Making course prep work for you and your research

I took on a new course this semester, thanks to a generous course development grant from UT’s Department of Asian Studies: War and Peace in East Asia. While I’m blogging about the lectures as they happen, I also wanted to take some time to talk about what preparing for the course over the second half of the summer has done for me in terms of my research—and why new preps, if you’ve got to take them on, can work to your advantage as a researcher.

The key, for me, was to choose my background readings carefully. While this is certainly a new prep, requiring case examples and empirical work devoted to a particular region (as opposed to the globe, which my causes of war class focuses on), I did my dead-level best to make sure that the readings I focused on paid dividends on at least one of my research agendas. In fact, that one little strategem is precisely why this course, before I gave a single lecture, has enriched my research.

My first big post-dissertation project has been on international military coalitions (see here and here for articles that will be incorporated into the book manuscript), and as a result of focusing my class cases on multilateral crises and wars, I’ve come across tons of great material for it, from negotiations between the United States and the Soviets over the latter’s entry into the war against Japan in 1945 to the terms of American cooperation with South Korea once North Korea stormed across the DMZ.

As a result, I managed to tell myself that I’m multitasking when I’m prepping for an upcoming course—and actually believe it. For me, that’s no small thing.

Colonel Blotto and France’s Defeat in World War II

Yesterday’s post on my favorite WWI books reminded me about another piece of diplomatic history I read in summer 2011: Ernest R. May’s Strange Victory. It’s a great account of just how, against everyone’s expectations—including the Wermacht generalship—Germany was able to conquer France in such a short time in 1940. There’s a frustratingly weak nod towards political science analysis at the end, largely based on personalities, but when the book is at its best, it’s (a) doing the hard work of figuring out exactly what happened (a contribution of history as a discipline that I think we tend to underestimate) and (b) essentially describing the equilibrium to a Colonel Blotto game.

Who’s this Colonel Blotto? Most game theorists will recognize the problem we represent with the good Colonel: he’s got to allocate limited defensive assets across a mountain and a pass, while his opponent has to choose between attacking either the mountain or the pass. (Let’s set aside, for now, the whole “why you might attack a mountain” question; this ain’t about geography.) The problem, of course, is that Colonel Blotto’s opponent would like to attack at the location the Colonel doesn’t defend, while he’d of course like to defend the point of attack. If the enemy knew the Colonel’s position, he’d attack elsewhere, and if the Colonel knew the enemy’s plans, he’d defend accordingly. The solution to such a game, with apologies to precisely how we might interpret mixed strategies, is to obscure your intentions—which the Nazis were, for the most part, able to do. The French, of course, fortified their eastern frontier with Germany, anticipating an attack along that axis (ha!), but the German plan, as we know, sent the materially and technologically inferior (at the time) Wermacht through BeNeLux and conquered France in a matter of weeks—all because they won the Blotto game.

It’s a long read, but—trust me—totally worth it.

My three favorite books on the First World War

Reading excessively obsessively a lot about World War I almost seems like a rite of passage for us international conflict-types, and while my fascination with the war came late, it did dominate my reading for a good chunk of the last year. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve been asked what my favorite book on the war actually is, and after giving a typically academic response (you know the type: endless qualifications and definitional hedging), I gave three.

Now, I’m not going to pretend to have some vast knowledge of the scholarship on the war, which is why I’m saying “favorite” instead of “best,” but my answer is all about what you want out of the book: a discussion of its origins, an in-the-weeds look at military strategy, or a sweeping look at the whole of the conflict. For each of those, here’s what I came up with:

I’m actually having my graduate international security class read Europe’s Last Summer as a kind of warm-up for that class, to get them thinking about the politics of war and decisions over it, and the reason is, frankly, that it’s a well-written synthesis of fairly recent scholarship that draws some strong conclusions worthy of discussion. That said, it’s mostly about the July Crisis, ending before the action really gets going.

Three Armies on the Somme is similarly narrow in focus, taking a close and, I’ve got to admit, utterly spellbinding look at the creation of military strategy on the Western Front, focusing on the titanic Battle of the Somme that began in the summer of 1916. It’s got a fascinating take on attrition and trench warfare; given the other side’s strategy, responding in kind was a best response given the technological constraints of the time—a deeply tragic Nash equilibrium to a vexing, and profoundly high-stakes, problem.

Finally, Stevenson’s Cataclysm is necessarily broader in scope, covering the politics and sociology of the home fronts as well as the fighting and diplomacy itself, but no less interesting, even for a reader like me focused on bargaining and diplomacy, both before and during the war, and the problems of coalitional warfare and consensus-building. It’s a big book; don’t be fooled by the page numbers, because the print is tiny—makes you feel like whatever you read next is a large-print edition.

Still, if you’re looking around for some accessible book-length treatments of the war, I think it’s hard to go wrong with any of these.

International security, week 3

Following up on last week’s treatment of the bargaining approach to war, we continued the discussion this week about the (unfortunately?) time-honored dispute over the link between the distribution of power and the probability of war. I won’t belabor the substance of the discussions too much, but two things stood out to me that I thought worth noting today. [Arm raised over dying horse…]

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Globalization and separatism…what’s the fuss?

Recently, I went back and re-read one of my favorite books, Alesina and Spolaore’s “The Size of Nations” (MIT Press, 2003), which collects a few pretty interesting models that examine how borders get drawn in light of tradeoffs between economies of scale/scope in the production of public goods and heterogeneity of tastes. But enough with the technical jargon. I always think about this book when commentators talk about globalization being “arrested” by local separatisms, expressions of indigenous preferences or culture, or calls for decentralization, because—rather than a backlash against globalization—there’s reason to believe that these are a natural outgrowth of it. In other words, globalization may be good for the ability of localities to make local choices in the adoption of policies. Now this is clearly contrary to the conventional wisdom, which envisions homogenization as the endgame of turning the world into one big market. But not so fast.

Alesina and Spolaore’s argument is that while globalization reduces the impact of borders on trade, it need not have any impact on where they’re drawn when it comes to determining how to provide public goods. In a less-globalized world, country size means market size, which means wealth, but bigger countries also face a tradeoff in greater heterogeneity in the population over which public goods to provide. So while the country is wealthier, you’ve got to tolerate compromise with fellow citizens who want a different package of public goods than you. However, in a more globalized world, wealth depends less on size, because trade is less hampered by borders. As a result, you can get wealthy without having to control a large piece of territory, i.e. without having to compromise with other people who want a different package of public goods than you. As a result, you can provide more specialized public goods in smaller jurisdictions at a lower cost, meaning that heterogeneity of preferences is no longer such a necessary evil.

What does this mean? Well, globalization and separatism/decentralization ought to go hand-in-hand, because globalization makes smaller, more homogeneous local jurisdictions sustainable, where they otherwise wouldn’t be if you had to grow in size in order to have sufficient wealth for operating a government and providing public goods. So globalization might well be good for the recognition and expression of local tastes and cultures, because you don’t have to have such a big tent to have a decent standard of political life…certainly not as big a one as you’d need in a non-globalized world of autarky…

…and, the last time I checked, autarky is a pretty good motivator of expansion, domination, and the suppression of local preferences…