North and South Korea: Caught in the Turnover Trap?

It’s been hard over the last few weeks not to get caught up in the near-constant stream of gloriously hyperbolic threats and invective coming out of North Korea (especially in Austin, which appears to be one of several places targeted for destruction just this week). However, while the overheated rhetoric, retro nods to Cold War-era ideological struggles, and visionary mashups of “We Are the World” and Call of Duty may be uniquely North Korean, the situation in which the leaders of both North and South Korea find themselves is certainly not. In fact, it’s a special case of what in my own research I call “the turnover trap“: since neither Kim Jong Un nor Park Geun-hye have been in office very long, both have powerful incentives to ratchet up tensions on the peninsula, however little either side may actually wish for the pot to boil over into a fresh conflict.

The answer to all your questions, after the jump… Continue reading

On things said for the sake of argument, or why “assumption” isn’t a four-letter word

I’m not going to rehash Phil Arena’s (excellent) post on the role—and ubiquity—of assumptions, but I do want to take the opportunity to talk about how I view the assumptions I make in my own work. Specifically, I want to make a case for why “assumptions” aren’t at all a necessary evil—rather, they’re a necessary and powerful good for doing the stuff of social science. I’ll make two points. First, they help us isolate causal mechanisms when we build theories, enabling us to develop expectations over when and why some set of factors can have an independent effect on an outcome of interest in the absence of some other factors—which helps when we move to empirical models. Second, and I’m repeating myself here (I think), they’re really the only things that we, as social scientists trying to explain the things we observe, bring to the table when it comes to building theories. So, yes, all assumptions are “false” in the sense that they strip away things we would think important if we were to create a complete rendition of something, but they’re also essential—and unavoidable—when it comes to the development of theories (whether formal or informal). Those things we assume away should always come back in our empirical models, to be sure, but I’ll also argue that we have a better sense of what those controls should be when we’re mindful of the assumptions we put into our theories.

First, on the issue of isolation, let’s say that I want to develop a theory of how some factor—say, leadership change—affects temporal patterns of international conflict. If I’m interested in whether there can be a valid link between leadership tenure and war (that is, a valid argument from premises to conclusion), what do I need to do? Let’s say, for example, that my hunch is that new leaders know more about their own willingness to use force than their opponents, such that they take office with private information over their resolve. How should I model this? Well, two things I’d want to do immediately are assume that, while consecutive leaders of the same state can differ in their resolve, there is no other source of variation in preferences that occurs with leader change, and, second, without leadership change, war would not occur in the theory. Do I think either of these are true? Well, of course not. First, partisan change, state-society dynamics, and time until the next election (in democracies) can also produce changes in state preferences across leadership transitions. Second, wars can of course happen for other reasons (if they didn’t, I’d be the first person with a valid argument about the causes of war, and while I’m a little arrogant, I ain’t that bad). But if I want to see what the independent effect leader change is, I can (and should, at this stage of model-building) strip these other things away—so that if war does happen in my model, I’ll know the mechanism driving it. (Put more pithily, if outcomes are overdetermined in your theory, you really can’t say much about the things you’re presumably interested in. And whether they are overdetermined in your theory is totally up to you.)

My next step, of course, is to analyze the model. This amounts to seeing what valid conclusions follow from my premises (assumptions)—no more, no less. Let’s say that I analyze the model and find that, indeed, when new leaders’ personal resolve is private information, we see turnover-driven cycles of reputation-building and conflict. But what do I really have here, if I’ve assumed away all these other sources of potential changes in state preferences? Well, I’ve got a somewhat parsimonious theory of leader change, tenure, and conflict behavior driven by a particular mechanism—reputation dynamics. I don’t have a theory of every possible cause of war, but what I do have is a sense of exactly what patterns my independent variable of interest (time in office) should have on some outcome variables of interest. I have this, notably, because nothing else apart from the proposed mechanism could have caused war in my theoretical model. My model isn’t the world, nor is it the historical record, and when it comes time to take my predictions to the data—to test them against the historical record—I’ll know some important things to control for on the right hand side of my regression: all the things I assumed away. Particularly, those things I believe will affect both temporal changes in state preferences and war should go into the empirical model as controls. That’s pretty useful, as far as I’m concerned. So by being intimately aware of what my theory assumes and what it doesn’t, I have strong expectations about the independent effects of my independent variables, controlling for other relevant factors, and I have an equally strong sense of what I need to control for. And by isolating the factors around my particular proposed causal mechanism/independent variable, I can also be sure that my proposed mechanism can do independent work on its own and the precise conditions under which I expect it to play out. With less precise (or, worse, hidden or implicit) assumptions—that is, with multiple things that could cause war under the same conditions—that would be much more (and unnecessarily) difficult.

Second—and I saved this one because it’s shorter—assumptions really are all we bring to the table when we build theories and try to explain things. If a model is just an argument, then assumptions are just premises—-i.e., things said for the sake of argument. Now, it’s true that if our assumptions can never hold (in my running example, if leaders are all the same in their resolve and it’s always well and publicly known) then my proposed mechanism won’t explain observed phenomena. Sure. That’s trivially true. But let’s think about the elements of our theory/argument; what’s it made up of? Premises, some logical connections drawn between them, and conclusions; in other words, assumptions, some logical connections drawn between them, and implications/hypotheses. The implications depend on the premises and the logic, so I’m clearly not adding hypotheses directly, and logic is, well, pretty much given; so my only contribution—the source of our creativity and power and, in very real sense, our ability to explain—are the premises I use as inputs into my theoretical construct.

That means I value my assumptions pretty highly—again, since I’m not trying to re-write the rules of logic, that’s what I’m really contributing here, and that’s as it should be. My goal in the not-so-hypothetical model above was to see how a particular factor influenced a particular outcome, independently of other factors, if at all; I wanted to know what would have to be true for the proposed relationship to exist. If I didn’t make a ton of false assumptions along the way, I’d get nowhere. But here’s the thing—everything I assumed away that could be related to both IV and DV must come back if I’m going to build an empirical model that controls for potential confounds or sources of spuriousness—but it’s just not necessary (or prudent) to include in the theoretical model I designed for my particular research question.

What’s happening in North Korea?

My plane landed last night to a flurry of text messages from friends and colleagues about Kim Jong Il’s sudden death—that says something about me, and I’m not sure I want to explore it too much—but from those text messages to the news coverage I’ve been frantically trying to catch up on, the big question seems to be “what next?”

Turns out that’s an uncomfortably good question.

We (think we) know a few things going in. First, Kim Jong Il, in failing health, seemed to designate his son Kim Jong Un as his chosen successor within the last couple of years. Second, that’s a substantially shorter time than KJI enjoyed as successor-designate, time in which relationships with key elements of the military and party elite could be solidified. However, since the shelling of coastal islands last year, there’s been speculation that KJU was involved as a way to demonstrate—-perhaps as much domestically as internationally—that he’s both capable of control and willing to go to the mat with foreign rivals. Third, it looks as though North Korea chucked a short-range missile into the sea of Japan in the hours after the announcement, rattling nerves in the region and bringing home just how much we don’t know about what goes on inside such a reclusive regime.

Here’s what we don’t know: what this means for North Korean foreign policy. To my mind, we’ve got a couple of important elements to consider

  1. Kim Jong Un will want to demonstrate his resolve, as well as the extent of his control over the military and party, to outsiders like South Korea, the United States, and Japan. As some analysts have suggested, we might view the confrontation last year and today’s missile test as just such a step, last year’s being a preemptive one.
  2. There will likely be a period in which he must fight to consolidate domestic control, which very well might divert resources, time, and effort away from bolstering his reputation with international rivals.

So while (1) would lead us to predict some reputation-minded international belligerence, whether sinking ships or shelling islands or lobbing missiles nearby countries, it’s possible that (2) would militate against it. Once (2) is taken care of, though, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a young, untested leader take steps to prove to his enemies—real or, perhaps increasingly inside such an insular regime, perceived—that he’s able and willing to use force in the pursuit of his goals.

Of course, we can probably also tell a story in which goals (1) and (2) both favor some kind of international belligerence, especially if the use of force can stave off a coup attempt or some other kind of resistance to KJU’s ascension (as argued in Chiozza and Goemans’ great new book, linked above). These two factors, I think, could be especially dangerous in the particular case of North Korea:

  1. Some of my dissertation empirics confirmed that dictatorships see their new leaders getting belligerent more often than democracies. In other words, the “turnover trap” in which new leaders act out and in which their rivals test them, is harder to escape from in dictatorships where the leader’s preferences play a larger role in foreign policy.
  2. Fighting to prevent irregular removals from office, as would certainly be the case in North Korea if the military or the party tries to topple KJU, is more likely in dictatorships than democracies, because the risk of irregular removal (and the severe punishment that goes with it), is lower in the latter than the former.

So we’ve got two domestic-political factos associated with the North Korean succession that might push the ledger in favor of international war, but my gut still tells me that plenty of other factors—not least of which is the fact that North Korea likely wouldn’t fare too well in an all-out war with, say, South Korea and the United States—mean that a full-blown international war isn’t too likely at this point.

Of course, betting against a war happening at any given point is always the safe bet—these things are exceedingly rare given the frequency of opportunities to fight them—but that doesn’t mean we ought not be on the lookout for new leaders’ reputational incentives and the potential boost to their prospects for political survival that might encourage them to use force in the highly uncertain environment of leadership changes in dictatorships.

A kinder, gentler Putin?

Well, maybe not that, but…

So Vladimir Putin’s re-taking the reins in Russia in 2012. While it’s hard to call this surprising on any level—though I’d sure like to have an honest discussion with Medvedev about his take on all this—I guess we should get ready to think about what this means for Russian foreign policy. Part of the answer, of course, depends on whether you think Putin was still in charge during the Medvedev interregnum. However, we do have some evidence for the foreign policy behavior of leaders that have previously served in office: they’s systematically less likely to initiate interstate crises than first-timers (see Chiozza and Goemans 2003). (We might also think that Putin’s going to be generally more peaceful because he’s a known quantity, in terms of resolve, so he’s got less to prove—and his opponents have less reason to prod him—reputationally.)

So, all else equal, Putin is likely to be more peaceful than your average bear this time around.

(Though perhaps we shouldn’t expect him to be more peaceful with bears…)