Book Review: Leaders and International Conflict

Book: Leaders and International Conflict by Giacomo Chiozza and Hein Goemans
Five stars out of five.

Disclaimer: I either read this book because it just won the Lepgold Prize or because Goemans will be grading my comprehensive exam in a week.[1] I will let you decide which is true.

Personally, I study unitary actor explanations for war. The unitary actor assumption treats a state as though it were a single entity; there are no presidents, there are no parliaments, there are no people, and there are no revolutionaries. These are clearly strong assumptions, but they are useful and justifiable.[2]

War is quite puzzling from the unitary actor perspective. After all, war is costly to both sides because it destroys stuff. Why can’t we just implement the would-be results of war without actually fighting? In this manner, both states are better off since they get what they would get from fighting but without having to pay those costs. This is war’s inefficiency puzzle.[3]

Chiozza and Goemans start with this puzzle and then break out of the unitary actor framework by looking at leaders’ incentives, which has become a popular trend among recent scholarship. Presidents and dictators control their countries’ armies at least to some degree, but the “costs” they pay for fighting may not be the same as the costs that their citizens pay. We normally think of this as being beneficial to the leaders–citizens do the actual fighting (and dying) while the leaders sit back at home and wait for the favorable results. In contrast, Chiozza and Goemans care about what happens to the leaders after war ends, especially when things go badly. Do they retire? Do they go to prison? Into exile? Die? Presumably, the expected fate of the leader weighs heavily on his decision to fight, which in turn changes our expectation on when wars ought to break out.

Specifically, Chiozza and Goemans identify two new causal mechanisms for variation between war and peace: fighting for survival and peace through instability.[4] Let’s start with fighting for survival. Imagine I am the repressive Dictator of Virgon, and I am expecting to face domestic upheaval in the near future due to a food shortage. If the domestic uprising is successful, I expect to lose my head–I have been a brutal dictator for the last ten years. Thus, I have two choices: sit back and let the revolution happen or start a dispute with neighboring Aerilon. If I start the fight against Aerilon, I can send some of the military leaders most capable of plotting a coup against me to the front lines. If the war goes incredibly wrong and they die, I am little safer because I am short a few more coup plotters. If the war goes well, suddenly I am a military genius and everyone loves me. Or the war causes the citizens to finish their rebellion. In the first two situations, I am much better off because I am alive. In the third situation, I’m dead–but, hey, I was going to die anyway. So what the hell. I might as well fight.

This has the flavor of traditional diversionary war, so it is worth noting their emphasis on the role of truncated punishment in the theory. Imagine instead that I were the President of Canceron. We are a fledgling democracy. My power is somewhat stable but not as firm as the U.S. President’s is. I face plenty of domestic opposition, some from within the government and some from within the military. Suppose I am facing that same food shortage. Again, I can choose to attack Aerilon or not. If I don’t, it is quite likely that one of my political rivals will oust me. But we are a fledgling democracy with some rule of law, so I will go back and live a nice retirement on my ten-acre estate. But fighting is much riskier. Yes, I might be successful and save my presidency. But I could also spark further domestic upheaval from my own military. And if they launch a coup to overthrow me…well, I might just lose my head. So I decide to leave Aerilon be. This is Chiozza and Goemans’ peace through instability mechanism; I avoid wars because I prefer taking a lovely retirement with certainty to a gamble between remaining president and dying.

We can attribute the difference in outcomes due to the truncated punishment. The Dictator of Virgon has nothing to lose. His punishment (dying) can’t get any worse, so he willing to fight the war. The President of Canceron, on the other hand, is not. His possible outcomes is not truncated. Fighting can make things much worse–his outcome can switch from retirement to death. Hence he’s not fighting the war.

That, in a nutshell, is the argument. The authors spend chapters three and four empirically investigating the link between war and war outcomes to leader fate. The empirics are accessible to readers without much statistical background, so that is a huge plus. The fifth chapter then qualitatively looks at leader transition and war in Central America from 1840-1918. They find that their theory explains the outbreak of a good portion–though not all–wars during that period. Credit Chiozza and Goemans for being honest here. A single theory will never explain all wars, since wars happen for a variety of reasons. I too often read material that wants to explain everything, which is laughable. Chiozza and Goemans instead make an honest effort and do not unnecessarily oversell their theory.

Finally, I offer two practical reasons to read the book. First, it is just over 200 pages. The writing is succinct, clear of extraneous information[5], and you can easily read it in half a day.[6] It can also be had on Amazon Kindle for about $15, which is remarkably cheap for an academic book that only came out a year ago. Go check it out.

[1] You may then wonder whether I actually believe this book deserves five stars–after all, if I truly thought this book was terrible, I have incentive to misrepresent. However, rest assured that I think it is good. After all, if it were bad, I could have just written no review. But by writing a review, I face potential audience costs from readers who pick up this book because of me and then think it is terrible. Thus, the audience costs make my signal credible. Game theory at work, qed.

[2] See the following video:

[3] See the following video:

[4] Technically, they split fighting for survival into two categories, but I will gloss over it for the sake of time.

[5] Fine, there is extraneous information, but it is in the form of humorous anecdotes, so that makes it okay.

[6] Unfortunately for Goemans, my comprehensive exam will not be succinct. At all. And my dissertation? Well, let’s not go there…

2 responses to “Book Review: Leaders and International Conflict

  1. wow! just love this review…!

  2. Pingback: Roger Craig’s Daily Double Strategy: Smart Play, Bad Luck | William Spaniel

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