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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On Terrorism and Clerics

When it comes to terrorism, an interesting question is who takes up the terrorist cause. The puzzle is that terrorists usually do not come from the lowest socioeconomic groups despite the fact that macroeconomics seems to play a part in terrorism: economic downturns are associated with increased terrorist activity. In class we discussed that Ethan Bueno de Mesquita argues in a model that the reason for this can be that terrorist groups take the most able volunteers on board. So even if the group of volunteers belong to lower strata of society, the screening by the terrorist group means that the most educated and most able out of this relatively low pool are chosen for terrorist missions.

In a similar vein, Rich Nielsen’s interesting research investigates the micro-decision about which clerics become radicalized. He argues and finds that it depends on the career opportunities of the clerics whether they adopt Jihadi ideology. Well-connected clerics find good career opportunities in the state-run system, while clerics with a less influential network leave the state-system and signal their opposition to the state by taking up a Jihadist stance. An interesting question that arises then is what the incentives of the state are: does the state always abhor Jihadi ideology or is it strategically rational for the state to adopt that ideology? Another issue to ponder is that Rich’s idea is that clerics use Jihadi ideology as a costly signal of their independence, but what makes signalling lead to a separating equilibrium is not simply that a signal is costly, but that it would be prohibitively costly for other types of clerics to send the same signal. But wouldn’t well-connected clerics actually have a lower cost of signalling given that they can always gain support from their networks? Finally, what would be the role of a terrorist organization in this case and what type of screening would occur?

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North Korea, Leadership, and Institutions

The bellicose rhetoric of North Korea has been grabbing headlines over the past few weeks. What is the driving force behind North Korea’s actions? Andrew Kydd has argued in a blog post that

North Korea is motivated to provoke the South because its regime depends on maintaining a high level of external threat to justify its own existence and North Korea’s continued closure to the outside world.

This hostility-seeking is I think a right guess for North Korea’s behavior. This idea is related to the diversionary war theory, which played a part in the Falklands War for instance. Maybe Kim Jong-un is attempting to rally North Korea ‘around the Juche flag’. Although it is true that actual statistical evidence for the diversionary war theory is mixed.
Some of you have also been thinking about the impact of a new leader on conflict. Will H. Moore has posted thoughts related to this question. A question to consider is whether the international community can realize that new leaders can be more bellicose. Also maybe paranoia is not fully rational. Then an interesting question is whether it is related to length of rule. Stalin’s paranoia could have actually strengthened as time went by. Or maybe the fact that a sultanistic dictator is still in office after decades of misrule should lead outsiders to conclude with more and more certainty that the leader is paranoid as there would be no other way of staying in power? What would that say about international action toward new and old dictators? Lastly, how does institutional durability factor into this question? North Korea has been in existence since 1948, would Kim Il-sung face different incentives than Kim Jong-un just because of different years of regime existence?

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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.

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War and State-Building

International conflict is related to many other political and economic phenomena. So even if you are not directly interested in wars, you might need to understand and model them to understand a different question. An example of this is state-building.

Charles Tilly famously argued that ‘states made war, and war made states’. The argument says that in order to finance their wars, kings and queens of Europe needed to build up a proper taxation infrastructure or they faced elimination in an international war by their more successful counterparts. There are some recent attempts to formalize and build on these ideas. A prominent paper is by Besley and Persson, who take wars to be a ‘common interest public good’. Their model confirms Tilly’s argument: they argue that a higher demand for public goods leads to investment in state capacity. However, there are at least two issues to think about here.

First Besley and Persson’s argument is predicated on the assumption that war serves the common interest. Is this really a good assumption? The assumption that defense is a public good is widespread. For instance, it appears in Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Morrow, Siverson ans Smith in their attempt to find institutional roots to the democratic peace puzzle (i.e. that democratic states do not appear to fight each other as much as other pairs of countries). Yet are war and defense the same concepts? Does war really serve the interest of the group in power as well as the interest of the group out of power? A long line of research started by Robert Jervis argues that the distinction between offensive and defensive capabilities is important. Thus the impact of a war for the aggrandizement of the Bourbon dynasty could be quite different from a war started in the fear of invasion to impose a regime change.

Second, it is also questionable how much it is civil rather than international war that plays the key role in state-building. For instance, looking at the case of Britain in depth, James Robinson and Steven Pincus seem to find very little correlation between international war and key moments in state building. These moments arose more out of local political considerations, and often in civil war.

So is interstate war related to state-building? If yes, through what mechanisms? Is war a common-interest public good? These are interesting and important questions to ponder.

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