War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 4

Today was the last lecture in Part I of the course, where we set up the historical and theoretical background for actually talking about war and peace in East Asia, delving into the theory of war as a commitment problem: that is, since countries can’t credibly promise not to act powerful before they become powerful, others might choose to fight them before that happens—nipping the problem of shifting power in the bud, as it were.

We also talked a little about how war actually solves commitment problems, and it made me wonder if we spend enough time thinking about how that might be the case. Dan Reiter‘s book considers foreign imposed regime change following total war as one possible solution, Leventoğlu and Slantchev have a story about war destroying a sufficient amount of the surplus, and Harrison Wagner suggests that preemptive wars might be short, since they’re aimed at eliminating opportunities for surprise attack, but that might be just about all I can come up with off the top of my head.

The former and the latter both focus on fighting aimed at destroying the very sources of shifting power—governments or tactical windows of opportunity—but I wonder what additional purchase we might gain by linking specific sources of shifting power (say, long run demographic growth, weapons programs, etc.) to specific war aims, then seeing how prevailing military technology interacts with those aims to produce issue specific variation in war duration…

When do rebels turn against each other?

Last week, we heard about the somewhat mysterious death of a Libyan rebel commander, leading to some speculation about rebels turning against each other as they inch ever closer to (possibly) capturing Tripoli. This reminded me of a toy model I wrote down several months ago (linked here) that, frankly, I didn’t know what to do with. Ergo, I’m putting it here to see what folks think.

Here’s the basic story from the abstract:

Why do some rebel groups divert resources from fighting the government in order to fight other rebel groups before the government is defeated? I analyze resource allocation decisions in which two rebel groups divide finite resources between fighting their common enemy, the government, and fighting one another to influence the distribution of power for the power-sharing contest that follows military victory. In equilibrium, the inability of rebel groups to commit not to exploit the loser in a power-sharing contest can lead them to divert resources away from fighting the government and towards undermining each other when the government is sufficiently weak. In other words, as the prospects for defeating the government improve, rebels become more likely to work against one another, further delaying their ultimate victory.

So when (1) there’s no guarantee that rebels can trust each other to share power once the government’s toppled and (2) the chances of defeating the government start looking pretty good, rebel groups will divert some resources away from the main war effort and husband them for using against one another once victory’s achieved. That, of course, gives us an explanation for why fortunes can be both difficult to judge and pretty volatile in civil wars. Or, from the (very bare-bones) write-up of the model:

Perversely, the better the rebels expect to do against the government, the fewer resources they devote to the war in order to husband their strength for the power-sharing contest that follows victory. Neither side wishes to let the other gain a sufficient advantage, and thus they reduce their chances of victory, perhaps even prolonging the war, because of the commitment problem created by postwar control over the state apparatus.

Now, of course, the question is what to do with this thing. There’s some other work out there linking the number of groups to the duration of war, but (if I remember correctly) for different reasons, but I am, as always, open to suggestions.