Tag Archives: Preventive War

The Power Shift Myth: Understanding Preventive War

Shifting power is often cited as an explanation for war. But the causal mechanism isn’t so straightforward.

While the concept of preventive war dates back to Thucydides’ and The History of the Peloponnesian War, the modern understanding is just barely in its third decade. In Rationalist Explanations for War, James Fearon conclusively shows that bargained settlements exist that leave both parties better off than had they fought. The puzzle of war is why wars occur despite this inefficiency.

One of Fearon’s answers is that power may shift over time. Although a rising state and a declining state may reach an efficient bargain in the future, the declining state may be better off securing a costly but advantageous outcome through war today. As much as the rising state might protest, it cannot credibly commit to maintaining the status quo distribution of benefits. Rather, it will eventually want to exploit its new found power by shifting the benefits in its favor.

This idea has taken off in international relations literature. It is now the textbook explanation of preventive war. (See Frieden, Lake, and Schultz, Kydd, or myself.) It also has obvious empirical implications—growing power implies more war—which many quantitative scholars have explored. (See Bell and Johnson, Schub, and Fuhrmann and Kreps for recent examples.) The literature is growing, and knowledge is accumulating. These are great things to see.

A Hidden Assumption
Unfortunately, the causal mechanism behind preventive war isn’t entirely clear, and the notion that power shifts alone cause war is a bit of a myth. One hidden assumption in the simple preventive war construction is that power growth is exogenous. That is, the rising state does not choose whether to grow or how. It simply does, as though power grows on trees.

Yet, in practice, most power shifts are endogenous. Raising an army, building new aircraft carriers, investing in missile defense, and designing nuclear weapons all require active decisions by the state. The basic model ignores this part of the process and instead jumps to the strategic tradeoffs once the state has decided how to shift power.

Thus, a natural question to ask is how endogenous power shifts impact the probability of war. Thomas Chadefaux addresses this in his aptly-titled Bargaining over Power article. Perhaps surprisingly, the war result reverses completely—in any instance that a preventive war would have been fought, bargaining over power leads to a peaceful outcome.

The intuition is straightforward once you work through the mathematical logic. A rising state really wants to avoid war today because fighting would take place on terms most disadvantageous to it. Thus, if it had to choose between undertaking a power shift that would induce preventive war and a smaller power shift that the declining state would acquiesce to, it would choose the latter. After all, a smaller (but realized) power shift is preferable to a costly war.

The New Puzzle
Of course, Chadefaux’s results only take us further down the rabbit hole. There is ample historical evidence to tell us that states fight wars to forestall shifts in power. What then actually causes preventive war?

The literature provides a variety of answers, which I will now attempt to synthesize. First, some power shifts may actually be exogenous. If demographic trends are at the root of a power shift, countries may be unable to effectively limit their future power. In civil conflicts, protesters may be unable resolve coordination problems in the near future, leading to dramatic shifts in power over a short period of time. This helps explain why autocratic regimes exert such great effort in controlling their citizens’ movements.

Fearon recognized that the commitment problem disappears when states can bargain over power. But when the object of value also confers military advantages, bargaining can break down when there are indivisibilities in the good. Chadefaux also showed that having distinct discount factors can lead to conflict even without those indivisibilities.

Implementing such an agreement may create other bargaining problems, too. Debs and Monteiro investigate a model with costly power shifts that declining states cannot effectively monitor. Declining states sometimes need to initiate wars so as to deter weapons construction they might not otherwise observe. My research looks to see whether offering concessions-for-weapons can resolve these issues. Fortunately, the answer is yes. However, in the book manuscript I am working on, such deals fail when there is uncertainty over the declining state’s willingness to intervene.

Undoubtedly, there are many more answers to why states fight preventive wars even when power shifts are endogenous. Sadly, though, this literature feels somewhat stifled given that new research often constructs models with exogenous power shifts without any justification for why states cannot negotiate over power.

Empirical Implications
I conclude by discussing some implications of endogenous power shifts. First, quantitative scholars should care greatly about bargaining over power. Although we have established connections between power shifts and war, the above theory indicates that the causal relationship is not obvious. For example, it might be that other bargaining problems cause to both power shifts and war. We need to think carefully about these higher-order issues and search for empirical evidence of them.

Policy-wise, this tells us a great deal about negotiations with Iran. If Tehran constructs a nuclear weapon, it must be doing so because it does not anticipate preventive war. Thus, one way the United States can hold Iran to its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is to maintain a credible threat to fight a war should Tehran violate the agreement. Internalizing the threat, Iran would not build a weapon. This is perhaps the ideal for Washington—the American threat to invade does all the heavy lifting, allowing the United States to obtain its best policy outcome without actually paying the costs of war.


Understanding the Iran Deal: A Model of Nuclear Reversal

Most of the discussion surrounding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or the “Iran Deal”) has focused on mechanisms that monitor Iranian compliance. How can we be sure Iran is using this facility for scientific research? When can weapons inspectors show up? Who gets to take the soil samples? These kinds of questions seem to be the focus.

Fewer people have noted Iran’s nuclear divestment built into the deal. Yet Iran is doing a lot here. To wit, here are some of the features of the JCPOA:

  • At the Arak facility, the reactor under construction will be filled with concrete, and the redesigned reactor will not be suitable for weapons-grade plutonium. Excess heavy water supplies will be shipped out of the country. Existing centrifuges will be removed and stored under round-the-clock IAEA supervision at Natanz.
  • The Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant will be converted to a nuclear, physics, and technology center. Many of its centrifuges will be removed and sent to Natanz under IAEA supervision. Existing cascades will be modified to produce stable isotopes instead of uranium hexafluoride. The associated pipework for the enrichment will also be sent Natanz.
  • All enriched uranium hexafluoride in excess of 300 kilograms will be downblended to 3.67% or sold on the international market.

Though such features are fairly common in arms agreements, they are nevertheless puzzling. None of this makes proliferation impossible, so the terms cannot be for that purpose. But they clearly make proliferating more expensive, which seems like a bad move for Iran if it truly wants to build a weapon. On the other hand, if Iran only wants to use the proliferation threat to coerce concessions out of the United States, this still seems like a bad move. After all, in bargaining, the deals you receive are commensurate with your outside options; make your outside options worse, and the amount of stuff you get goes down as well.

The JCPOA, perhaps the worst formatted treaty ever.

The JCPOA, perhaps the most poorly formatted treaty ever.

What gives? In a new working paper, I argue that undergoing such a reversal works to the benefit of potential proliferators. Indeed, potential proliferators can extract the entire surplus by divesting in this manner.

In short, the logic is as follows. Opponents (like the United States versus Iran) can deal with the proliferation problem in one of two ways. First, they can give “carrots” by striking a deal with the nuclearizing state. These types of deals provide enough benefits to potential proliferators that building weapons is no longer profitable. Consequently, and perhaps surprisingly, they are credible even in the absence of effective monitoring institutions.

Second, opponents can leverage the “stick” in the form of preventive war. The monitoring problem makes this difficult, though. Sometimes following through on the preventive war threat shuts down a real project. Sometimes preventive war just a bluff. Sometimes opponents end up fighting a target that was not even investing in proliferation. Sometimes the potential proliferator can successfully and secretly obtain a nuclear weapon. No matter what, though, this is a mess of inefficiency, both from the cost of war and the cost of proliferation.

Naturally, the opponent chooses the option that is cheaper for it. So if the cost of preventive war is sufficiently low, it goes in that direction. In contrast, if the price of concessions is relatively lower, carrots are preferable.

Note that one determinant of the opponent’s choice is the cost of proliferating. When building weapons is cheap, the concessions necessary to convince the potential proliferator not to build are very high. But if proliferation is very expensive, then making the deal looks very attractive to the opponent.

This is where nuclear reversals like those built into the JCPOA come into play. Think about the exact proliferation cost that flips the opponent’s preference from sticks to carrots. Below that line, the inefficiency weighs down everyone’s payoff. Right above that line, efficiency reigns supreme. But the opponent is right at indifference at this point. Thus, the entire surplus shifts to the potential proliferator!

The following payoff graph drives home this point. A is the potential proliferator; B is the opponent; k* is the exact value that flips the opponent from the stick strategy to the carrot strategy:

Making proliferation more difficult can work in your favor.

Making proliferation more difficult can work in your favor.

If you are below k*, the opponent opts for the preventive war threat, weighing down everyone’s payoff. But jump above k*, and suddenly the opponent wants to make a deal. Note that everyone’s payoff is greater under these circumstances because there is no deadweight loss built into the system.

Thus, imagine that you are a potential proliferator living in a world below k*. If you do nothing, your opponent is going to credibly threaten preventive war against you. However, if you increase the cost of proliferating—say, by agreeing to measures like those in the JCPOA—suddenly you make out like a bandit. As such, you obviously divest your program.

What does this say about Iran? Well, it indicates that a lot of the policy discussion is misplaced for a few of reasons:

  1. These sorts of agreements work even in the absence of effective monitoring institutions. So while monitoring might be nice, it is definitely not necessary to avoid a nuclear Iran. (The paper clarifies exactly why this works, which could be the subject of its own blog post.)
  2. Iranian refusal to agree to further restrictions is not proof positive of some secret plan to proliferate. Looking back at the graph, note that while some reversal works to Iran’s benefit, anything past k* decreases its payoff. As such, by standing firm, Iran may be playing a delicate balancing game to get exactly to k* and no further.
  3. These deals primarily benefit potential proliferators. This might come as a surprise. After all, potential proliferators do not have nuclear weapons at the start of the interaction, have to pay costs to acquire those weapons, and can have their efforts erased if the opponent decides to initiate a preventive war. Yet the potential proliferators can extract all of the surplus from a deal if they are careful.
  4. In light of (3), it is not surprising that a majority of Americans believe that Iran got the better end of the deal. But that’s not inherently because Washington bungled the negotiations. Rather, despite all the military power the United States has, these types of interactions inherently deal us a losing hand.

The paper works through the logic of the above argument and discusses the empirical implications in greater depth. Please take a look at it; I’d love to hear you comments.

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.

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.