On the relationship between information problems and commitment problems

Most political scientists that study conflict are familiar with a pair of bargaining frictions that, on their own, can cause negotiations to break down in war: (a) information problems and (b) commitment problems. Fearon’s famous IO piece distinguishes them from one another as solutions to the inefficiency puzzle of war—i.e., why fight when peaceful negotiation can produce the same outcome without all the waste? But in scholarly practice there seems to be widespread confusion about the relationship between these two mechanisms, both in terms of where one ends and the other begins and whether/how they interact. In this post, I’m going to (try to) clear it up.

tl:dr at the bottom.

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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…

Chiang Kai-Shek’s Two-Enemy Problem (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 8)

Continuing last week’s focus on the Long Chinese Civil War, today’s lecture spent some time exploring the dilemma facing Chiang Kai-Shek as he tried to manage two simultaneous but very different threats: a civil war against Communists at home and a potential international war against Imperial Japan. Fighting one would leave his Nationalist government exposed to the other, and to make matters worse, each enemy had to be fought in two different ways, given its organization: the Communists still a guerrilla force at this point and Japan a modern army in the field.

Plenty of ink’s been spilled over the consequences of Chiang’s plan to eliminate the Communists first before trying to eject Japanese forces from the Asian mainland—a plan he was pretty much compelled to abandon after the Xi’an Incident—but there’s a more general point to be made here about leaders, political survival, and war. I’ve seen it argued that Chiang made a mistake here, but from whose perspective? If we look at his own interests—which, since he was a politician, we’re going to assume involved staying in power—then his decision, albeit chosen from a menu made up exclusively of bad options, was a sensible one.

How so? Well, Chiang knew that, if he fought the Japanese, domestic power would shift pretty significantly against him and in favor of the Communists, who (a) weren’t a regular military force and therefore wouldn’t be terribly useful against Japan and (b) would undoubtedly use the time to regroup, reconstitute, and refocus their efforts on defeating the Nationalists. He also, frankly, didn’t expect to defeat Japan in the mid 1930s, either. Yet while fighting Japan would’ve been a ticket to losing office, cutting a deal with the international enemy would at least keep domestic power tilted (however precariously) in his favor—which would help him stay in office. As a result, Chiang consistently turned down chances to resist the expansion of Japanese influence into northern China, choosing the path that gave him the best chance of holding on to political power. Is that so strange? I don’t think so.

So while leaders are often eager to fight international opponents when they can use the conflict to shift domestic power in their favor (see this also), they should also be pretty eager to avoid conflict when it would shift domestic power against them—even to the extent of trading territory for political survival (I’ve got a paper on this, but it’s under review, so not linking to it just yet). Chiang’s case is also an interesting one, because when he was denied the choice of trading territory for survival after Xi’an (that is, when an exogenous shock forced the game off its equilibrium path), his fears came true: the war weakened his position relative to the Communists who would ultimately force Chiang and the Nationalists to Taiwan by 1949.

What’s next in Venezuela? (Foreign policy-wise, of course.)

The Hugo Chavez era has ended in Venezuela, and I’m not going to wade into what’s already an extensive public debate about his legacy and what impending change means for Venezuela itself (see, for example, this, this, and this). Being the IR conflict guy that I am, I’m going to address a different question: what can we expect out of Venezuela’s next leader when it comes to foreign policy?

Whether Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor, wins the next round of elections or someone else does, we can already say quite a bit about what we can expect from a new Venezuelan leader by knowing only two things: first, the risk of losing office in a coup or revolution, and, second, the simple fact that whoever takes office will be new. Unfortunately, it’s possible that these things add up to a more belligerent foreign policy, at least with respect to regional rivals. (Bizarre fantasies aside, the prospects for war against the US are really pretty damned low.)

Let’s start with the first question. Giacomo Chiozza and Hein Goemans have shown that, while the risk of losing an election doesn’t do much to encourage leaders to fight, the risk of losing office through a coup or a revolution certainly does. So, if Maduro or some long-shot successor finds the risk of being toppled violently high enough, war might be the best way to ensure survival—by sending plotters to the front, cracking down on dissent, or disrupting bases of rebel or dissident support. Whatever the specific strategy, it does seem that an increased risk of a coup or revolution—more so than losing an election, which is easy to survive—also increases the risk of international conflict.

On the second issue, Venezuela will—no matter what—be led by a new executive whose resolve (or willingness to use force) is more or less unknown to Venezuela’s rivals. How does one demonstrate resolve? Words won’t do it, but fighting will. How do one’s rivals gauge one’s resolve? You guessed it: pressing them to see if they’ll fight. I call this “the turnover trap,” in which new leaders have an incentive to demonstrate resolve, hoping to cultivate a reputation for toughness, and their opponents have an incentive to test them—a potentially dangerous combination, both for the escalation of disputes and, as Toby Rider recently discovered, arms races.

So, regardless of who’s in office, Venezuela’s new leader is likely to be a bit more belligerent than a longer-serving leader, to the extent that (a) Venezuelan politics is a violent place (particularly for toppled leaders) and (b) there are opportunities to cultivate a reputation for resolve with one’s rivals. Here’s the good news, though. Not only is the probability of war at any given time pretty damned low, I’d wager that its neighbors, including Colombia, Guyana, and Dominica (all of which have ongoing border disputes with Venezuela) would be more likely targets of any conflict that does break out than the big superpower country way up North. (Rhetoric aside, of course.)

Texas Triangle Post-Mortem and UVA Slides

I got some great feedback on my coalitions and signaling paper at the Texas Triangle conference a few weeks ago (it looks like I’ve not even posted since then), and I’ve spent the time since editing, revising, and prepping the paper for another talk Monday at UVA. Biggest mistake I made in the first version? I didn’t realize that I had coalitions forming endogenously in the model the whole time, and explaining that would’ve obviated some questions from the crowd [Way to go, Scott. –Ed.], but things look a bit better at this point, and I’ll be excited to see what a new set of eyes think about it.

I’m not posting the paper yet, but here’s the current draft of the slides I’ll be using on Monday. Broadly speaking, the points are similar to the previous version, if a little more refined:

  1. Skittish coalition partners disincentivize bluffing against strong targets, reducing the probability of war.
  2. However, they raise the probability of war against weaker targets by discouraging costly mobilizations that would reveal resolve.
  3. Acting unilaterally can be a signal of resolve, but it requires abandoning potential coalition partners.

So we have what seems to be a nonobvious interaction between intra-coalitional politics and the strength of the coalition’s target, and we have a new way of thinking about the “watered down” or “weak” threats that coalitions often (as they do in this model) form around: while they sometimes prevent the revelation of resolve, they can at other terms be a sign that states have chosen not to engage in the kinds of bluffing that would otherwise risk war.

More to follow, including a draft of the paper, after the talk and another round of revisions…

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.

International security, week 2

Today I taught session two of international security, where, if you saw the syllabus I posted here last week, we focused on bargaining and war. I tried to structure today’s readings and discussion around what I see as the arc of thinking about war as a bargaining process—from a useful analogy to way of identifying concrete causal mechanisms and, eventually, closer to developing solid hypotheses. As with last week, I’m not going to run down everything that happened in class, but I will touch on a couple of notable things that came out of discussion. More, as usual, after the jump.

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International security, week 1

I taught the first session of International Security yesterday (see this post of the syllabus and the rationale behind it), and we spent a lot of time, as promised, on the role and promise of assumptions in theory-building and testing. I can go on at (too great a) length about these things, as I’m sure my students discovered, but it allowed for some good, in-depth discussions of a few critical points that I think are worth repeating here. Note that this isn’t an exhaustive outline of what we covered, but just some points I want to revisit. Below the break, of course…

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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.