Stocks of Weapons and Predatory vs Preemptive Motives to Fight

Let us return to the ideas about whether nuclear weapons lead to war or peace and what we should think about nuclear initiatives of states. In Conflict and Deterrence under Strategic Risk, Chassang and Padro-i-Miguel investigate whether stocks of weapons promote peace. They introduce incomplete information into a simple war framework where striking first yields a higher benefit than striking second. The two parties make the decision whether to attack simultaneously.

The authors make an interesting distinction between predatory incentives (gain from striking first a peaceful opponent), and preemptive incentives (gain from striking an opponent that also strikes – i.e. avoiding striking second). Without uncertainty, all that matters for the break-down of mutually beneficial peace is the predatory motive. In this case stocks of weapons promote peace. But with incomplete information, Schelling’s ‘reciprocal fear of surprise attacks’ comes to the fore. The game is set up in a way in which there are some inherently warlike behavioral types (i.e. actors whose dominant strategy is to strike, which means that they choose this option regardless of the opponent’s behavior). Thus if there are intermediate levels of weapons that two countries hold and a first-strike advantage is very big compared to second strikes (e.g. if a surprise strike can destroy much of an initial stock of weapons of the enemy), stocks of weapons can be destabilizing for peace.

This argument is especially interesting in light of what a nuclear Iran would mean for Middle Eastern stability. Should we think that there is strategic uncertainty in this case surrounding the policy choices of the regimes? How would more transparent decision-making change the expected outcomes? Would a hot-line between the two players change the outcomes? Also can striking first be an advantage if players have a peaceful public? Also a crisis is usually a story of stepwise escalation toward war. Would the possibility of backing down change the results?

Their model also argues that power asymmetries can be a promoter of peace under complete information (think of the preponderance of power school). The stronger player gets to share much of the pie anyways and the weaker player gets little out of peace or war, so has no big incentive to strike. If there is uncertainty then they qualify their argument to restrained superiority: the weak party needs some weapons to avoid a predatory attack from the stronger one. Do you feel that their model describes key elements of the unilateral world the US is widely regarded to enjoy?

Also you may want to think about how to connect this mechanism of how power inequality can foster peace to arguments in other models. How would differential growth rates like in Powell’s Chapter 4 play into these considerations?

Beyond the interesting arguments of the paper note also its short-comings. The investment in weapons is not a choice by the agents, even though if we think of real-world cases these investments are made by rational actors and these action choices can reinforce each other (arms race through balancing) or lead to band-wagoning (a weaker opponent joining a feared stronger one in an alliance). Domestic institutions are completely missing from the picture too, which should actually be interesting, especially combined with weapon investment decisions. Chassang and Padro-i-miguel also lack a bargaining framework in which one actor could make transfers to another to arrive at an ex post efficient outcome. Nevertheless I think their analysis of preemptive and predatory incentives should give us better leverage to think about arming, power and weapons programs.


About politakos

Hello, my name is Akos. I am a Ph.D. student in the Political Economy and Government program at Harvard. I am originally from the world superpower called Hungary, which explains why I currently teach a sophomore tutorial on international security. More specifically, the tutorial is on game-theoretic models of war (econ 970-AL). The primary purpose of this blog is to share interesting links with my students that are connected to the material we are covering in class.
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