What does my research contribute to our understanding of the Hong Kong protests?

Did Xi Jinping miscalculate by not allowing free elections in Hong Kong? We cannot know whether the Chinese leadership expected protests of this magnitude, although a large pro-democracy demonstration prior to the controversial decision was a powerful warning. The authorities in Beijing may believe they have no choice other than to deny free elections in Hong Kong: the dictator of a divided country risks too much by allowing a democracy to thrive beside him, providing citizens with a stark contrast to his oppressive regime.

Read more of my argument on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog.

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Why Do the Troubles of Ukraine Continue?

The conflict in Eastern Ukraine shows no signs of ending. Today the Ukrainian army used limited force after pro-Russian separatist gunmen had seized control of administrative buildings in numerous cities. These local militiamen were in all likelihood aided materially and inspirationally by the Putin regime. Here is why according to Maria Snegovaya and me.

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Timothy Snyder on Ukraine

One puzzle about Moscow’s intervention in Crimea is how it helps Putin achieve whatever he wants to achieve. Yale historian Timothy Snyder argues that intervention would lead to a nationalist blacklash in Kiev, justifying Putin’s war as a result of that war:

Propaganda is thus not a flawed description, but a script for action. If we consider Putin’s propaganda in these Soviet terms, we see that the invasion of Crimea was not a reaction to an actual threat, but rather an attempt to activate a threat so that violence would erupt that would change the world. Propaganda is part of the action it is meant to justify. From this standpoint, an invasion from Russia would lead to a Ukrainian nationalist backlash that would make the Russian story about fascists, so to speak, retrospectively true. If Ukraine is unable to hold elections, it looks less like a democracy. Elections are scheduled, but cannot be held in regions occupied by a foreign power. In this way, military action can make propaganda seem true. Even the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe is unable to fulfill an observation mission.

How is this type of behavior related to Gibler and Tir’s argument that high levels of territorial threat inhibit democratization?

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Why Do Dictators Start Wars?

In the next class we will discuss how domestic political institutions (democracy/dictatorship) affect the propensity for war. The two papers on the syllabus try to explain why democratic countries rarely fight one another: Bueno de Mesquita et al (1999): An Institutional Explanation of Democratic Peace and Debs and Goemans (2010): Regime Type, the Fate of Leaders, and War. But what do these papers say about Putin’s military intervention in Crimea?

Bueno de Mesquita et al argue that dictators often start wars because they risk little if defeated. A dictator’s ability to stay in power depends more on his ability to provide private goods to key supporters than his/her ability to provide public goods. The authors argue that victory in war is a public good – it benefits the entire population. In this case, dictators’ survival in office depends little on whether they fight and win a war. So dictators put less effort into fighting war than their democratic counterparts because they have no big incentives to win. As a result, dictators rarely start conflicts against democracies. So why did Putin intervene in Ukraine, risking conflict with the democratic Western backers of the new regime in Kiev?

Putin’s actions are even more puzzling in light of Debs and Goemans’ research. In contrast to the previous paper, Debs and Goemans find empirically that defeat in a conflict is punitive for dictators: it makes dictators less likely to stay in power; furthermore almost half of ousted dictators face significant punishment (exile, jail or death). In this context, dictators tend to only gamble on war if peace would result in concessions which would diminish their ability to stay in power. But this theory does not fit Putin’s actions entirely. Putin was not facing a choice between costly concessions and war: he could have stayed out of Crimea and maintained peace without any concessions.

Together the two papers imply that Putin must have been confident of being successful in Crimea despite the likely opposition from democratic countries, and/or perceived a large benefit in terms of domestic survival from controlling Crimea. What is this benefit? Will his gamble pay off?

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My Research and Ukraine

Interested in what my research has to say about the Russian intervention in Ukraine? Check out my post on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog.

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Thoughts on Ukraine

We briefly talked in class about the disturbing violence in Ukraine. I would like to draw your attention to two aspects of the power struggle in Kiev: a cultural and an institutional one. Let me start on the cultural front. In his famous but controversial theory that the cultural landscape among nations would be the source of conflict in the Post-Cold War World, Samuel Huntington defined nine civilizations as the largest cultural entities encompassing the world. He argued conflict would be likeliest between countries belonging to different civilizations, although quantitative tests did not confirm his argument. But its weaknesses notwithstanding, Huntington’s work also had tremendous insight and foresight. He called Ukraine a cleft country: a country straddling civilizational faultlines, which he projected to be particularly war-prone. The country’s Western half belongs to the Western, while the Eastern half is part of the Orthodox Christian civilization. Recent elections in the country follow the civilizational faultline to a high degree. What we see today in Ukraine is escalating violence between representatives of two civilizations.

Yet, can we understand conflicts without bringing in political institutions? The Economist’s Blog rightly draws parallels between events in Ukraine and other countries slipping into a modern type of dictatorship, the ‘illiberal democracy’. These countries see democratically-elected Presidents or Prime Ministers dismantle the safeguards of democracy while in office. At the same time, they keep a fully-democratic facade, but cronyism, the muzzling of the media and the elimination of independent organs of state tilt the political playing field heavily in their favor. Unfortunately, political institutions are prone to diffusion and newly-minted dictators in the region may learn from and emulate each other. But let us hope that we will soon see democratic diffusion in the region rather than a dictatorial one.

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Is War on the Decline?

Is the world becoming more peaceful? Here is the video in which Goldstein and Pinker talk about their respective books on the decline of violence, while Toft and Walt explain their perspectives. Sarkees, Wayman and Singer analyze war data and argue the picture is more nuanced – a particularly interesting finding is the rise in internationalized civil wars (like this and this).

Do all these scholars disagree only about definitions and concepts, or also about deeper mechanisms at work? Do their views of human nature and the international system differ? Can you identify actors, interests and their interactional structure in the different scholars’ arguments?

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Is China’s Rise Going to be Peaceful?

Welcome to a new semester!

We started off with one of the most important questions in international security today: will China’s rise be peaceful? Here is the video showing two prominent realist thinkers (John Mearsheimer, Robert Pape) coming to different conclusions. If you’d like to explore further academic opinions on this issue, I’d recommend reading Graham Allison‘s, Richard Evans‘s and Ni Shixiong‘s writings.

What do these scholars exactly mean by war? What is their theory? What are their assumptions? What are their explanatory variables? How do their explanatory variables lead to the outcome they hypothesize? Which parts of their theory are underdeveloped? What are the strengths and weaknesses of their assumptions and conclusions? Do you agree/disagree with their assumptions and their theoretical claims? Do you think they are right?

Now try to think in game-theoretic terms: who are the actors? what do the actors strive for? what structure characterizes their interaction? what is the equilibrium in their game?

Finally, what is your theory? Can you capture it in a simple and clean game-theoretic model?

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On the Boston Bombings

The tragic events that started with the bombing of the Boston Marathon thankfully came to an end a few hours ago. Currently people are celebrating on the streets in relief and they are cheering law enforcement personnel. Events like this week’s bombings bring citizens together in a rally-round-the-flag phenomenon. However, patriotism and xenophobia are two different concepts: let us hope that the emotional shock will translate into a positive in-group feeling without anger being directed at any out-group (see social identity theory for a pessimistic view…).

There are a few questions to ponder. Was the city-wide lockdown for a whole day the good strategy? First of all, hindsight is of course always 20-20. Nevertheless, Stephen Walt rightly argues that the bigger the disruption by a lone bomber, the more likely deranged attention-seekers will try to imitate them. But I am afraid that what could be termed ‘overreaction’ is politically very rational. As we saw in the Bueno de Mesquita article, in equilibrium, observable counter-terror spending will be inefficiently high, while unobservable spending inefficiently low, since voters cannot base their voting decision on the success of a government foiling plots unobservably. And what counter-terror measures would be more observable than the manhunt we saw today? Therefore, there seems to be a deep political incentive to respond in force, and unfortunately it seems wishful thinking that these incentives could be changed.

Another thought that I have had is how much personal connection to an event matters. All the locations involved in this tragedy had a personal meaning to me: my friend ran the Marathon, I was cheering him on a few miles from the finish line, one of the bombers went to a school I pass by every week, they carjacked a car on Memorial Driveway where I run every day, many of my friends were almost neighbors to the bombers, I can see Watertown from the top floor of my building. All this glued my mind to the events consciously as well as subconsciously. You might not find this very surprising, but I think it actually is. Consider what psycholigists call selective attention. Our mind gets so much information every second that it needs to be very selective about what it tunes in to. Could we subconsciously put too much emphasis on events that hit close to home? It is interesting to think about 9-11 in these terms, or how rivalries between countries seem to endure (two countries fighting each other seem much more likely to fight again). Maybe the path of our experiences has an even deeper impact than we realize.

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Why Close Kaesong?

Does Kim Jong-un want war or is his hostility just war-mongering rhetoric? The whole world is trying to figure that out. A strategic clue that Kim Jong-un might not want a war may be given by the closure of the Kaesong plant, the industrial plant where South and North Koreans workers worked together in a little capitalist enclave inside North Korea. The plant is financially beneficial to Pyongyang, so closing it down is economically puzzling, although may make strategic sense if the regime wants to send a credible signal of its resoluteness. However, sending South Korean workers home makes no strategic sense if Kim was planning warfare. As, for instance, the Iranian hostage crisis shows, foreign nationals serve better as hostages, so this could be an indication that Kim’s threats are empty rhetoric. Similarly, Pyongyang warned foreign diplomats on North Korean soil that the regime cannot guarantee their safety any more, hardly a good move if foreign nationals serve as bargaining chips as hostages in hot warfare.

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