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.

What’s next in Venezuela? (Foreign policy-wise, of course.)

The Hugo Chavez era has ended in Venezuela, and I’m not going to wade into what’s already an extensive public debate about his legacy and what impending change means for Venezuela itself (see, for example, this, this, and this). Being the IR conflict guy that I am, I’m going to address a different question: what can we expect out of Venezuela’s next leader when it comes to foreign policy?

Whether Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor, wins the next round of elections or someone else does, we can already say quite a bit about what we can expect from a new Venezuelan leader by knowing only two things: first, the risk of losing office in a coup or revolution, and, second, the simple fact that whoever takes office will be new. Unfortunately, it’s possible that these things add up to a more belligerent foreign policy, at least with respect to regional rivals. (Bizarre fantasies aside, the prospects for war against the US are really pretty damned low.)

Let’s start with the first question. Giacomo Chiozza and Hein Goemans have shown that, while the risk of losing an election doesn’t do much to encourage leaders to fight, the risk of losing office through a coup or a revolution certainly does. So, if Maduro or some long-shot successor finds the risk of being toppled violently high enough, war might be the best way to ensure survival—by sending plotters to the front, cracking down on dissent, or disrupting bases of rebel or dissident support. Whatever the specific strategy, it does seem that an increased risk of a coup or revolution—more so than losing an election, which is easy to survive—also increases the risk of international conflict.

On the second issue, Venezuela will—no matter what—be led by a new executive whose resolve (or willingness to use force) is more or less unknown to Venezuela’s rivals. How does one demonstrate resolve? Words won’t do it, but fighting will. How do one’s rivals gauge one’s resolve? You guessed it: pressing them to see if they’ll fight. I call this “the turnover trap,” in which new leaders have an incentive to demonstrate resolve, hoping to cultivate a reputation for toughness, and their opponents have an incentive to test them—a potentially dangerous combination, both for the escalation of disputes and, as Toby Rider recently discovered, arms races.

So, regardless of who’s in office, Venezuela’s new leader is likely to be a bit more belligerent than a longer-serving leader, to the extent that (a) Venezuelan politics is a violent place (particularly for toppled leaders) and (b) there are opportunities to cultivate a reputation for resolve with one’s rivals. Here’s the good news, though. Not only is the probability of war at any given time pretty damned low, I’d wager that its neighbors, including Colombia, Guyana, and Dominica (all of which have ongoing border disputes with Venezuela) would be more likely targets of any conflict that does break out than the big superpower country way up North. (Rhetoric aside, of course.)

More on conference expansion…

Saw this telling passage quoting South Carolina’s president today (which was a bit of relief, given the haste with which I typed out the last conference expansion post and the need I had for some kind of validation for my Prisoners’ Dilemma talk):

“I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ ” Pastides recalled. “I didn’t want to be the only one left out.”

Neither do any of his peers, which has led in part to the ongoing changes in college football.

Pastides understands he and other like-minded leaders might not be able to slow the expansion train once it leaves the station — as was the case with A&M — but he would like to limit how far it goes.

And it’s pretty telling. If everyone else is expanding—setting a new bar for financial viability—then being left in the cold with bad TV markets or with ridiculously long and expensive road trips is just not what a conference wants.

We’ve seen some slowdown in expansion/elimination talk with reaffirmations from the Big XII and Big East, but you’ve got to wonder how much of it had to do with UT’s unique situation involving the Longhorn Network, which makes moving unattractive to both UT and any conference that might have to adjust its rules. (And who could blame UT for looking out for its own revenue?)

Has it all stopped? I wouldn’t bet on it, because we all breathed a sigh of relief last year, too, when only Colorado and Nebraska planned moves out of big conferences. My gut tells me this isn’t yet over. But see this post for some thoughts on why, at the end of the day, it might not matter all that much for the sport…

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.