Tag Archives: Political Science

Sanctions, Uncertainty, and Consolidation of Power

The imposition of economic sanctions is curious. If sanctions have coercive power, powerful sanctions ought to deter rivals from pursuing objectionable policies. On the other hand, if sanctions will be ineffective in a particular case, would-be imposers ought to give up and not lose out on the gains of trade. Why, then, do we see sanctions at all?

In a new working paper from Brad Smith and myself, we argue that asymmetric information about a leader’s consolidation of power plays a critical role in the coercive process. (Edit: I am happy to report that the paper has officially been accepted International Studies Quarterly!) Sanctions ostensibly turn a subset of the selectorate against the current regime. Whether that subset will be pivotal in sparking regime change is critical to determining the effectiveness of sanctions. Because local leaders know their own political predicaments better than foreign adversaries, would-be imposers sometimes have to guess whether sanctions will be worthwhile or not.

Brad and I analyze such a predicament using a formal model. When the potential imposer is sufficiently certain that the target is robust to sanctions, it backs down so as to avoid the economic damage of ineffective sanctions. In contrast, if the imposer believes that the target is vulnerable, weaker opponents sometimes concede the policy issue and sometimes bluff strength. The imposer then sometimes calls potential bluffs (to stop the weaker types from cheating too much) and sometimes backs down (to avoid sanctions a tougher target).

While the outcomes are vastly different, we find an important result regarding the imposer’s quality of information. As the imposer becomes sufficiently certain that its target is weak or strong, the probability of sanctions imposition goes to 0. This is either because the imposer backs down at the beginning (thinking it is facing a tougher type) or because the weaker types have less incentive to bluff toughness. In turn, sanctions are most likely when the imposer is less confident about his opponent’s consolidation of power. This yields a clear testable hypothesis: we should observe fewer sanctions as quality of information increases.

Of course, information (i.e., quality of intelligence estimates) is very difficult to measure. Fortunately, recent works from Scott Wolford and Toby Rider indicate that leader tenure is a useful proxy. Leaders earlier in their careers represent greater unknowns. Over time, publicly observable actions and intelligence gathering improves intelligence estimates. Thus, we expect the likelihood of sanctions to be decreasing in the length of a target’s tenure.

Sure enough, the data support this hypothesis. Moreover, tenure is substantively significant. The plot below shows the predicted probability of sanctions given a crisis as a function of logged leader tenure, holding other observable factors at their medians. A crisis occurring four years into a leader’s term, for example, is 22% less likely to end in sanctions than if the crisis occurred at the beginning.

daysplot

Further, the effect is strongest for autocratic regimes. This fits with the theory. After all, compared to democracies, it is harder to tell who the winning coalition is in an autocracy. Increases in tenure thus generate more information about an autocrat’s vulnerability to sanctions, which in turn more precipitously drops the probability of sanction implementation.

Beyond the theoretical and substantive results, we think a key takeaway is further confirmation of tenure as a proxy for uncertainty. We encourage other scholars to consider using it in empirical models where asymmetric information affects outcomes.

Once again, here’s the paper. The abstract is below.

When do states impose sanctions on their rivals? We develop a formal model of domestic power consolidation, threats, escalation, and imposition of sanctions. With complete information, the target regime’s consolidation of power determines the result—leaders with stable control can weather sanctions and thus deter their imposition, while vulnerable leaders concede the issue. However, when an imposer is uncertain of a foreign leader’s consolidation, vulnerable types have incentive to bluff strength. Foreign powers sometimes respond by imposing sanctions, even though the parties would have resolved the crisis earlier with complete information. We then hypothesize that opponents of newer leaders—particularly in autocracies—are more likely to suffer from this information problem. Employing the Threat and Imposition of Sanctions (TIES) dataset and carefully addressing selection problems common to the sanctions literature, we show that sanctioners are indeed more likely to follow through on threats against such leaders.

New Version of “War Exhaustion and the Credibility of Arms Treaties”

I just updated the manuscript as a standalone paper. Here’s the abstract:

Why do some states agree to arms treaties while others fail to come to terms? I argue that the changing credibility of preventive war is an important determinant of arms treaty stability. If preventive war is never an option, states can reach settlements that both prefer to costly arms construction. However, if preventive war is incredible today but will be credible in the future, a commitment problem results: the state considering investment faces a “window of opportunity” and must build the arms or it will not receive concessions later on. Thus, arms treaties fail under these conditions. I then apply the theoretical findings to the Soviet Union’s decision to build nuclear weapons in 1949. War exhaustion made preventive war incredible for the United States immediately following World War II, but lingering concerns about future preventive action caused Moscow to proliferate.

Download the full paper here.

Interpret Your Cutpoints

Here is a bad research design I see way too frequently.* The author presents a model. The model shows that if sufficient amounts of x exist, then y follows. The author then provides a case study, showing that x existed and y occurred. Done.

Do you see the problem there? I removed “sufficient” as a qualifier for x from one sentence to the next. Unfortunately, by doing so, I have made the case study worthless. In fact, such case studies often undermine the exact point the author was trying to make with the model!

Let me illustrate my point with the following (intentionally ridiculous) example. Consider the standard bargaining model of war. State A and State B are in negotiations. If bargaining breaks down, A prevails militarily and takes the entire good the parties are bargaining over with probability p_A; B prevails with complementary probability, or 1 – p_A. War is costly, however; states pay respective costs c_A and c_B > 0.

That is the standard model. Now let me spice it up. One thing that the model does not consider is the cost of the stationery**, ink, and paper necessary to sign a peaceful agreement. Let’s call that cost s, and let’s suppose (without loss of generality) that state A necessarily pays the stationery costs.

Can the parties reach a peaceful agreement? Well, let x be A’s share of a peaceful settlement. A prefers a settlement if it pays more than war, or x – s > p_A – c_A. We can rewrite this as x > p_A – c_A + s.

Meanwhile, B prefers a settlement if the remainder pays better than war, or 1 – x > 1 – p_A – c_B. This reduces to x < p_A + c_B.

Stringing these inequalities together, mutually preferable peaceful settlements exist if p_A – c_A + s < x < p_A + c_B. In turn, such an x exists if s < c_A + c_B.

Nice! I have found a new rationalist explanation for war! You see, if the costs of stationery exceed the costs of war (or s > c_A + c_B), at least one state would always prefer war to peace. Thus, peace is unsustainable.

Of course, my argument is completely ridiculous–stationery does not cost that much. My theory remains valid, it just lacks empirical plausibility.

And, yet, formal theorists too often fail to substantively interpret their cutpoints in this way. That is, they do not ask if real-life parameters could ever sustain the conditions necessary to lead to the behavior described.

Instead, you will get case studies that look like the following:

I presented a model that shows that the costs of stationery can lead to war. In analyzing the historical record of World War I, it becomes clear that the stationery of the bargained resolution would have been very expensive, as the ball point pen had only been invented 25 years ago and was still prohibitively costly. Thus, World War I started.

Completely ridiculous! And, in fact, the case study demonstrated the opposite of what the author had intended. That is, if you actually analyze the cutpoint, you will see that the cost of stationery was much lower than the costs of war, and thus the cost of stationery (at best) had a negligible causal connection to the conflict.

In sum, please, please interpret your cutpoints. Your model only provides useful insight if its parameters match what occurred in reality. It is not sufficient to say that cost existed; rather, you must show that the cost was sufficiently high (or low) compared to the other parameters of your model.

* This blog post is the result of presentations I observed at ISA and Midwest, though I have seen some published papers like this as well.

** I am resisting the urge to make this an infinite horizon model so I can solve for the stationary MPE of a stationery game.

Is the Ukrainian Nuclear Threat Enough?

Some Ukrainian officials are warning that recent Russian transgressions might force Ukraine to revisit its nuclear weapons program. From a historical perspective, this is understandable. Ukraine signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in the mid-1990s in exchange for subsidies and territorial guarantees from the United States and Russia. Russia, seeing a target of opportunity in Crimea, subsequently violated the terms.

Yet these hawkish proclamations are just that: hawkish. They overlook nuclear realities. Ukraine did not pursue nuclear technology following its independence because such a program would have been prohibitively expensive. (And, despite what seems to be conventional wisdom on the subject, Ukraine did not really inherit nuclear weapons.) While Ukraine appears to be in a stronger economic position today, the country is going through so much domestic turmoil at the moment that Kiev’s marginal dollar is probably not best spent embarking on an atomic mission.

But does that mean nuclear weapons are irrelevant to the crisis? Absolutely not. Make no mistake: Ukraine could develop a nuclear weapon given enough time, effort, and angry declarations from the United States and Russia. If Russia made further encroachments on Ukrainian turf–beyond the Crimean target of opportunity–nuclear weapons would stop looking ridiculous and start looking desirable.

However, Putin knows this. He also knows that inducing Ukraine to proliferate is ultimately not in Russia’s best security interests. And he knows that Ukraine would also like to avoid proliferating because of the enormous costs.

These preferences and constraints are common, and I study them formally in my book project on bargaining over proliferation. In such a scenario, states negotiate settlements and avoid nuclear development. Potential nuclear powers do not want to build because they are already receiving a desirable share of the settlement. Rivals do not want to drive a harder bargain because doing so would trigger proliferation; settlement, on the other hand, means they can extract the surplus created by the potential nuclear power avoiding atomic development. Both sides win.

I suspect the Ukraine/Russia crisis will end like this. Russia will not push Ukraine much further.* Ukraine will not develop nuclear weapons, but the threat to do so will give them a better share of the deal.

Interestingly, the potential for nuclear weapons is almost as useful as the nuclear weapons themselves.

*At least until another target of opportunity arises, anyway.

ISA 2014 Presentation: War Exhaustion and the Stability of Arms Treaties

If you are interested in nuclear weapons and negotiations with Iran, consider my panel at ISA. The panel title is “TD09: Solving Puzzles with Formal Models: A Panel in Honor of Dina Zinnes” and will be on Thursday at 4 pm. (The lineup is impressive: Dina Zinnes, Kelly Kadera, Mark Crescenzi, Songying Fang, Anne Sartori, and T. Clifton Morgan.) Here’s the abstract:

Why are some arms treaties broken while others remain stable over the long term? This chapter argues that the changing credibility of launching preventive war is an important determinant of arms treaty stability. If preventive war is never an option, states can reach settlements that both prefer to costly arms construction. However, if preventive war is incredible today but will be credible in the future, a commitment problem results: the state considering investment must build the arms or it will not receive concessions later on. Thus, arms treaties fail under these conditions. The chapter then applies the theoretical findings to the Soviet Union’s decision to build nuclear weapons in 1949 and Iran’s ongoing nuclear program today. In both instances, war exhaustion made preventive war incredible for the United States, but lingering concerns about future preventive war caused both states to pursue proliferation.

You can download the full paper here.

Ukraine Was a Nuclear Power. Just Like Nebraska Is.

There are way, way too many articles, blogs, and commentaries about Ukraine right now, and a lot of them like to talk about how things would be different had Ukraine kept its nuclear weapons twenty-some years ago. I wrote about this last week, but here is a firmer response: Ukraine never had command control over nuclear weapons.

You wouldn’t know that by reading most of these articles, of course. There seems to be a large amount of historical illiteracy here, and editors aren’t doing sufficient fact checking. But to call Ukraine a former nuclear power would be like saying Nebraska is a nuclear power today or would be a nuclear power if it declared independence tomorrow. Yes, Nebraska would have a lot of nuclear weapons on their sovereign soil. But they wouldn’t have command control over the missiles. All told, they would really only have large chunks of metal holding radioactive materials. That is not the same thing as being a nuclear power, which would seem to imply the ability to…I don’t know…nuke someone.

So, media of the world, please stop saying how Ukraine made a mistake in giving up nuclear weapons. They were never theirs to give up–they just let Russian officials safely dismantle them and ship them back to Russia…which is pretty much what you would expect a country to do if it suddenly found large chunks of metal with radioactive material inside.

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.