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.)

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Obama, Romney, and the Taliban

Thanks to Phil Arena, I saw two tweets from Andrew Exum today (both highly recommended blogs, by the way) that caught my eye:

abumuqawama
I wonder if Mitt Romney’s “no negotiations” stance actually strengthens the hand of the Obama Admin. as it negotiates with the Taliban.
1/17/12 6:57 AM
abumuqawama
In a way, Romney is the bad cop to Obama’s good cop in negotiations with the Taliban.
1/17/12 6:58 AM

As it happens, I just finished making revisions a “conditionally accepted” paper (this one) that relates pretty directly to this question (it’s also a topic dealt with in my dissertation and hinted at here, but gated): how does the threat of leadership change affect an incumbent’s international bargaining fortunes? Specifically, the question here is how the threat of Romney (more hawkish than Obama?) winning the presidency affects what Obama can get out of negotiations with the Taliban now.

What does this paper have to say about it? For the most part, the answer to this question turns on two things: (a) the extent of differences between the successor and the incumbent and (b) just how sensitive the incumbent’s electoral fortunes are to bargaining outcomes. I won’t get too heavily into the details of the model, but if we take it that Romney would be more willing to continue the war in Afghanistan than Obama (which we’re going to take the “no negotiations” position to represent), then we’ve got an intriguing possibility: something the paper calls “preemptive appeasement.”

Essentially, preemptive appeasement is softening one’s bargaining position in order to bolster a pliant incumbent in office, forestalling the rise of a more resolute successor that one would rather not deal with. If Romney will fight longer than Obama and the Taliban believe that playing ball with Obama will keep him in office through the next election, then they might well do so—trading some concessions now to increase the chances that Obama stays in office in return for extracting a better deal in 2013 than they would against Romney.

Of course, if they don’t think Obama can be bolstered in office with concessions—or if his reelection becomes a foregone conclusion–then their strategy will switch to one of getting what they can now, striking while the iron is hot, and the prospect of Romney waiting in the wings won’t have as much of an effect. Which is all to say that there may well be a pretty consequential connection between primary season, the pace of economic recovery, the general election, and the war in Afghanistan.

Stay tuned. I know I will.

Leaders, elections, and preemptive bargaining

From the archives. I posted this one around Halloween, and it’s self-promotion of the most blatant sort…

Dan Drezner’s Halloween post on horror, fear, etc. in IR has an interesting tidbit about the Tea Party that reminded me of a chapter in my dissertation that’s currently under review in a (quite drastically) different form. You can find it on the Research page; it’s called “Leadership Turnover as a Commitment Problem.” Drezner makes the point that foreign fear of a Tea Party takeover (and Sarah Palin presidency) might lead other countries to give the United States a little more of what it wants internationally, perhaps to bolster the incumbent and his party in office.

Turns out my paper has a little to say about this, a phenomenon I label “preemptive appeasement.” The story goes something like this: when an incumbent might be followed by a successor I’d rather not deal with, I might try to give the incumbent a “win” in order to help his reelection chances that I’d otherwise by happy to deny him. This does require a few things, though I’ll give the two most relevant: (1) whatever “win” I give him must make a sufficiently large difference in boosting his chances of staying in office (so it’s got to be a salient issue that the voting public really cares about); and (2) the successor mustn’t be too different from the incumbent, lest I just decide to fight a war to lock-in whatever I can before the successor takes office.

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