis. German goals in the war and the preceding crisis have long been a subject of debate—beginning almost as soon as the war broke out—and our goal was to use the weight of available evidence to figure out how Germany might’ve ranked the possible outcomes of its choice over backing Austria in its proposed war on Serbia; doing so will give us some tools to think about the preferences and choices of the other great powers (particularly France and Russia) when we pick up the other part of the narrative—or, more properly, flesh out the other side of the game—on Thursday.

Without rehashing the historiography, here’s what we settled on. Given Austria’s desire to crush Serbia—either dismembering it or forcing it into an alliance with the Dual Monarchy—Germany’s options were to support its ally or not, and the likely outcomes all involved some form of Russian involvement. However, contrary to some accounts, it doesn’t look like Germany was bent on provoking a war with Russia; to be sure, its leaders had been wondering whether preventive war was attractive since Russian rearmament began in 1905, but it had always used Russian assertiveness as the indicator of whether the time had come to attack before the Great Program of rearmament would be complete. In 1905, 1908, 1911, and 1913, the indicator never appeared, and preventive war was never attractive. In short, Germany would fight a preventive war when Russian assertiveness indicated that the time was right, but it was hardly bent on it from the start. As such, we came up with the following ranking, from best to worst:

  1. Austria attacks Serbia, Russia doesn’t intervene (Serbian power eliminated, Dual Monarchy secured, Russia pushed out of the Balkans, and costs of war saved, Entente might fall apart)
  2. Austria attacks Serbia, Russia intervenes, Germany fights (Russian assertiveness reveals preventive war’s time has come)
  3. Austria attacks Serbia, Russia intervenes, Germany doesn’t fight (closest ally defeated, Russian interests ascendant in Balkans, and Russian growth continues unchecked)

Why specify these preferences? Two reasons. First, it lets us see how they “add up” and interact with Russian and French preferences to get us the World War that we had emerging from the July Crisis. (Hint: the revelation of Russian assertiveness turns out to be key in convincing Germany that it’s time to preventive war.)

Second, and more important for today, it’s a useful exercise in thinking hard about how we explain political phenomena. If Germany’s best possible outcome was “localization,” as contemporaries called it, where the threat to support Austria kept the Russians on the sidelines and ensured that the Triple Alliance would dominate the Balkans in the future, then it’s hard to assert—as a few still do—that Germany wanted a preventive war, pursued and then got its preferred outcome. It’s an easy argument to make, but it’s probably also fallacious: Germany seemed to have gotten its second best outcome, and we can’t infer from what did happen that this is what Germany wanted to happen. This means that, to understand why the July Crisis turned into the Great War, we need to know something about why localization failed—why the German threat to support Austria-Hungary was insufficient to deter Russia from mobilizing and continuing the Continent’s slide into war. If, on the other hand, we assume that what happens is exactly what people want to happen, then we can tell a nice linear story—but we also run a serious risk of mis-explaining one of the key events in world history.

Here’s a brief example: after the British indicated that they would have trouble remaining neutral, Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg actually tried to convince Austria to “halt in Belgrade,” limiting its own preventive war to a punitive raid, and while this is consistent with the idea that localization was the goal (British support would certainly embolden the Russians and the French), it’s an anomaly for the idea that Germany was bent on war. Thinking hard about preferences, choice, and strategic behavior, then, can clearly improve our understanding of even the biggest, most complex of events.

Just how German preferences interacted with Russian and French preferences to produce the War, though, will be the subject of the next lecture.

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…

When class meets current events, Causes of War edition

With the university closed Tuesday morning due to weather (which is becoming something like a routine around here), I was granted a couple of more days to think about just how I’d address the crisis in Ukraine in my Causes of War class. In the intervening time, I was fortunate enough to see Jay Ulfelder’s post, “This Is Not a Drill,” and to have some lengthy discussions with colleagues about what, if anything, to say responsibly during a highly fluid—and potentially high-stakes—situation that bears pretty directly on the topic of my class. (And not only the class, as I’ll mention below: the very unit we’re in the middle of.)

One option in situations like this is, of course, to say nothing. “Folks, the schedule says we’re going to talk about Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941, so, by damn, that’s what we’re going to do.” There’s a lot to be said for that approach, to be frank: this early in any crisis, we know so very little about what’s actually happening on the ground, much less why these things are happening. Speculation is always in tremendous supply, and, entertainingly, often preceded by “I don’t want to speculate, but…”

However, I decided today while crafting a response to an email from a student asking about the crisis that, even in a tide of speculation, there’s still something to be said for analysis, or at least rigorous thinking, in light of the few things we do know. If nothing else, it gives us a guide for understanding subsequent events and a few things to look for.

So I’ve decided to talk about Ukraine. The next question, of course, is what to say. As it happens, the class is currently deep into thinking about the use of military force in response to commitment problems (e.g., here and here). We’ve been analyzing when countries will attack, invade, or occupy one another as a way to arrest or prevent a process of declining bargaining leverage that would invalidate deals that are otherwise perfectly acceptable in the present. The use of force may be costly up front, but states may nonetheless opt for it when those costs are are preferable to watching today’s bargain (the status quo) wither away in the future.

Part of our exercise will be to identify these motives in Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941, when it calculated that its naval power would be as close to that of the United States’ as it ever would be. Then, the question will be whether Russia might be intervening in Ukraine’s messy domestic situation to arrest its own potentially declining bargaining leverage. If we look at the current situation, it’s possible (though, of course, not yet definitive) that we see another species of commitment problem (and, of course, not one producing an attack on another great power, as we saw in 1941). Here’s how:

  1. Ukraine’s domestic upheaval might herald a prolonged shift to the West.
  2. Russia has secured basing rights in the Crimea (which it ceded to Ukraine in 1954), most notably at the port of Sevastopol—rights it would like to protect. These rights aren’t under direct threat now, but…
  3. If a Westward tilt in Ukrainian politics would erode Ukraine’s commitment to honoring leasing agreements, then the current deal might be ever more difficult to keep in place.
  4. Alternatively, if a descent into deeper political chaos were to occur, the current deal might be ever more difficult to keep in place.
  5. If either or both of (3) and (4) would lead to an abrogation of Russian rights in Crimea, and if the consequences of losing of those rights would be greater than the costs of using force (roughly), then Russia’ decision to occupy the region could plausibly be read as a response to a basic commitment problem.

Does that mean Russian actions have derived entirely from the desire to prevent the loss of military privileges in Ukraine? Maybe not, but this is a plausible story consistent with the facts as we (think we) know them. At a minimum, thinking in these terms can tell us where to look if, indeed, this is a response Russia’s expected “loss” of Crimea; if we’re looking at a commitment problem, Russian actions would be designed to secure access to Sevastopol, etc., in the event of further domestic change in Ukraine. How might that be achieved? More autonomy for Crimea? Reversal of the current process of domestic change? A renegotiated treaty? It’s difficult to say at this point, but putting a little structure on otherwise confusing events can’t hurt—as long, of course, as we’re willing to adjust that little bit of structure as required by the emergence of new facts.

And I’m sure my students will make sure that I keep an eye out for just such an eventuality.

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…

Chiang Kai-Shek’s Two-Enemy Problem (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 8)

Continuing last week’s focus on the Long Chinese Civil War, today’s lecture spent some time exploring the dilemma facing Chiang Kai-Shek as he tried to manage two simultaneous but very different threats: a civil war against Communists at home and a potential international war against Imperial Japan. Fighting one would leave his Nationalist government exposed to the other, and to make matters worse, each enemy had to be fought in two different ways, given its organization: the Communists still a guerrilla force at this point and Japan a modern army in the field.

Plenty of ink’s been spilled over the consequences of Chiang’s plan to eliminate the Communists first before trying to eject Japanese forces from the Asian mainland—a plan he was pretty much compelled to abandon after the Xi’an Incident—but there’s a more general point to be made here about leaders, political survival, and war. I’ve seen it argued that Chiang made a mistake here, but from whose perspective? If we look at his own interests—which, since he was a politician, we’re going to assume involved staying in power—then his decision, albeit chosen from a menu made up exclusively of bad options, was a sensible one.

How so? Well, Chiang knew that, if he fought the Japanese, domestic power would shift pretty significantly against him and in favor of the Communists, who (a) weren’t a regular military force and therefore wouldn’t be terribly useful against Japan and (b) would undoubtedly use the time to regroup, reconstitute, and refocus their efforts on defeating the Nationalists. He also, frankly, didn’t expect to defeat Japan in the mid 1930s, either. Yet while fighting Japan would’ve been a ticket to losing office, cutting a deal with the international enemy would at least keep domestic power tilted (however precariously) in his favor—which would help him stay in office. As a result, Chiang consistently turned down chances to resist the expansion of Japanese influence into northern China, choosing the path that gave him the best chance of holding on to political power. Is that so strange? I don’t think so.

So while leaders are often eager to fight international opponents when they can use the conflict to shift domestic power in their favor (see this also), they should also be pretty eager to avoid conflict when it would shift domestic power against them—even to the extent of trading territory for political survival (I’ve got a paper on this, but it’s under review, so not linking to it just yet). Chiang’s case is also an interesting one, because when he was denied the choice of trading territory for survival after Xi’an (that is, when an exogenous shock forced the game off its equilibrium path), his fears came true: the war weakened his position relative to the Communists who would ultimately force Chiang and the Nationalists to Taiwan by 1949.

War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 7

Today we dipped back a little deeper into theory, using the logic of commitment problems to understand a few salient things about the Long Chinese Civil War that touched off after the Revolution of 1911: specifically, its length and the extremity of each side’s war aims.

It’s often tempting to explain the former with the latter—the reading for today did just that—but the upshot of lecture was that something more fundamental can drive both: the fact that, to settle a civil war, one side must lay down its arms. Governments, after all, typically need to exercise a monopoly on the use of organized violence; and a settlement that leaves a rival military power intact is hardly a settlement. Given that civil wars end with a reestablishment of that monopoly, laying down arms for power-sharing or reintegration is an invitation for the newly minted government to go back on its promises, because it represents a basic shift in power that, as the now-exclusively armed side, it can’t resist the temptation to use. In other words, saying “C’mon, folks. Just lay down your arms and I’ll give you what you want” isn’t sufficient to secure an agreement.

What’s the result? Well, first, both sides will be driven to seek not settlement (power-sharing, etc.) but the whole of the pie—control of the government—because anything short of that is an agreement that won’t stick. Second, that means both sides fight on until military victory, leading to wars that would be longer if the same two belligerents could credibly commit to sharing power. Note, however, that it’s not a clash of ideologies driving this; it’s canny political actors who are choosing their goals and aims as they see fit (far more realistic, to my mind, than ideological automatons), given the strategic environment and constraints in which they and their opponents find themselves.

Can we tell a story about leaders being hamstrung to follow international or external ideological programs by domestic pressure, leading to extreme demands? Sure. But it’s worth noting that we can explain both extreme aims and long, destructive civil wars without reference to ideological clashes; rather, the commitment problem might explain why extreme political programs become so attractive during civil wars.

Scouting combines, the Wonderlic, and game theory

It looks as though the NFL is adding a new mental aptitude test to evaluate players at the scouting combine. Why put that on a blog about political science? Well, because Gregg Doyel’s Twitter response below lets us think hard about some basic problems that plague cooperation across varying contexts, whether political, environmental/ecological, or—in this case—economic. Here’s what Doyel says:

GreggDoyelCBSCollege players should band together and refuse to take the Wonderlic, etc. If the results get leaked, and low scorers mocked, why take it?2/17/13 4:29 PM

Now, given the recent Wonderlic fallout, Doyel’s reaction is totally reasonable. (And for the record, I’m a big fan of Doyel’s work; his “Hate Mail” columns are priceless.) Who wants to take a test and run the risk of getting humiliated? *If* the players *could* band together and refuse to take these tests, then the league *would* be stuck, and it *would* have to accept the new reality; with the league unable to refuse to draft or sign anyone, the players would likely carry the day.

Maybe they *should*, but they likely *won’t*, because—if, as professionals, they care about their careers—individual players have no incentive to band together like this. Yes, this comes at the cost of low scorers getting mocked, but there’s just no real collective incentive to band together.

Why wouldn’t players want to cooperate here? Well, it depends on what players care about—their career or other players’ feelings. Here’s what I mean. Imagine that those who take it get treated better (say, signed to higher salaries or signed at all) than those who don’t. True, if none take these tests, the league can’t do anything, *but* what’s to stop one or a few people from thinking “Well, if I take it and the others don’t, I’m in a great position with the league after the combine.” Sure, the ones who maintain solidarity are made worse off—because the league can single them out with smaller or no contracts, which it couldn’t do if they all cooperated—but the ones who *do* take the tests have more of the pie to share amongst themselves. So if everyone else isn’t taking the tests, it benefits any given player to take it and prove his willingness to “play ball” (pun intended) with the league. And here’s the kicker (an unintended, but surely better, pun)—there’s no incentive to be left out, so if you know that the other guys are taking it, then you have to as well if you don’t want the punitive contract (or, again, no contract at all). Yes, you’re all back in the situation you were in before, but that’s better than not getting *anything*, which is what you get if you’re one of the few that doesn’t take the test.

So what does this all mean? To the extent that players are ambitious and care about their careers (which, presumably, is what professionalism is about), most if not all will take the Wonderlic and associated tests—despite the fact that it comes with all the bad stuff Doyel hits on, and despite the fact that *if* all the players refused, they all might be collectively happier. But, ultimately, if the league rewards those who take it over those who won’t, then this tragic outcome—the result of what is essentially a multiplayer prisoner’s dilemma—will be the most likely outcome, and we won’t see much of a change in how things work, however much better the alternative that Doyel points out might be.

What could the UNSC actually do in Syria?

Russia and China are catching a lot of heat for preventing UN Security Council action on the Syrian Civil War, and sure, the other members of the P5 seem marginally more likely to want to see something done to bring the killing, the displacement, and the threat of contagion to a halt. Quite apart from whether it *will* act, though, I think it’s worth asking what the UNSC could actually do to bring an end to the fighting. To do that, we need to know something about the war’s likely course in the absence of any intervention and, second, what the UN could conceivably do in terms of changing that trajectory.

I’m going to argue, below the jump, that the UN’s “best” hope is to alter the course of the fighting, ensuring one side’s victory, rather than attempt to put together an unworkable settlement short of military victory.

Continue reading

Planning for a post-Assad Syria?

It looks as though at least some Syrians are looking ahead to the fall of the Assad government, hoping to ensure that ending Assad’s reign also ends the war. Sectarian strife seems to be a big worry—and perhaps rightly so—but it’s important to look at *why* we might see continuing violence on sectarian lines after the immediate objective of toppling the government is achieved. In other words, why would some rebels think that continued war is better than peace, even with Assad gone? Well, the answer isn’t necessarily about religion—it’s just as much about the politics of war.

If the war continues beyond the fall of the current government, my guess is that expectations about the future—beliefs about who’ll be in charge of what (and how effectively) in a new government—will be a big reason. The committee that put these recommendations together focuses in large part on repatriation, but they also mention a disarmament program that re-establishes the line between the military and civilians. In principle, this is necessary for being a modern nation-state, and while it’s hard to dispute in principle, it’s precisely this kind of provision that can cause serious problems for rebels that have to consider what their fates will be after they lay down their arms in apparent victory.

Put yourself, if you will, at the head of some rebel faction—defined geographically, religiously, ethnically, whatever—and think about the choice you face. Fighting is expensive and risky, but it gives you a chance to ensure by force of arms some favorable outcomes. On the other hand, laying down your arms and trusting in a new government makes you vulnerable—all the more so if you don’t trust that whoever’s in charge of the new government won’t use its monopoly on force to renege on whatever promises they made to get you into the peace agreement in the first place, shutting you out of the rights or privileges you were previously fighting for.

What does that mean? The success of any nationwide peace agreement—essentially, whatever the new constitution looks like—will depend on how well it commits the newly powerful to not taking advantage of the currently powerful once they return to civilian life. If any group feels that they’d be better off fighting than signing on to an agreement they don’t think will stick—that is, submitting to a government that they can’t trust not to victimize them—then we’ll have even more bloodshed. Yes, political allegiances often overlap with sectarian ones, but it’s important to note that it’s not religious differences themselves behind such a problem but basic questions of politics (who gets what, who makes those decisions, etc.). For the most part, each faction—however latent—currently fighting will need to have its military prospects reflected in any kind of postwar settlement that it’ll ultimately accept, and that means structuring a political settlement that reflects military realities. However much we like to think that peace and war can be separated, the former is best sustained when it reflects a good understanding of the latter.

Why the Syrian opposition isn’t negotiating…and why it makes perfect sense

I came across this story today about how the Syrian opposition, populated by an increasing number of former generals and high-ranking officials, has rejected the UN’s (via Kofi Annan) attempts to bring the belligerents together for peace talks aimed at ending the civil war in their country. While some readers may lament the fact that the opposition is turning down a chance at “peace,” or think that this says something about their ultimate aims in the conflict, I’m (obviously) going to dispute that here. In fact, we’ve got every reason to believe that under the current circumstances, any deal that leaves the current government even partially intact will be a non-starter, and reasonably so.

There are two reasons for this. First, as the article indicates, the opposition is starting to attract some more powerful defectors from the Assad regime, meaning that their relative power is likely on the rise, and they expect to do better in the future. Sitting down at the negotiating table now runs the risk of locking in an agreement that reflects the current military situation. However, the opposition clearly prefers fighting to whatever stopping now might look like, and they’re likely to require even more in the way of concessions from the top if they can continue to attract more defectors. This, of course, assumes that there would be some third party able to enforce a deal between government and opposition…

…which may not be all that likely.

That leads me to the second point. Even if the opposition didn’t think it could do better by fighting on rather than accept some UN-brokered deal, it probably has little reason to suspect that any deal agreed upon today would actually stick. If some new power-sharing agreement required either disarming or letting up on the military pressure it’s currently putting on the regime, then Assad’s government would be free to renege—it would certainly have the incentives and restored power to do so—and undo all the gains that the opposition won in the agreement. In other words, an agreement that would shift bargaining power away from the opposition wouldn’t be credible, and the opposition has every incentive to fight for a better deal than take the fool’s gold of a bargain that their enemies could renege on easily. (On the other hand, Assad’s government would probably also rather fight than give the opposition enough in a power-sharing agreement to take advantage of it in the future, too.)

In that sense, this isn’t unlike the Egyptian opposition’s refusal to leave the streets of Cairo in response to empty promises of reform last spring. What’s the point of all this, then? Well, first, as well-meaning as calls for negotiation might be, there’s little reason to expect that it’s in either party’s interest to participate in them in good faith. Second, any deal that would require the rebels to disarm in a power-sharing agreement likely just  won’t stick if there is some kind of attempt to implement it. And, finally, third party attempts to mediate or, especially, to impose a settlement aren’t likely to be all that stable…something we all might wish to keep in mind as the debate over what to do about Syria moves forward…