Obama, Romney, and the Taliban

Thanks to Phil Arena, I saw two tweets from Andrew Exum today (both highly recommended blogs, by the way) that caught my eye:

I wonder if Mitt Romney’s “no negotiations” stance actually strengthens the hand of the Obama Admin. as it negotiates with the Taliban.
1/17/12 6:57 AM
In a way, Romney is the bad cop to Obama’s good cop in negotiations with the Taliban.
1/17/12 6:58 AM

As it happens, I just finished making revisions a “conditionally accepted” paper (this one) that relates pretty directly to this question (it’s also a topic dealt with in my dissertation and hinted at here, but gated): how does the threat of leadership change affect an incumbent’s international bargaining fortunes? Specifically, the question here is how the threat of Romney (more hawkish than Obama?) winning the presidency affects what Obama can get out of negotiations with the Taliban now.

What does this paper have to say about it? For the most part, the answer to this question turns on two things: (a) the extent of differences between the successor and the incumbent and (b) just how sensitive the incumbent’s electoral fortunes are to bargaining outcomes. I won’t get too heavily into the details of the model, but if we take it that Romney would be more willing to continue the war in Afghanistan than Obama (which we’re going to take the “no negotiations” position to represent), then we’ve got an intriguing possibility: something the paper calls “preemptive appeasement.”

Essentially, preemptive appeasement is softening one’s bargaining position in order to bolster a pliant incumbent in office, forestalling the rise of a more resolute successor that one would rather not deal with. If Romney will fight longer than Obama and the Taliban believe that playing ball with Obama will keep him in office through the next election, then they might well do so—trading some concessions now to increase the chances that Obama stays in office in return for extracting a better deal in 2013 than they would against Romney.

Of course, if they don’t think Obama can be bolstered in office with concessions—or if his reelection becomes a foregone conclusion–then their strategy will switch to one of getting what they can now, striking while the iron is hot, and the prospect of Romney waiting in the wings won’t have as much of an effect. Which is all to say that there may well be a pretty consequential connection between primary season, the pace of economic recovery, the general election, and the war in Afghanistan.

Stay tuned. I know I will.

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.

Three arguments that impacted me

Phil Arena started this exercise of answering a few questions about what ideas or concepts have had an impact on us as scholars (and as people), and I think it’s a good idea—as evidenced by the fact that I’ve been thinking way too hard about my answers. Without further ado, let’s jump into it.

Q: Of all the arguments/findings/concepts you’ve learned in political science, which one has had the greatest impact on how you think about the world in your daily life? 

I’d say it’s sequential rationality, which gets us to ideas of subgame perfection and the credibility of promises or threats. The idea here is that I shouldn’t expect someone else to react to my actions down the road in a way that wouldn’t be in her interest. Sounds almost trivial when you put it that way, but the idea is that we’d like our theories of political action to rule out incredible threats. In other words, we would find an equilibrium implausible if someone threatened to blow us both up with a hand grenade if I don’t cough up a dollar and, as a result, I give her the dollar. If I say no, and she has to weigh the option of not having a dollar versus being dead, well, she’s unlikely to choose the latter.

Why is this useful? For me, it was instructive in my thinking about how politics works—say, why certain bargaining situations end up the way they do—and also how I thought about causality. What happens off the equilibrium path—every dog that doesn’t bark, every war that doesn’t happen (like World War III in the 1960s, the Second Korean War of 1994, the war between Russia and Wilhemine Germany in 1935), every election in the 1990s not involving Ross Perot—has a lot to tell us about what actually does happen, and breaking out of the linear A-follows-B narrative mode of thinking about political history was a big one for me.

Q: Of all the arguments/findings/concepts you’ve learned in political science, which one has had the greatest impact on your own research

This one’s tough. Thanks, Phil.

But I think it’s going to be my realization, some years ago, that “assumption” isn’t a four-letter word (it’s a nine-letter word, if you’re keeping score at home). Rather, assumptions are either useful for a particular question or not—no more, no less. They’re the means by which we keep track of what’s a moving part and what isn’t, by which we can isolate the effect of one thing we’re interested in from others. In fact, since the rules of logic are pretty much set, assumptions are about all we have in terms of contributions to theory. They’re nothing more than the premises of the arguments that make up our theories, but they’re also the the entry point for creativity and insight. They simplify, they restrict, and in so doing they give us power, leverage, and answers—as long as we’re explicit, everywhere and always, about what they are.

And once I realized that, I think I got better at writing down models, at tailoring them to my questions, and at understanding what they taught me. No small thing, that.

Q: Of all the arguments/findings/concepts you’ve learned in political science, which one did you most underestimate at first

I’m agreeing with Phil on this one. The unitary actor assumption. It’s easy to over-complicate a model with realism, but some theories—like most of my newer stuff on coalitions and multilateral bargaining—can be pretty powerful even as states are treated like billiard balls. (They’re also much easier to solve and explicate, but that’s another issue entirely.) But for the rest, I’ll direct you to Phil’s prior discussion.

NATO’s Libyan drawdown

David Bosco asks whether, in light of renewed violence in Libya—this time between former rebel allies—NATO might’ve ended its mission “too soon.” This is a good question. The implication here is that, with NATO around, these erstwhile allies might not be fighting. Maybe. But unless NATO’s presence would imply some solution to the problem leading to the fighting—that is, unless NATO being around a bit longer would make it such that each side would find a share of the spoils of victory that it would prefer over fighting in NATO’s absence—then NATO staying a bit longer would only delay this conflict a bit longer.

In other words, NATO’s presence might have made peace sustainable between rival factions for some reason—say, with the eyes of the world upon them (maybe?)—but unless it would contribute to making peace between rival factions self-enforcing, then the same problem that led to this week’s fighting would still be present whenever NATO decided to pull up stakes.

Granted, subsidies could work, but that’s a long-term commitment to doing something that NATO very clearly doesn’t want to do. So even if we cast the problem, as Bosco does, in terms of NATO ” involv[ing] itself on the ground or demonstrat[ing] the narrowness of its interpretation of the responsibility to protect,” then it’s not clear that the end of the NATO mission, whenever it might be, would do anything to resolve whatever fundamental distributive conflicts are driving former rebel allies to fight one another.

Grad students…read this

For those of you CU students in Intro Game Theory this coming semester (all 27 of you), I’d suggest reading this piece ahead of time. We’ll spend a little time motivating the method early on, but for a good, thoughtful exposition of the role that formalizing our theories can play in conducting rigorous inquiry, there are few better than Harrison Wagner. Read it, then read it again.

When theories meet critiques…and how to handle them

Note. This is aimed, for the most part, at game theory students, but it’s important to note that this is important for theories of all stripes, whether formal or verbal. So, whatever your inclinations for developing explanations, read on.

Theories, in their basic form, consist of assumptions (premises), some logic, and implications (hypotheses, conclusions, etc.), and there are any number of ways to critique them, but today we’re going to set aside the question of the logic of theories and assume that you’ve got a logically consistent, valid argument. (How you get this is another story for another time.) But, assuming that the logic is right, one thing that any scholar will run into when others see their theory, whether in a paper or at a conference, is the question of what gets left out of the model. Granted, given the infinitude of things that could be in any model, the correct answer to “what have you left out?” is, strictly speaking, “nearly everything.” But very often, folks will ask, “But what about factor x? Shouldn’t that also affect the outcome variable? And, if so, why is it not in your model?” Sometimes, that’s a useful critique of your theory, and sometimes it’s not, and the key is identifying when it is and when it isn’t. Of course, as we’ll see, even when it’s not useful for the theory, it often turns out to be good for thinking about controls for testing its implications…but we’ll get there after the jump.

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