International security, week one

This is the first in what I plan to be be a semester-long series of posts about each class session I teach (International Security for grad students, War and Peace in East Asia for the undergrads)—either summing up, adding something extra, or highlighting a useful point that I don’t want to forget.

I’ve never felt satisfied with my choices of first week readings in graduate seminars, but today might be as close as I’ve come to that. I assigned Europe’s Last Summer, giving the students an opportunity to develop some free case knowledge about the object we’ll be studying all semester (war) and using the historiography of the war to make a few big points: challenges to inference, multiple and conjunctural causality, the differences between structural/underlying and proximate causes, and how the sheer costs of war—especially in a war that began as a deliberate act of policy—pose such an obstacle to explaining it. (Yes, this was intentional and probably ham-handed foreshadowing for week 2, but I just ran with it.)

Another important point, though, is a tradeoff we hit upon when talking about underlying and proximate causes of war. First, we did a thought experiment: removing, alternately, Germany’s incentives for preventive war and the Serbian crisis, then thinking about how much longer or shorter the book would’ve been in the absence of either (taking those two factors, for the sake of argument, as the sole underlying and proximate causes). Discussion then went somewhere else. There’s another tradeoff between underlying and proximate causes, particularly when they exist at different levels of aggregation: measurement error. Figuring out just what happened inside Austria and Germany in 1914 has taken a long time, and we may not be all the way there yet, but contrast this with measures of military power, great power status, etc. At the lower level of aggregation, we have finger-grained information, but these lower levels could be more prone to measurement error (via observability in this case) than coarser concepts like military power, measured at the level of the state. (Incidentally, I also think I remember Will Moore talking about something similar with respect to temporal aggregation during a presentation at a past Peace Science meeting…I think.)

Either way, it’s a tradeoff that doesn’t necessarily make one feel better about getting a handle on the interplay of underlying and proximate causes, but it’s surely one that’s worth bearing in mind—especially as we get into the messiness of weighing them against one another in the mind-numbingly overdetermined instance of any one war…