Tag Archives: Political Science

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:

Does Nuclear “Prestige” Prevent Nonproliferation Agreements?

In a word, no.

First, a brief background. The main theoretical chapter of my dissertation shows that nonproliferation agreements are fairly easy to establish. Even if a potential rising state proliferates, it will ultimately only be able to receive some amount of concessions from a rival. As such, to deter proliferation, the rival only needs to offer most of the concessions the rising state would receive if it did proliferate. Nuclear investment is no longer profitable, as most of the concessions that proliferation would yield have already been given up. The rising state is happy to maintain the status quo because it is already getting most what it wants. (Building would yield slightly more concessions, but it would not be worth paying the investment cost.) The rival is happy because it can keep a small amount of the concessions to itself, as the rising state is willing to accept slightly reduced offers due to the aforementioned cost savings.

The only obstacle is if the costs of proliferation are very small. Here, the rival cannot scale back very much on the deal, so the value of a nonproliferation agreement is smaller for that rival. In turn, the rival may prefer impatiently hording as much of the bargaining good as possible for as long as possible, forcing the rising state to proliferate. At that point, the rival makes great concessions.

Note that the key comparative static determining whether proliferation occurs is the cost of weapons. If the cost is high, proliferation agreements work. If not, proliferation occurs. Fortunately, nuclear weapons (and their necessary delivery systems) are incredibly expensive. Consequently, nonproliferation prevails most of the time.

However, nuclear “prestige” seems like a hindrance to the nonproliferation regime. Advocates of this theory claim that nuclear weapons bestow international prestige on their possessors, separating the owners from everyone else above and beyond the power nuclear weapons provide. There are many reasons to doubt whether such prestige actually exists–I can’t remember the last time one country was excited to hear that another one was proliferating–but let’s go with it for a moment. It then seems like prestige might sabotage those nonproliferation agreements, as it reduces the perceived investment cost for the rising state.

This has been in the back of my mind for a year or two now, and I have wondered what it meant for the robustness of my dissertation’s nonproliferation argument. Luckily, I had a mental breakthrough a couple of nights ago. The prestige argument is mostly harmless.

The key here is that prestige is zero sum. If nuclear weapons are prestigious, then no country is prestigious if all countries have them. As a result, it is incorrect to think of prestige as affecting a rising state’s perception of the cost of proliferation. Rather, prestige matters for determining the amount of goodies the rising state will receive in the future. Additional prestige means the rising state will receive more, whereas the relatively less prestigious countries (compared to today’s status quo) will receive less.

But this is just a complicated way of saying that nuclear weapons give their possessors additional concessions. Consequently, those who would have to give up the concessions should proliferation occur have incentive to reach nonproliferation agreements for the reasons outlined above. In turn, prestige has little affect on the viability nonproliferation agreements.

Nevertheless, this logic explains the competing beliefs about the existence of prestige. Rising states claim that prestige exists–because, if it does, rivals will have to give them more to reach nonproliferation settlements. Their rivals claim that prestige does not exist–because, if it does not, the cost of reaching a nonproliferation agreement will be lower for them.

If you’d like to see the argument in action, take a look at the chapter. The prestige argument is the first robustness check I run.

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.

How Uncertainty about Judicial Nominees Can Distort the Confirmation Process

In standard bargaining situations, both parties understand the fundamentals of the agreement. For example, if I offer you a $20 per hour wage, then I will pay you $20 per hour; if I propose a 1% sales tax increase, then sales tax will increase by 1%. But not all such deals are evident. Senate confirmation of judicial nominees is particularly troublesome—the President has a much better idea of the true nominee’s ideology than the Senate does. Indeed, as the Senate votes to confirm or reject, the Senate may very well be unsure what it is buying.

This situation is the center of a new working paper from Maya Sen and myself. We develop a formal model of the interaction between the President and the Senate during the judicial nomination process. At first thought, it might seem as though the President benefits from the lack of information by occasionally sneaking in extremist justices the Senate would otherwise reject. However, our main results show that this lack of information ultimately harms both parties.

To unravel the logic, suppose the President could nominate a moderate or an extremist. Now imagine that the Senate is ideologically opposed, so it only wants to confirm the moderate. The choice to reject is not so simple, though, because the Senate cannot directly observe the nominee’s type but rather must make inferences based on a noisy signal. Specifically, the Senate receives a signal with probability p if the President chooses an extremist. (This signal might come from the media uncovering a “smoking gun” document.) The President suffers a reputation cost if he is caught in this manner. If the President selects a moderate, the Senate receives no signal at all. Thus, upon not receiving a signal, the Senate cannot be sure whether the President nominated a moderate or extremist.

With those dynamics in mind, consider how the President acts when the signal is weak. Can he only nominate an extremist? No–the Senate would obviously always reject regardless of its signal. Can he only nominate a moderate? No–the Senate would respond by confirming the nominee despite the lack of a signal, but the President could then gamble by selecting an extremist and hoping that the weak signal works in his favor. As such, the President must mix between nominating a moderate and nominating an extremist.

Similarly, the Senate must mix as well. If it were to always confirm, the President would nominate extremists exclusively, but that cannot be sustainable for the reasons outlined above. If the Senate were to always reject, the President would only nominate moderates to avoid smoking guns. But then the Senate could confirm the moderates it was seeking.

Thus, both parties mix. Put differently, the President sometimes bluffs and sometimes does not; the Senate sometimes calls what it perceives as bluffs and sometimes lets them go.

These devious behaviors have an unfortunate welfare implication–both parties are worse off than if they could agree to appoint a moderate. Since the Senate mixes, it must be indifferent between accepting and rejecting. The indifference condition means that the Senate receives its rejection payoff in expectation, which is worse than if it could induce the President to appoint a moderate. Meanwhile, the President is also mixing, so he must be indifferent between nominating a moderate and nominating an extremist. But whenever he nominates a moderate, the Senate sometimes rejects. This also leaves the President in worse position than if he could credibly commit to appointing moderates exclusively.

Further, we show that the President and Senate can only benefit from more information about judicial nominees when they are ideologically opposed. And yet there seems to be little serious effort to change the current charade of judicial nominee hearings. (During Clearance Thomas’s hearing, when asked whether Roe v. Wade was correctly decided, he unconvincingly replied that he did not have an opinion “one way or the other.”) Why not?

The remainder of our paper investigates this question. We point to the potential benefits of keeping nominee ideology secret when the Senate is ideologically aligned with the President. Under these conditions, the President can nominate extremists and still induce the Senate to accept. Keeping the process quiet allows the President to nominate such extremists without worrying about suffering reputation costs as a result. Consequently, the current system persists.

Although our focus is on judicial nominations, the same obstacles are likely present in other nominations processes. And coming from an IR background, I have been thinking about similar situations in interstate bargaining. In any case, please check out the paper if you have a chance. We welcome your comments on it.

International Relations 101 MOOC Completed!

My international relations MOOC (from a political science perspective) has just wrapped up. The best part? It is 100% -ism free!

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:

pd

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.