When class meets current events, Causes of War edition

With the university closed Tuesday morning due to weather (which is becoming something like a routine around here), I was granted a couple of more days to think about just how I’d address the crisis in Ukraine in my Causes of War class. In the intervening time, I was fortunate enough to see Jay Ulfelder’s post, “This Is Not a Drill,” and to have some lengthy discussions with colleagues about what, if anything, to say responsibly during a highly fluid—and potentially high-stakes—situation that bears pretty directly on the topic of my class. (And not only the class, as I’ll mention below: the very unit we’re in the middle of.)

One option in situations like this is, of course, to say nothing. “Folks, the schedule says we’re going to talk about Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941, so, by damn, that’s what we’re going to do.” There’s a lot to be said for that approach, to be frank: this early in any crisis, we know so very little about what’s actually happening on the ground, much less why these things are happening. Speculation is always in tremendous supply, and, entertainingly, often preceded by “I don’t want to speculate, but…”

However, I decided today while crafting a response to an email from a student asking about the crisis that, even in a tide of speculation, there’s still something to be said for analysis, or at least rigorous thinking, in light of the few things we do know. If nothing else, it gives us a guide for understanding subsequent events and a few things to look for.

So I’ve decided to talk about Ukraine. The next question, of course, is what to say. As it happens, the class is currently deep into thinking about the use of military force in response to commitment problems (e.g., here and here). We’ve been analyzing when countries will attack, invade, or occupy one another as a way to arrest or prevent a process of declining bargaining leverage that would invalidate deals that are otherwise perfectly acceptable in the present. The use of force may be costly up front, but states may nonetheless opt for it when those costs are are preferable to watching today’s bargain (the status quo) wither away in the future.

Part of our exercise will be to identify these motives in Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941, when it calculated that its naval power would be as close to that of the United States’ as it ever would be. Then, the question will be whether Russia might be intervening in Ukraine’s messy domestic situation to arrest its own potentially declining bargaining leverage. If we look at the current situation, it’s possible (though, of course, not yet definitive) that we see another species of commitment problem (and, of course, not one producing an attack on another great power, as we saw in 1941). Here’s how:

  1. Ukraine’s domestic upheaval might herald a prolonged shift to the West.
  2. Russia has secured basing rights in the Crimea (which it ceded to Ukraine in 1954), most notably at the port of Sevastopol—rights it would like to protect. These rights aren’t under direct threat now, but…
  3. If a Westward tilt in Ukrainian politics would erode Ukraine’s commitment to honoring leasing agreements, then the current deal might be ever more difficult to keep in place.
  4. Alternatively, if a descent into deeper political chaos were to occur, the current deal might be ever more difficult to keep in place.
  5. If either or both of (3) and (4) would lead to an abrogation of Russian rights in Crimea, and if the consequences of losing of those rights would be greater than the costs of using force (roughly), then Russia’ decision to occupy the region could plausibly be read as a response to a basic commitment problem.

Does that mean Russian actions have derived entirely from the desire to prevent the loss of military privileges in Ukraine? Maybe not, but this is a plausible story consistent with the facts as we (think we) know them. At a minimum, thinking in these terms can tell us where to look if, indeed, this is a response Russia’s expected “loss” of Crimea; if we’re looking at a commitment problem, Russian actions would be designed to secure access to Sevastopol, etc., in the event of further domestic change in Ukraine. How might that be achieved? More autonomy for Crimea? Reversal of the current process of domestic change? A renegotiated treaty? It’s difficult to say at this point, but putting a little structure on otherwise confusing events can’t hurt—as long, of course, as we’re willing to adjust that little bit of structure as required by the emergence of new facts.

And I’m sure my students will make sure that I keep an eye out for just such an eventuality.

More thoughts on academic writing

While “academic” might not be as accurate as “social scientific” in this statement, I like the notion enough to give it a sort of permanent self-retweet here:


It’s tough to remember—and even tougher to put into practice when you think you’ve found a way to say something that turns out to be too clever by half—so let’s just call this another public commitment for my own work.

What do people mean by “small government”?

There’s a big difference between reducing the size of government and reducing the authority of the government, and they’re all too often conflated. In fact, plenty of people saying they want “smaller government” only want an inexpensive government, one that doesn’t tax them too much or redistribute in ways they dislike. Yet some of these same proponents of cheap government are also quite happy to expand the authority or power of the government, from enhanced police and surveillance powers (like warrantless wiretaps), allowing the use of torture, restrictions on abortion or marriage or free speech (say, flag-burning), etc…this could easily be a longer list.

But whether you support these things or not is irrelevant for the point I want to make; “small” governments can outlaw all kinds of things, can restrict a wide-ranging number of civil liberties and human rights—and just because a government isn’t “big” in terms of how much it costs doesn’t mean that it’s not “big” in terms of its authority and ability to interfere in the lives of its citizens. Yes, one could say that it might be harder to interfere with liberties when the government is smaller, but if the money it still does have goes to police power, then that’s not a (terribly) compelling argument. The point here is that people aren’t often clear what they mean by “small” or even “limited” government.

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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More on game theory and replicable science

Andrew Gelman’s post over at The Monkey Cage, in which he treats an argument about how the threat of meta-analysis should induce more disciplined empirical work in forward-thinking scholars, got me thinking more about the importance of replicability…but in the context of theory rather than empirical work.

Specifically, on that first day of an intro game theory class for grad students, you find yourself explaining to what might be a skeptical crowd the value of both modeling strategic interaction (a rather easy sell) and doing it formally (a tougher sell). The two are, of course, very different ideas—and they’re all too often conflated—but on the latter point, there’s a good argument to be made here that has nothing to do with game theory or assumptions of rationality but everything to do with replicability.

In short, formalizing one’s argument—apart from making it easier to get the logic right—is also a good way (and, in fairness not the only way) to make sure that said argument is replicable. Sentences and words can be sloppy; equations and operators are precise. And by virtue of that precision, tracing an author’s logic becomes easy when s/he provides proofs of how the conclusion was reached. These proofs can be mathematical (that’s the way I happen to do it), but if we’re just trying to prove the validity of an argument, then it can be done syllogistically or in whatever mode one likes. When one formalizes an argument, though, we can flip to the back of the article (or, sometimes, read just beyond the proposition) and trace exactly the logical path to verify that, yes, the hypotheses really do follow from the premises. That’s powerful stuff. Yes, one might contend that there are some nontrivial startup costs to being able to reproduce and verify the logic inside someone else’s formal proofs, but that’s also the case when it comes to advanced statistical analyses that we’d like to replicate as well. So I’m not terribly sympathetic to that objection.

Ultimately, formalizing our arguments allows us to create very clear replication files for our theories, rendering them transparent, reproducible, extendable, and—this is key—open to a greater degree of scrutiny. When our logic (whether good, bad, or absent) can’t hide behind verbiage, we’re better off as a discipline. We can scrutinize, correct, refine, refute, and improve in a way that we can’t when readers have to work too hard to back out the logic of our argumentation. Again, this doesn’t have to be formal, but formality does make complex logical structures with lots of moving parts easier to handle. (Hell, I need that mathematical crutch when the moving parts become too many, and I’m happy to admit it.)

Think of it this way: we’d be justifiably skeptical of empirical work that didn’t provide replication materials, and I’d argue that we should be equally skeptical of work that obfuscates its logic—intentionally or not—by not providing the reader some kind of transparent recipe for tracing their path from premises to conclusion. Yes, if you provide the details of your logic, you’re perhaps more likely to be firmly refuted, but—like the scholars addressed in Gelman’s post—that’s all the more reason to make sure you get the logic right the first time around.