Tag Archives: war

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.

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.

War Exhaustion and the Stability of Arms Treaties

(Paper here.)

Earlier this month, I wrote about Iranian nuclear intransigence. In this post, I want to generalize the argument: war exhaustion sabotages long-term arms treaties.

This is part of my dissertation plan, so some background is in order. My main theoretical chapter shows that if declining states can’t threaten preventive war to stop rising states from proliferating, they can buy them off instead. The idea is that weapons are costly to develop. Rising states don’t have any reason to proliferate if they are already receiving most of the concessions they wish to obtain. Meanwhile, the declining state is happy to offer those concessions to deter the rising state from proliferating.

Let’s boil it down to the simplest version of the game possible. The United States has two options: bribe or not bribe. Iran sees the US’s move and decides whether to build a nuclear bomb. American preferences (from top to bottom) are as follows: not bribe/not build, bribe/not build, not bribe/build, bribe/build. Iranian preferences are as follows: bribe/not build, bribe/build, not bribe/build, not bribe/not build.

(I derive these utilities from a more general bargaining setup, so I suggest you look at the paper if you think these seem a little off. I personally wouldn’t blame you, since it seems strange that Iran prefers accepting bribes to taking bribes and proliferating anyway.)

Given that, we have the following game:


By backward induction, Iran builds if the US does not bribe but does not build if the US bribes. In turn, the US bribes to avoid having Iran build.

Great! Iran should not proliferate. But…yeah…that’s not happening at the moment. Why?

One problem is the reason why Iran prefers not building if the United States is bribing. The idea here is that bribes are permanent. By continuing to receive these bribes for the rest of time, Iran sees no need to proliferate since it is already raking in the concessions and nuclear weapons will only waste money.

But what if the United States had the power to renege on the concessions? In the future, the US will no longer be suffering from war exhaustion from Afghanistan and Iraq and will force Iran not to proliferate by threat of preventive war. At that point, the US can renege on the bribe without any sort of repercussions.

Again, boiling the argument down to the simplest game possible, we have this:


Backward induction gives us that the US will renege (why give when you don’t have to?). So Iran builds regardless of whether the US offers a bribe (it’s a ruse!). Proliferation results today because the United States can treat Iran as essentially nuclear incapable in the future. Iran has a window of opportunity and must take it while it can.

This is neat because a commitment problem sabotages negotiations. Recovering from war exhaustion makes the United States stronger in the sense that it will be more willing to fight as time progresses. Yet, this additional strength causes bargaining to fail, since Iran fears that the United States will cut off concessions at some point down the line. More power isn’t always better.

In addition to discussing Iran, the chapter also talks about the Soviet nuclear program circa 1948, which is fascinating. We often take Moscow’s decision to proliferate as a given. Of course the Soviet Union wanted nuclear weapons–there was a cold war going on! But this doesn’t explain why the United States didn’t just buy off the Soviet Union and avoid the mess of the Cold War. Certainly both sides would have been better off without the nuclear arms race.

Again, war exhaustion sabotaged the bargaining process. The United States was not about to invade Russia immediately after World War II ended. Thus, the Soviets had a window of opportunity to proliferate unimpeded and chose to jump through that window. The U.S. was helpless to stop the Soviet Union–we had zero (ZERO!) spies on the ground at the end of WWII and thus had no clue where to begin even if we wanted to prevent. The same causal mechanism led to intransigence in two cases separated by about 60 years.

If this argument sounds interesting to you, I suggest reading my chapter on it. (Apologies that some of the internal links will fail, since the attachment contains only one chapter of a larger project.) I give a much richer version of the model that removes the hokeyness. Feel free to let me know what you think.

Dear Iran, Your Threat Is Incredible. Love, America

Apparently “Iran threatens attack” is the top trending search on Yahoo right now. Here’s a news story of what is going on. Apparently some general in the Iranian air force (Amir Ali Hajizadeh) said that if Israel strikes Iran, Iran will retaliate by attacking American bases in the region.

Umm. Okay.

Iran will do no such thing. The American public does not have the will to engage Iran at the moment. If someone will launch a preventive strike on the Iranian nuclear program, it will be Israel, not the United States. (And, as Israeli officials are finally conceding, this is an unlikely outcome.) But do you know what would give the American public the will to fight? I don’t know, how about an attack on American bases? If Iran initiates on the United States, it undoubtedly ends badly for the Iranians. In turn, anyone who has spent two minutes learning backward induction (see video below) knows how preposterous Iran’s original threat is.

This news story reflects a curious and disturbing trend in American news media. Whenever some crazy person from another country says something inflammatory, it gets reported as though it is serious business, even if it is in no way the actual policy of the regime in charge. Then rhetoric explodes for no particular reason.

The only thing Americans should take away from this news story is that Amir Ali Hajizadeh is a complete idiot.

(Of course, we have some silly people in our country who say silly things, and I am sure that the Iranian media also reports them as though they are serious. This goes both ways.)

Avatar: Full of Commitment Problems

At the insistence of many of my friends, I started watching Avatar: The Last Airbender (the TV series, not the dreadful film). The show appears to take place on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where humans have been divided into four tribes (fire, water, earth, and air), which can “bend” their particular element as a means of weaponization.

The world is constantly at war. The show’s narration blames this on the disappearance of the disappearance of the Avatar, the traditional peacekeeper and only person capable of wielding all four elements.

However, the lack of the Avatar fails to explain the underlying incentive for war. Today’s pre-apocalyptic world does not have an avatar, and yet most countries most of the time are not at war with most other countries. Moreover, the Avatar theory does not address war’s inefficiency puzzle, i.e. how the costs of fighting imply the existence of negotiated settlements that are mutually preferable to war. Why not reach such an agreement and end the war that has completely devastated the world economy? The Avatar might be sufficient for peace but is by no means necessary.

In contrast, I propose that the underlying cause of war is the presence of rapid, exogenous power shifts. As described in the episode The Library, the fire tribe’s ability to bend fire disappears during a solar eclipse. Likewise, the water tribe’s ability to water bend disappears during a lunar eclipse. These rare events leave their respective tribes temporarily powerless. In turn, that tribe faces a commitment problem. For example, on the eve of a solar eclipse, the fire tribe would much enjoy reaching a peaceful settlement. In fact, they would be willing to promise virtually everything to achieve a resolution, since they will certainly be destroyed if a war is fought on the solar eclipse.

But such an agreement is inherently incredible. Suppose the other tribes accepted the fire tribe’s surrender. The solar eclipse passes uneventfully. Suddenly, the fire tribe has no incentive to abide by the terms of the peace treaty. After all, their power is fully restored, and they no longer face the threat of a solar eclipse. They will therefore demand an equitable share of the world’s bargaining pie.

Now consider the incentives the other tribes face. If they fail to destroy the fire tribe during the solar eclipse, the fire tribe will demand that equitable stake. But the other tribes could destroy the fire tribe during the eclipse and steal their share. That is a tempting proposition. Indeed, the other tribes likely cannot credibly commit to not taking advantage of the fire tribe’s temporary weakness.

Finally, think one further step back, once again from the perspective of the fire tribe. If the fire tribe does not successfully destroy the other tribes before the solar eclipse, they run the risk of being destroyed on that day. From that perspective, it is perfectly understandable why the fire tribe fights.

Thus, there are commitment problems abound in the world of Avatar. The fire tribe cannot credibly commit to remaining enfeebled after the solar eclipse. The other tribes cannot credibly commit to not attack the fire nation during the eclipse. War seems perfectly rational.

Interestingly, one way out of the problem is for the fire and water tribes to agree to protect one another during their eclipses. Given that, neither side has incentive to attack during the eclipse; if that tribe did join the other tribes in an attack, then it would be left without any protection during the next eclipse. (This resembles a trual–a dual with three people.) Yet, in the series, the fire and water tribes appear to be the most bitter enemies.

One wonders if the library contained a copy of Fearon 1995 or In the Shadow of Power. In any case, you can read more about preventive war in the third chapter of The Rationality of War or watch the below video: