The preventive motive behind Pearl Harbor (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 9)

Sometimes lectures write themselves. Unsurprisingly, I like it when that happens.

Today, we focused on Japan’s decision to expand its regional war, focused on pacifying China through the late 1930s, into a global war by attacking not only Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 but, in the same timeframe, Thailand, Malaya, The Philippines, Wake Island, Guam, Hong Kong, and the International Settlement at Shanghai. Knowing that the first target would likely draw the United States into the war—though hoping to cause a significant delay—why would Japan turn some of its focus away from its main theater in China?

This won’t come as much of a surprise to IR folks, but Paine’s account of the decision framed it quite well as an escalation of the war driven by a commitment problem—specifically, the fact that the United States, which has been mobilizing for a while and had embarked on building a two-ocean navy, would soon outstrip Japan in naval power; Japan’s leaders calculated roughly even odds of defeating the United States by late 1941, given their respective shipbuilding programs and future potential, followed by a sharp decline—which would allow the US to prevent the fall of China, which Japan had long viewed as critical to its survival as a great power.

In fact, the United States made a series of peace proposals before December’s attack, most of which involved withdrawals from China—but which, ex post, were clearly preferable to the outcome of the war. Why didn’t Japan cut such a deal? Paine is worth quoting here:

[P]eace on American terms, entailing a withdrawal from China, would lead to the gradual impoverishment of Japan and would undo the efforts of generations of Japanese to transform their country into a modern power. War with the United States, on the other hand, offered a 50-50 chance of success (p. 185)

In other words, cutting a deal would allow US power in the region to grow unchecked, and such increased power could be used, down the road, to force Japan out of China anyway. If the worst outcome of a war would be similar, then rolling the dice before military prospects got worse—as Japan’s leadership expected—might’ve looked pretty attractive.

Interestingly, we’ve also got a story about the timing of war in the shadow of shifting power, but rather than the typical rising-declining state story, we’ve got one where in the late 1930s Japan expects to improve in the short term—so it waits before attempting a knockout blow—but to decline in the long term. So while some work finds that there’s no particular time during a shift in power that’s more war-prone than others, I wonder if taking a step back temporally, considering a short-term versus long-term changes in power, might alter those expectations…

This semester’s graduate conflict syllabus

After spending a lot more time on it than I anticipated (go figure), I finally put the finishing touches on my graduate conflict syllabus this morning, which you can see here. There are some subtle changes from the last time I taught the course (which I discussed here), but the main difference—I think—is a slight change in my own approach to teaching graduate courses.

I hit on this unintentionally the last time around, where I said in class something to the effect of “This isn’t a class about war and peace. It’s about how to study war and peace.” I hadn’t used precisely those terms before, but I think I summed up my approach pretty well in that statement; even a substantive seminar has to be, on some level, a kind of “methods” course. It’s about evaluating arguments, theories, and research designs on the surface, but it’s also about students learning what good (and bad) research “looks like” and how to apply the same (hopefully high) standards they use when judging others’ work to their own. In other words, it’s a course on “research and how to do it.”

Ultimately, that means I worry less and less about achieving the proper breadth of coverage—for me, depth is the key. I assign topics based on (a) the connections between important pieces on the topic, (b) bodies of work that help me make points about theory development, explanation, and the logic of inference, (c) how well I know the topic, and, lastly, (d) the visibility or trendiness of the topic. The first two points, though, are paramount, and I’m increasingly okay with that. Ultimately, students can learn a substantive literature that I leave out (from rivalry to the steps to war to international institutions to nuclear proliferation) on their own, but the real stuff of their training is in teaching them how to evaluate work and produce their own…and that means a rather different set of selection criteria than I would choose if my only goal were to give the state of the art.

In service of this, I’m doing something a bit egotistical different (at least for me) during week 13 on coalitions: I’m turning the class into a kind of mini book workshop (I might even spring for lunch, but we’ll have to see if they earn it first). The class will read the core chapters of the book manuscript I’m working on (two raw chapters and two component articles), and then ask questions and give feedback. Quite apart from my own selfish perfectly reasonable desire to get said feedback, I’m hoping this proves a good way for them to (a) see how the sausage is made, so to speak, and (b) learn how to critique someone’s work with them sitting in the same room. I’m pretty excited about it.

I’m also going to try to use this class as a jumping off point to get back into blogging again. We’ll see how it goes.

A deleted scene from “Incumbents, Successors, and Crisis Bargaining”

More often than not, shepherding a paper through the publication process requires cutting things out we’d like to keep in (and, often enough for me, plenty of stuff that had no business being in there in the first place). In this particular case, I had to cut an extension of the model in “Incumbents, Successors, and Crisis Bargaining,” freshly in print at the Journal of Peace Research (and mentioned here), that just didn’t fit well with the rest of the paper. However, I think it’s an interesting look at the potential connections between leadership change and war, so I decided to post the deleted scene, as it were, here.

The essential point of this little extension is that, if we tweak some assumptions about (a) what leader change means for a country’s military prospects and (b) the extent to which war can “lock-in” a settlement into the future, we can get an additional leader-based explanation for war. Here, it’s successor-driven war, in which an incumbent known to be willing to make deep concessions is nonetheless attacked by an adversary, who prefers war in the present against an irresolute incumbent to the possibility of facing her much more resolute successor.

I’m not sure what I’ll do with this model just yet. If I end up putting the collection of leaders-and-war papers into a book, it may go there, but in the meantime, I think it’s a sufficiently interesting contribution to the literature on leaders and war that it merits—at the very least—a little shameless promotion on the blog.

This semester’s graduate syllabus: international security

As excited as I am about teaching International Security this semester, it’s never easy putting together a graduate syllabus. My own fetish for brevity comes into tension with my enthusiasm for the topic and the ever-present temptation to cover everything, and, in case you’re interested, here’s my latest attempt at striking that balance.

Inevitably, syllabi are statements about what we view as important, whether or not we intend for them to send such a signal. We may assign some things to make it more difficult to weasel out of reading them, but I don’t get the sense that students put a lot of effort into figuring out which is which. So in putting this course together, I tried to think hard about what’s “important” in the study of war and peace, not in terms of big outstanding questions  or trendy topics (though they’re covered) or what I consider “good” or exemplary work (that’s also represented in spots), but in terms of what someone who wants to start a research agenda in this subfield really needs to know. And I’ve come down on something that will, perhaps, be totally unsurprising: theory, both its development and its use.

First, the development of theories. We’re getting better as a subfield about trying hard to produce logically valid arguments, the kind that imply their own evidence (and can thus be falsified), but we’ve got a long way to go (which is good news for anyone getting started in IR). A senior colleague of mine has said (though I’m paraphrasing) that IR is characterized by a lot of sloppy answers to a lot of important questions, and I’ve decided that I want to push my grad students in the direction of developing good answers to those big, pressing questions about why large groups of people get together and kill each other and things they value in large numbers. I don’t want to set them on a particular topic, nor do I want them to adopt a specific tool, but I want them to be able to evaluate and develop logically valid arguments about, i.e. useful models of, the political world. As my students will see throughout the semester, it’s hard coming up with valid arguments that can then be used to add empirical content to the subfield. It’s hard, but it’s eminently worth it.

Second, the use of theories. Too often, some of our most useful and insightful theories, especially formal ones, elude empirical testing, and while it’s understandable—because, yes, it’s difficult—I want my students to get to the point of engaging the best arguments we have on the level of designing an appropriate research design, using the right sample, etc. in light of what the underlying assumptions of the model tell them to. When we engage theories only on the level of their hypotheses, it’s too easy to miss what the structure of the argument itself is telling us about the proper domain in which the argument applies, the error structure we should expect, and the functional forms of our variables. In short, using theories well (and responsibly) requires being able to identify and understand the critical nuts and bolts of the logical structure that produces their implications, and that’s what this course is aimed at: understanding what the arguments out there really say, what they imply, and what that means for testing them.

So what’s “important” for an IR course? It’s not just moving from one “image” to another (or reversing them), changing units of analysis, or blending the study of interstate and civil war—it’s learning how to those things effectively and responsibly. And as my poor students are about to find out, that ain’t easy.

But it sure is rewarding. I can’t wait to get into that classroom.

On the (non) obsolescence of industrial war

Some years ago, I read Gen. Rupert Smith’s semi-memoir/discourse on “war amongst the people,” The Utility of Force. Most notable among some rather sweeping claims was that what he called “industiral war”—or war between states with standing armies, using mechanized forces that engage one another on the battlefield—is obsolete, that war has fundamentally changed to now involve something involving military forces against non-state groups organized to use violence. Quite apart from the rather strange invalid inferential logic used to justify this claim—i.e., just because we’ve not seen something in a while, it won’t come back—this line of reasoning really bothers me. In fact, we can see that it commits the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent:

  1. If industrial war were obsolete, we wouldn’t see it occur.
  2. We haven’t seen industrial war in a while.
  3. Therefore, industrial war is obsolete.
Straightforwardly, we can see that the conclusion, (3), doesn’t follow from the premises. Why? Because there are any number of reasons that (3) might be true without (1) and (2) being true: unipolarity, economic strain, a working great power concert, military technology, etc.

In fact, periods of peace between the great powers have certainly existed in the past, and just because we’re not seeing war between them now, I can’t imagine that this also implies that states with modern militaries in the future won’t have disputes that they might settle by force—force involving the instruments of industrial warfare. More after the fold, including my thoughts on why tanks are just as important when they’re not in use as when they are. Continue reading

What makes a model useful?

As we worked through our first session on Nash equilibrium Friday in the graduate intro game theory course, we inevitably hit the point of the class becoming rather frustrated at the idea of multiple equilibria. “If we can’t get a deterministic prediction, what’s the point?” Or, more commonly, it’s “There’s got to be some reason to expect one equilibrium over another! Surely, that one is better than the two that also exist.” Then, of course, the inevitable response is that the definition of a Nash equilibrium gives us no traction on that idea.

So what are we to do? Continue reading

Succession politics in North Korea

While it’s clear that I’ve got to find something to write about besides North Korea (soon, soon, I promise), I can’t resist linking this blog entry from FP on a (possibly) budding sibling rivalry between Kim Jong-Un, the successor-designate, and Kim Jong-Nam, the elder son whose partying lifestyle apparently led him to being passed over for the throne this spring.

Named successors are pretty rare things, and when they happen, I’m always reminded of Gordon Tullock’s answer as to why they’re so rare: they’re dangerous, both for the incumbent and the now publicly-named next in line. Tullock argues that designating a successor helps coordinate those who would wish to alter the succession but who, in the absence of a focal point, would have trouble overcoming a basic plotter’s dilemma: I want to topple the king, but I don’t want to be the only one (because then I’m terribly easy to kill). Named successors can help coordinate the opposition or, and I’m thinking aloud here, maybe force the hand of rival claimants to the throne…and this just might have something to do with Kim Jong-Nam throwing wrenches into his younger brother’s plans and, in retaliation, Jong-Un’s reported attempt to have his brother assassinated. The counterfactual, of course, would be that in the absence of a named successor, there would be sufficient uncertainty, given the government’s coercive power, to induce caution on the part of would-be troublemakers who seem willing to move only now, once Jong-Un won the family’s favor.

Why bring this up? Well, if named successions are so dangerous, it begs the question of why they’re used. What did Kim Jong-Il stand to gain from naming the heir apparent? I’m working out an answer, so look for more on this later..

Choosing a dissertation topic

Having talked to a few students about the question of dissertation topics lately, I’ve been forced to think a little about exactly what standards one should use in choosing a topic. I’m sure there are plenty of rules of thumb out there, but, as I see it, here are my rules, from 0 to 3 (yes, zero).

0. Don’t choose a topic, but a question. This one’s fundamental. Choosing a topic (like, say, “war”) is one thing, but it’s not a useful thing. You should identify a question for which your research will, ultimately, provide an answer. Find some underlying puzzle that you want to solve, and in framing your goal as a question, you’ll always be able to answer what is, I think, the most critical question you can ask of any piece of research: “What do we know now, after reading your work, that we didn’t before?” Having the question in place will ensure that you’ve got a response: the answer to your research question. So don’t think “topics”…think “puzzles” and “questions.” (Where do these questions come from? Read this.)

1. Find a question that you’re interested in. A dissertation is a long-term project, one that you’ll likely spend at least a year on in graduate school and more as faculty mining it for publications, and it requires a healthy dose of self-motivation. No one’s going to hold your hand on this, and that’s the point. You’ll inevitably grow tired with it and frustrated at certain points, so it’s critical that you care (at least a little) about finding the answer.

2. Find a question that you can get a bunch of intellectually lazy, self-involved, baselessly arrogant academics interested in. Most academics, when you press them, think their own work is great and most everyone else’s is shit, but when it comes to both publishing and getting a job, you’ve got to get these serial malcontents interested. Faculty are great for this, because if you can get some of them interested enough to think you’ve got a good project, you’re on your way. Keep in mind, too, that plenty of things satisfying rule 1 won’t satisfy rule 2, so be ready to forego some topics on the advice of faculty. They do have your interests at heart, because producing good grad students is a completely shared goal. Keep that in mind. They’re not out to stifle your “creativity”…they’re trying to help you settle on a topic that satisfies this rule. And, trust me, they know what works for it better than you. Just accept it.

3. Find a question that’s dissertation-sized. You always want to do something substantial, sure, but most students’ instincts are to overestimate the size and scope of dissertations and to bite off more than they can chew. So the odds are that your first idea will just be too big, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It just means that you’ve planned out a dissertation and the outline of the research agenda that could follow from it. When faculty say that your project is too big or tries to do too much, they’re not (necessarily) pissing on your skills—far from it—they’re just matching the size of the task to the size of the dissertation. You want something that you can complete in a reasonable time frame, and that often means saving some of the most ambitious stuff for later, but that’s not at all a bad thing. Who wouldn’t want a plan in place for how to continue research once the dissertation’s done and you’re sitting at your first job wondering what the hell to publish next?

So there you have it. 4 simple rules for choosing a dissertation topic. Of course, you’ll find that rule 1 is probably the easiest, because it’s the least restrictive in terms of what satisfies it (unless you really have no interest in politics, in which case grad school is clearly not for you)…but listen to and learn from people who’ve successfully been there and done that, and you’ll be on your way.