Category Archives: War

Crimea and Ukrainian Nuclear Nonsense

For whatever reason, it seems trendy to blame Ukraine’s current predicament on its 1994 decision to denuclearize. If Ukraine had proliferated, the logic goes, then Russia would not have invaded Crimea, and people in Kiev would be a lot happier.

The trouble is, none of this makes any sense. To be kind, these arguments rely on an awkward reading of history and assume that nuclear weapons are a magical cure-all. The issues are threefold:

1) Ukraine never had command control over nuclear weapons. Yes, there were a lot of nuclear weapons sitting on Ukrainian soil–the third most in the world at that time after the United States and Russia. But having weapons on your soil is meaningless unless you can authorize their use. Trying to obtain control over those weapons would have required force and therefore war with Russia, which, as Anton Strezhnev points out, would not have made much sense for Ukraine. At no point in time could leaders in Kiev flip a magic switch and turn on a nuclear deterrent.

So if Ukraine wanted nuclear weapons, it was going to have to work hard for them. Trouble is…

2) Building its own nuclear deterrent would have been insane. Fresh off the fall of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian economy was hurting. Spending tons of money developing its own nuclear weapons program would have put the country in a much deeper red hole. Still, because deterrence had value, Ukraine used the nuclear issue to extract financial compensation from the West. Meanwhile, Russia offered to ship Ukraine downblended uranium to keep their nuclear power plants firing. (There were also territorial agreements that Russia is currently violating, but no one at the time reasonably believed that those terms would hold up during exceptional situations.) Nuclearization would have killed those inducements and perhaps put Ukraine in such economic peril that it seems doubtful that we would have wound up in the position we are in today.

And even if the Ukrainian economy miraculously healed and we somehow managed to find ourselves in the duplicate situation…

3) It isn’t clear how nuclear weapons would have deterred Russia. Let’s not forget Russia has a nuclear stockpile as well. It is hard to see how Ukraine could have credibly threatened nuclear retaliation in response to the invasion of Crimea. Nuclear weapons are great at deterring aggression toward vital assets. I am not sure that Crimea counts, especially since it has such heavy Russian population. A nuclear deterrent might stop Putin from pushing further west toward Kiev, but he might very well be stopping where he is anyway due to conventional threats and economic warfare from the West.

TL;DR: It is really hard to claim that Ukraine’s decision to not proliferate in the 1990s was a mistake.

Putin’s Risk-Return Tradeoff

It is interesting–if unfortunate–to be watching international bargaining unfolding right in front of our eyes. Russia has seized the Crimean Peninsula, which has the awkward characteristics of being (1) on Ukraine’s southeastern fringe, (2) on Russia’s border, (3) predominantly inhabited by Russian speakers, and (4) the home of a Russian naval fleet.

Although where the crisis goes in in the next couple of days is anyone’s guess, Putin is engaging in a classic example of the risk-return tradeoff. International conflict–whether economic or militaristic–is costly for all parties involved. These costs incentivize the actors to reach negotiated settlements. After all, if everyone knows how conflict would end, they could implement that solution from the start and preserve the costs of fighting. Everyone finishes better off.

Unfortunately, combatants are not always certain of each other’s capabilities and willingness to fight. Putin, for example, might know that he can take some of Crimea without triggering war from Kiev or massive economic sanctions from the West, but he likely does not know the maximum Russian expansion those parties are willing to tolerate.

So how does Putin decide where to stop? The risk-return tradeoff provides some guidance. Bargaining positions range from conservative to aggressive. Adopting a conservative position means that other parties are less likely to reject your demands and fight a war or impose economic sanctions. While this is a safe choice, conservative positions are inherently costly because you must concede a lot to the opposition in the process. Alternatively, you could act more aggressively and try to take more. This pays off greatly when your plan succeeds and the other side concedes but risks backfiring if the other side rejects your demands and inflicts war/sanctions costs on you.

Ultimately, you have to weigh the risks of rejection to the high potential returns of capturing larger portions of the stakes. If the reward is great relative to the risk, you should adopt an aggressive position. If it is small, you should go conservative. If it is somewhere in between, you should take a moderate approach.

In this light, taking the Crimea was a relatively safe choice for Putin; given its population’s heavy Russian sympathies, any local resistance would have been minimal. It also has more value than other regions because of its positioning along the Black Sea. But as Russia advances to the northwest, it will find fewer sympathizers and more West-loyal Ukrainians. (Here is a useful map of the 2004 election results; purple is a decent proxy for Russian affinity.) This not only makes incremental gains more costly for Putin but also risks exceeding the most the West and Kiev is willing to give up. As a result, Putin might go a little further west, but don’t be surprised if this has a natural, peaceful, and relatively moderate outcome.

Misconceptions about the Syrian Civil War

If I had to guess what the three most common explanations are for the Syrian Civil War, I would go with:

  1. Ethnic fractionalization
  2. Economic inequality
  3. The Arab Spring

The problem is, none of these are good explanations. This post explains why.

First, some background. “Rationalist Explanations for War” is one of IR’s most-cited articles from the past twenty years, and for good reason. In it, James Fearon shows that the costs of war ensure that a range of settlements mutually preferable to war always exists. The takeaway point is very simple: you can have massive grievances against a rival, but those grievances do not explain why you go to war. Many countries have internal strife of this nature. Very few of them actually resolve their problems on the battlefield. After all, the parties could implement whatever the expected end result of the fighting would be before the war starts. No one has incentive to fight at that point, since they would receive an identical outcome in expectation but suffer the costs of war (not to mention risk death).

So what does this have to say about the standard explanations for the Syrian Civil War?

Ethnic Fractionalization
Syria’s population is 60% Sunni and 12% Alawite. The Alawites (i.e., Bashar al-Assad) are in power. War allegedly started because of this massive disparity.

This is a bad explanation for two reasons. First, ethnic fractionalization in Syria has existed all along. So if it caused the war in 2011, why did it not cause the war in 2010, 2009, 2008, or 2007? You can’t explain variation (peace/war) with a constant (fractionalization), yet this is exactly what this argument attempts to do.

Second, fractionalization is only a problem because of political repression. The United States is 63% White and 13% African American with an African American in power but is no where near war because of the lack of oppression. (Technically Obama is half-half, but he identifies as African American.) So if ethnic fractionalization leading to oppression caused the war, you are still left trying to explain why Assad simply didn’t relax the extent of oppression. The majority Sunni population would be pacified, and Assad wouldn’t be risking his life fighting a war. Both sides would appear better off.

Economic Inequality
Economic inequality in Syria is bad. For the latest data I could find, Syria’s Gini coefficient is .358 (2004, World Bank). War allegedly started because the impoverished had grievance.

This is a bad explanation for the same two reasons as above. First, this inequality has persisted for a long time. It’s hard to explain why war did not start in 2010, 2009, 2008, or 2007 but did in 2011. Second, if inequality was such a big deal, why didn’t Assad simply throw money at the impoverished groups? After all, those suffering are fighting (in theory) for better economic opportunities. Assad could just give them those opportunities, avoid the bloody mess, and not be risking his life. Again, all sides would appear better off.

Also, it’s worth noting that the United States’ Gini coefficient is .45 (2007, World Bank), making the U.S. more unequal than Syria.

The Arab Spring
The Arab Spring provides a better explanation than the first two because it didn’t exist in 2007, 2008, 2009 or the first eleven months of 2010 but did have effect after that point. Consequently, variation of the presence of the Arab Spring can explain variation in the peace/war outcome.

On the other hand, there is still a question of why the Assad regime couldn’t appease the protesters’ demands peacefully for the same reasons as above. In fact, Qatar did something to that effect, giving raises to key groups (including 120% increases to military officers) to preempt the need to protest.

The Simplest Explanation
The simple explanation of the Syrian Civil War is as follows. The Arab Spring acted as a coordination mechanism and/or allowed disenfranchised groups to overcome their collective action problem. This gave the protesters a sudden spike in military power. For Assad to resolve the tensions, he would have to credibly commit to giving up concessions in the long term. However, once the protesters all went home and Arab Spring coordination effect died, he would no longer have reason to continue giving those concessions. So the protesters became rebels, knowing that war and regime change were the only way to secure concessions.

The Syrian Civil War is, in effect, a preventive war.

This post is based on a lecture I produced for my Civil Wars MOOC, seen below:

Are Weapons Inspections about Information or Inconvenience?

Abstract: How do weapons inspections alter international bargaining environments? While conventional wisdom focuses on informational aspects, this paper focuses on inspections’ impact on the cost of a potential program–weapons inspectors shut down the most efficient avenues to development, forcing rising states to pursue more costly means to develop arms. To demonstrate the corresponding positive effects, this paper develops a model of negotiating over hidden weapons programs in the shadow of preventive war. If the cost of arms is large, efficient agreements are credible even if declining states cannot observe violations. However, if the cost is small, a commitment problem leads to positive probability of preventive war and costly weapons investment. Equilibrium welfare under this second outcome is mutually inferior to the equilibrium welfare of the first outcome. Consequently, both rising states and declining states benefit from weapons inspections even if those inspections cannot reveal all private information.

If you are here for the long haul, you can download the chapter on the purpose of weapons inspections here. Being that it is a later chapter from my dissertation, here is a quick version of the basic “butter-for-bombs” model:

Imagine a two period game between R(ising state) and D(declining state). In the first period, D makes an offer x to R, to which R responds by accepting, rejecting, or building weapons. Accepting locks in the proposal; R receives x and D receives 1-x for the rest of time. Rejecting locks in war payoffs; R receives p – c_R and D receives 1 – p – c_D. Building requires a cost k > 0. D responds by either preventing–locking in the war payoffs from before–or advancing to the post-shift state of the world.

In the post-shift state, D makes a second offer y to R, which R accepts or rejects. Accepting locks in the offer for the rest of time. Rejecting leads to war payoffs; R receives p’ – c_R and D receives 1 – p’ – c_D, where p’ > p. Thus, R fares better in war post-shift and D fares worse.

As usual, the actors share a common discount factor δ.

The main question is whether D can buy off R. Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is yes, and easily so. To see why, note that even if R builds, it only receives a larger portion of the pie in the later stage. Specifically, D must offer p’ – c_R to appease R and will do so, since provoking war leads to unnecessary destruction. Thus, if R ever builds, it receives p’ – c_R for the rest of time.

Now consider R’s decision whether to build in the first period. Let’s ignore the reject option, as D will never be silly enough to offer an amount that leads to unnecessary war. If R accepts x, it receives x for the rest of time. If it builds (and D does not prevent), then R pays the cost k and receives x today and p’ – c_R for the rest of time. Thus, R is willing to forgo building if:

x ≥ (1 – δ)x + δ(p’ – c_R) – (1 – δ)k

Solving for x yields:

x ≥ p’ – c_R – (1 – δ)k/δ

It’s a simple as that. As long as D offers at least p’ – c_R – (1 – δ)k/δ, R accepts. There is no need to build if you are already getting all of the concessions you seek. Meanwhile, D happily bribes R in this manner, as it gets to steal the surplus created by R not wasting the investment cost k.

The chapter looks at the same situation but with imperfect information–the declining state does not know whether the rising state built when it chooses whether to prevent. Things get a little hairy, but the states can still hammer out agreements most of the time.

I hope you enjoy the chapter. Feel free to shoot me a cold email with any comments you might have.

Negotiating with Iran: Credible Commitment Problems?

The United States, the rest of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Germany, and Iran are in Kazakhstan this week, negotiating over the Iranian nuclear program. The West wants it to stop, fearing it will eventually yield a nuclear weapon. Iran continues to claim that its program is purely for scientific and energy purposes. No one believes that. The United States’ focus has therefore been figuring out how to convince Iran to let it go.

Unfortunately, the dialogue in the U.S. has been hopelessly misguided. In this post, I will make two claims: (1) the United States can always offer sufficient concessions to induce Iran to end its program; (2) Iran does not believe the United States can credibly commit to these concessions over the long term, thus explaining Iran’s obstinate behavior. The policy implication is obvious: if we want Iran to stop proliferating, we need to stop pretending that it is difficult to buy Iranian compliance and start seriously questioning our own commitment to giving Iran a good deal.

I discuss claim (1) in the main theoretical chapter of my dissertation. Many years ago, I saw President Obama making a speech about getting Iran to join “the community of nations” and give up its nuclear program. From my knowledge of the existing political science literature, I figured it would be easy to show that no such agreement would work. After all, if you were Iran, why would accept concessions and not build when you could accept concessions and build anyway? The temptation to shift power seemingly destroys the possibility of negotiated settlements.

However, I was unequivocally wrong. The conversation about Iranian duplicity (and my own initial intuition) fails to properly analyze Iranian incentives. Nuclear weapons are costly. If Iran is offered most of the concessions it expects to receive if it were to proliferate, it has no further incentive to develop a bomb. Sure, Iran could continue proliferating, but it ultimately will not receive any more than the United States is already giving it. However, it will have to pay the cost of the weapons, which is a complete waste at that point.

Meanwhile, the United States has incentive to make this sort of “butter-for-bombs” offer. Although the U.S. would like to offer no concessions, such a strategy is naive, since this would induce Iran proliferate. On the other hand, offering the butter-for-bombs deal ensures that Iran will not build nuclear weapons. Moreover, since Iran is not paying the cost of proliferation, there is extra pie to go around. The United States can extract it.

The paper linked above gives the details. Surprisingly, these agreements work under very loose conditions. They work in an infinitely repeated interaction; they work when Iran could freely renege on the deal without any recourse from the United States; and they work even when the United States is completely incapable of observing Iranian nuclear progress. Butter-for-bombs is all about getting the incentives right. Offer Iran enough, and you do not have to worry about the deal falling through under any circumstance.

One important assumption of the above model is that the United States’ ability to launch preventive war remains constant through time. What happens if we relax this assumption? Another chapter from my dissertation asks this exact question. I show that if the United States goes from being unable to credibly threaten preventive war one day to being able to credibly threaten preventive war the next day, bargaining breaks down, and Iran develops nuclear weapons. But the blame goes squarely on the United States.

To understand why, suppose we reach the future time when the United States can credibly threaten preventive war. At this point, Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons. If it were to, the United States would respond by launching preventive war. Iran would not receive the benefits of nuclear proliferation but still waste the cost it paid to develop nuclear technology. Internalizing this, Iran will not proliferate. But because Iran will not proliferate, the United States has no reason to make those butter-for-bombs offers from before. Instead, it can offer no concessions and still induce Iranian compliance, as Iran does not have any better options.

Now think about how this endgame affects bargaining today. The United States would like Iran to accept a butter-for-bombs agreement and avoid proliferation. But consider the problem from the Iranian perspective. If Iran accepts those concessions today, then it advances to that future world where the United States can effectively leverage preventive war. At that point, the concessions stop. Alternatively, Iran could pay a cost upfront, proliferate today, and leverage the additional power to force the United States to continue giving concessions into the future. Needless to say, the second option looks a lot more attractive. Thus, bargaining breaks down, and Iran proliferates.

The problem here is not Iran’s stubbornness. Rather, it is the United States’ inability to credibly commit to continue providing concessions in the future. If the U.S. could, then Iran would have no reason to proliferate. (This was shown in claim 1.) However, Iran expects the United States to renege on the concessions, which in turn causes the proliferation behavior.

One might object that the United States would never take advantage of its strength in that manner. To anyone who doubts that, I point to May of 2003. This was the perhaps the height of American power. Things were going well in Afghanistan, we had just run over Saddam Hussein’s army, and the Iraqi insurgency had not yet begun. Iran felt enclosed. Rather than panicking, Iran extended an olive branch. Tehran sent the Swedish ambassador (who takes care of American interests in Iran) over Washington with a sweeping offer. Iran essentially waved a white flag and put everything on the table. Their demands in return were minimal: they wanted a prison swap and normalized relations. If this type of proposal arrived today, it would be magical Christmas land in DC.

I’d like to say that the Bush administration gleefully accepted the offer and sent a warm reply. But they didn’t. In fact, they sent no reply at all. They simply ignored it and chastised the Swedish ambassador for bringing it to their attention.


The domestic political consequences in Iran were bad. Moderates held the presidency at that point and pushed for the deal with the Ayatollah’s blessing. After their failure, they were pushed out of government. Mahmound Ahmadinejad’s administration replaced them.

As we all know, America’s position of strength evaporated, leading to the drawn-out insurgency. Iran knows that the decade-plus of war has left us exhausted from conflict. Preventive war is unlikely today. But given enough time, our war-weariness will fade away. Iran is concerned that the United States will immediately switch back to the firm fist of the Bush administration’s years. They see our temporary weakness as now-or-never opportunity to proliferate. And they are going for it.

How do we get out of this mess? It’s possible that we cannot, and we just have to suffer the consequences of another poor foreign policy decision from the Bush years. But if there is any hope of reaching an agreement with Iran, it must come through the United States demonstrating its commitment to ongoing concessions that will not instantly disappear at some later date. Unfortunately, the domestic political dialogue in the U.S. focuses entirely on the credibility Iranian commitments while treating our own as the word of God. This is misguided. And until we can have a serious conversation about our own credibility, we will not make any progress with Iran.

Preemptive War on the Walking Dead

The Walking Dead is cable’s most successful TV show, ever. I’m writing this after “Home,” and I’m going to assume you know what is going on by and large.

Here’s what’s important. As far as we care, there are only two groups of humans left alive. One, the good guys, have fortified themselves inside an abandon jail. The other lives in a walled town called Woodbury. They became aware of each other a few episodes ago, and they have various reasons to dislike each other.

War appears likely and will be devastating to both parties, likely leaving them in a position worse than if they pretended the other simply did not exist. For example, in “Home,” the Woodbury group packs a courier van full of zombies, breaches the jail’s walls, and opens the van for an undead delivery. Now a bunch of flesh-eaters are wandering around the previously secure prison.

Meanwhile, the jail’s de facto leader went on a mysterious shopping spree and came back with a truck full of unknown supplies. I suspect next episode will feature the jail group bombing a hole in Woodbury’s city walls.

All this leads to an important question: why can’t they all just get along? It’s the end of the world for goodness sake!

As someone who studies war, I am sympathetic to the problem. Woodbury and the jail group are capable of imposing great costs on one another merely by allowing zombies to penetrate the other’s camp. The situation seems ripe for a peaceful settlement, since there appear to be agreements both parties prefer to continued conflict.

This is the crux of James Fearon’s Rationalist Explanations for War, one of the most important articles in international relations in the last twenty years. Fearon shows that as long as war is costly and the sides have a rough understanding of how war will play out, then both parties should be willing to sit down at the bargaining table and negotiate a settlement.

However, Fearon notes that first strike advantages kill the attractiveness of such bargains. From the article:

Consider the problem faced by two gunslingers with the following preferences. Each would most prefer to kill the other by stealth, facing no risk of retaliation, but each prefers that both live in peace to a gunfight in which each risks death. There is a bargain here that both sides prefer to “war”…[but] given their preferences, neither person can credibly commit not to defect from the bargain by trying to shoot the other in the back.

The jail birds and Woodbury are in a similar position:


This is a prisoner’s dilemma.[1] Both parties prefer peace to mutual war. But peace is unsustainable because, given that I believe you are going to act peacefully, I prefer taking advantage of you and attacking. This leads to continued conflict until one side has been destroyed (or, in this case, eaten by zombies), leaving both worse off. We call this preemptive war, as the sides are attempting to preempt the other’s attack.

In the real world, countries have tried to reduce the attractiveness of a first strike by creating demilitarized zones between disputed territory, like the one in Korea. But such buffers require manpower to patrol to verify the other party’s compliance. Unfortunately, the zombie apocalypse has left the world short of people–Woodbury has fewer than a hundred, and the jail birds have fewer than ten. As a result, I believe we be witnessing preemptive war for the rest of this season.

[1] Get it? They live in a jail, and they are in a prisoner’s dilemma![2]

[2] I’m lame.

Panetta’s Second-Rate Understanding of Defense Spending

Leon Panetta, the outgoing U.S. Secretary of Defense, made an interesting claim during his exit interview. Automatic defense budget cuts will take place on March 1 unless Congress reworks the Pentagon’s allotment. Panetta urged Congress to act, saying that if the ten year, $500 billion cuts take effect, the U.S will become a “second-rate power” (his words).

$500 billion is a lot of money, so you may be inclined to agree. But anyone who has spent more than ten seconds looking at world defense spending would know the absurdity of Panetta’s claim.

Take a look at this Wikipedia article on defense spending. SIPRI keeps good data on defense expenditures around the world[1], and the Wiki gives a nice comparative visualization. Last year, the world’s militaries consumed about $1.7 trillion.

The U.S.’s share? $711 billion.

That’s approximately 41% of the entire world’s spending.

It’s more than Chinese (8.2%), Russian (4.1%), British (3.6), and French (3.6%) spending…combined.

It’s more than every non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council…combined.

So, the U.S. isn’t exactly at a crossroads when it comes to military spending.

Moreover, $500 billion over the course of ten years comes out to $50 billion a year. That would still give the United States $661 billion in defense spending, still 39% of the new world’s spending and more than 4.5 times as large as China’s receipts. Thus, even if you think of China as having a second-rate military, ours would still be substantially better.

I understand that $50 billion will result in meaningful cuts to our military. But the United States needs to reduce spending somehow. Among all the alternatives, this one seems relatively painless.

[1] SIPRI has to estimate expenditures from a lot of countries, notably China and Russia. While their figures may be underestimates, SIPRI would have to have made massive mistakes for the effects to be relevant to the argument.