More on the Iran deal: Living with (and without) coalition partners

Two days ago, I posted some thoughts about how to judge this week’s deal between Iran and a coalition of great (and some maybe not so great) powers. One of the important questions I said needed to be answered involved something that virtually none of the popular criticism of the deal has mentioned: the coalition of large economies that had been leading the sanctions regime alongside the United States. Especially for the hawkish end of the critic spectrum, the argument seems to boil down to “well, the US should’ve done more.”—more sanctions, more chest-thumping, more apocalyptic language, more…well, something equated with “tough,” unilateral (I guess) action.[1] Keeping in mind that “more” is pretty ambiguous here (just to be clear, “more tough stuff” isn’t exactly a policy alternative), let’s take these criticisms at face value. Could the US have been tougher on Iran? I’m going to argue that the answer is “maybe not,” and, further, that the current level of “tough” might still be a better option than the US trying to do “more” without the support of the coalition.

The key, as I see it, is the centrality of that great power coalition, the P5+1, in actually applying coercive leverage to Iran. In my forthcoming book, The Politics of Military Coalitions, I build and test some theories about just how countries build coalitions, what it takes to keep them together, and what they mean for coercive diplomacy. I’ll draw on some insights, especially from Chapter 4, to argue that, even when some partners force you to “water down” your threats, you might still be better off that way than doing something on your own would be even less effective.

The short version of the argument the P5+1 coalition goes something like this:

  1. The US can’t pressure Iran effectively unless other big countries impose sanctions, too. Otherwise, Iran can just buy stuff from/sell stuff to the other big economies. So, just like the US couldn’t invade Iran without the cooperation of nearby countries, it can’t cripple Iran economically by itself, either.[2]
  2. So, if Iran is to be made uncomfortable in pursuing nuclear weapons and thus tempted to give up materials and allow inspections, the US has to keep the coalition together.
  3. Keeping the coalition together means adjusting strategies to account for the fact that Russia, China, and the European partners can’t keep with the sanctions for as long as the United States can (economically or politically). In other words, to successfully deal with Iran, the US has to first deal with its own coalition partners, because it can’t achieve the kind of leverage it wants and needs on its own.
  4. So, if a state can’t go it alone at an acceptable price, sometimes it has to sacrifice the pie-in-the-sky really “tough” strategy for a less-tough one in order to keep the source of its leverage (the coalition) in place. Nonetheless, if it’s practically impossible to be as tough as one wants to be when going it alone, then the watered-down threats coming from the coalition are still better than the next best alternative.

All of this, of course, is built around the idea that the P5+1 coalition is central to the strategy of sanctioning Iran for pursuing nuclear weapons—and given the nature of sanctions, trade, and the global economy, I think that’s eminently reasonable. (It also assumes that a full-scale war is unattractive, which—bluster aside—even most hawks acknowledge.) If the US doesn’t keep the coalition together, say by delaying a deal and allowing some partners to reach the breaking point at which they opt out (which may be quite close), then it ends up with no more leverage over Iran and nothing to show for all the work in these last nine or so years since the P5+1 really got going. Keeping the coalition together does sometimes require showing more restraint than coalition leaders like, but if coalition partners are that critical for the leverage in the first place, there really isn’t a “more tough stuff” option out there. Again, it all comes down to choosing the right basis for comparison: an a unilateral sanctions regime is probably not the most effective option out there.

In other words, hopes and wishes aside, sometimes “more tough” just isn’t on the table without being tremendously counterproductive. Even when coalition partners are skittish, difficult, inconsistent, and miserly, they’re oftentimes worth the compromise.

[1] Sure, some of this comes from hawks who want more “tough” because, well, they’re hawks and that’s what they do: talk tough. Those are minds I won’t change. I’m fine with that.

[2] This, of course, sets aside the idea that the best way to make a country want nukes to defend itself is to give it a reason to want to defend itself—like attacking it.

The syllabus cometh (Teaching WWI in Real Time)

After a few, ah, frantic weeks of (agonizing unnecessarily about) course prep, I’m (finally) sufficiently pleased with my World War I in Real Time syllabus to share it (here). I’m pretty excited about the course, because it’s going to give me the chance to cover so much about politics—bargaining, communication, coordination, principal-agent problems, etc.—under a single, unifying event. Christopher Clark says that the War is the “most complex [event] of modern times, perhaps of any time so far,” and his (magisterial) work is only about the beginning of the war. I learned quickly, while choosing topics to cover for the early months of the war, that he’s not wrong. At all.

I’m looking forward to the challenge of teaching, because there’s always a limit to the sheer amount of new stuff you can cover in a given semester. My American Foreign Relations course, for example, really only wants the class to come away understanding (a) the modern theory of war and (b) the theory of comparative advantage. Causes of War…well, I suppose the goal there is obvious. But I don’t want this course itself to be too much of a metaphor for the war: big, complex, and oftentimes incomprehensible. (Sure, it would be hilarious if a student at the end pulled a Francis Ford Coppola and said the equivalent of “making this movie was war,” but nice doesn’t mean the poor sap would’ve learned anything.)

So, if you’re familiar with the war, you’re going to notice a lot of things that I don’t cover. But I also cover what I think is important, not just for understanding the world of 1914, but for understanding politics itself. Strategic interaction, equilibrium, learning, and communication will be our building blocks, but we’ll cover war, diplomacy, alliances, military strategy, international law (neutrality, POWs, and the treatment of noncombatants), and state-society relations (labor issues, gender (in)equality, and demands for reform). My hope is to find simple analytical models to frame each of these problems, allowing students to see that, however sui generis we might like to view big, important events, they’re still specific instances of something more general—just, perhaps, with extreme values of a few variables.

My blogging about the course will pick up in earnest once the semester begins (I do, after all, have some APSA papers to take care of in the meantime), but keep an eye on this space: just as it was 100 years ago today…

CenturyAgoToday
Most of the bridges and the railroads of Liège fall intact to German hands, but a few are successfully destroyed: http://t.co/DhqdNLQLVD
8/7/14, 3:25 AM
CenturyAgoToday
The first elements of the British Expeditionary force begins to arrive in France.
8/7/14, 9:30 AM

…things are about to get interesting up in here.

Teaching WWI in real time (a hundred years later)

I’m developing a new undergraduate course for the fall, one that, in a very real way, can only be taught in the fall of 2014: The First World War in Real Time (A Hundred Years Later). I came to this idea a few months ago after spending, as anyone aware of my social media presence knows, a lot of time reading about the war over the last year or two. The plan is, after starting with The July Crisis and the outbreak of the war, the topics of the course will be dictated by what, exactly, had been happening that same week (roughly) one hundred years before: from Tannenberg and the Battle of the Frontiers to First Marne, from the strains of coalition warfare to the setting of war aims, and from the link between war and diplomacy to the domestic politics of mobilization and popular support. And that’s not even getting into all the alliance politics, logics of preventive war, decisions about war expansion, and the politics of the laws of neutrality, etc. that the course just begins with.

Can you tell I’m excited about this?

You might also notice that I’m posting about it well in advance. Part of the motivation here is to blog about my progress in preparing the course, to share ideas about the war, to work out possible paper topics that come out of it (War and Peace in East Asia, after all, did lead to my latest stuff on the laws of neutrality), and to get used to blogging regularly enough that I can maintain the commitment throughout the semester. So I’m hoping that these posts will be about teaching, research, the link between the two, prepping and developing courses, and, as well, a way to do something useful with my fascination for The Great War. If it works, there are certainly follow-on courses—1915 and the stabilization of the Western Front, 1916 and the Battles of Verdun and the Somme, 1917 with Russian implosion and American intervention, 1918 and war termination…you get the picture.

gasmasks_custom-ce5ede754ab55295278e0be5dcbdf15c1c9b50c8-s6-c30

So I’m embarking on this project a little publicly, and hopefully it won’t just be me promoting a class about a war that most of my friends are probably (and rightly) tired of hearing me go on and on about. Should be fun.

A theory of neutrality rights in war – paper and slides

I’m giving a talk today at Maryland on a topic that’s pretty new to me—the laws of neutrality in war—though I guess I did hint about the genesis of this project several months ago. It’s a project that’s in its early stages, but it’s one I’m sufficiently excited about to publicize a bit, so here are links to a draft of the paper and the slides I’ll be using to confuse the audience today.

As I’m also hesitant to give said talk unshowered and in a *very* rumpled shirt, I’m cutting this short. Hopefully, though, there’ll be more to report in the days ahead.

Showing Restraint, Signaling Resolve (talk slides)

In lieu of lecture musings today, I’m posting the slides (PDF) for my talk this afternoon as part of Rochester’s Watson Seminar Series. I’ve presented this particular paper around quite a bit, and the theoretical model is coming out (soon, I hope) at AJPS, but the empirics are new and part of the effort to integrate this model and a few others into a book manuscript. I’m slowly learning how to fit both theoretical and empirical models into a talk and do it well—we’ll see how close I get to that goal this afternoon.

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

Showing Restraint, Signaling Resolve: Slides

I’m headed to SUNY Buffalo this week for a min-conference on Mathematical Modeling of Political Behavior (thanks for the invite, Phil Arena), and to help tie my hands against spending all my time editing them, I’m putting the slides for my presentation, “Showing Restraint, Signaling Resolve,” up here on the blog.

I’ve presented this paper around quite a bit (see here and here)—and since it’s under review, I’m not going to put it up here—but the essential point is that coalition partners—specifically, the desire to ensure their cooperation—can have a profound impact on bargaining, signals, and the probability of war. Against strong targets, the desire to keep a skittish partner in the fold discourages a coalition leader from bluffing; so, although its partner “waters down” the threat, it helps discourage war. Against weak targets, preserving military cooperation discourages a coalition leader from signaling its resolve; instead, it acts like an irresolute state, tempting the coalition’s target to risk war. As it happens, this pattern shows up pretty strongly in the data (which, trust me, was no small relief), and while the empirics aren’t in the version currently under review, I’m sure they’ll show up somewhere eventually…

And it appears that Buffalo’s going to be a bit, ah, chilly:

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Damn it.