Tag: Bargaining

Mind the Power Gap

I have new online piece, co-authored with Dani Nedal, at Foreign Affairs:

President Donald Trump believes that America makes terrible deals—from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Why, according to Trump, do other countries take such advantage of the United States? Because our leaders and officials are stupid and incompetent and are terrible negotiators.  “Free trade can be wonderful if you have smart people. But we have people that are stupid,” said Trump when he announced his decision to run for president. On immigration, he was similarly blunt: “the Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning.” And during the negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal, he claimed that “we are making a terrible deal” because “we have the wrong people negotiating for us.” He added that “the Persians are great negotiators” and that “they are laughing at the stupidity of the deal we’re making on nuclear.”

If the Trump Doctrine is to put “America First” by focusing on bilateral bargains—understood in terms of short-term winners and losers—then its corollary is the “Good Negotiator Policy.” In the president’s world, bad people make bad deals.  The best, smartest people—most notably, Trump himself—always get the best bargains. He is right that personal attributes and interpersonal dynamics can make an important difference in international negotiations. But Trump’s focus on individual skill overlooks the most important factor that shapes political agreements in general and international ones in particular: the relative leverage of the parties involved.

The problem is that when the Washington locked in most of its bargains and arrangements, America was much more powerful, in relative terms, than it is now.

It takes a rather naïve negotiator to attempt to overhaul relatively favorable deals from a position of comparative weakness. The United States will not get better bargains than it achieved when it controlled more than twice as much of global power as it currently holds. If Trump abandons long-standing practices of American-led liberal order for bilateral, transactional, and zero-sum relations, other states have little reason to prefer dealing with Washington to China, Russia, or any other country.

When it comes to stiffing contractors, he’s shown a very good understanding of how power asymmetries shape bargaining outcomes. But, overall, Trump’s rhetoric is in keeping with a man who was born on third base and thinks staying there is a testament to his mad business skillz.

Anyway, go read the whole thing, if you’re so inclined. You may need to register to get access.

(cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money)

Tuesday Linkage

Editor’s note: this post previously appeared on my personal blog. I’ve been doing links posts on Tuesdays over there for a while now, so I guess I might as well start cross-listing them.

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Classroom Activity: Gambling Over War

This activity comes after students are to have listened to a lecture (slides) on information problems as an explanation for war—which I’d say is the most useful explanation we’ve got. The broad contours of the argument are pretty straightforward, but the full implications are not. (That’s something of an understatement. As I’ve discussed a few times before, a lot of very smart people have made incorrect statements about what this argument implies. In fact, while I’ll gladly admit we’ve hit the point of diminishing marginal returns, I still think there’s a lot we’ve yet to learn from this way of thinking.)

This activity was designed to illustrate both the general point that war can occur as a result of states taking (optimal) gambles and also to demonstrate two less intuitive implications of the argument: states who expect to do poorly in war are not necessarily any less likely to risk war; and states who are fairly sure their fait accompli will provoke military resistance may still execute them, even if said resistance would cause them ex post regret.


The scenario described by the two parts of the activity is identical to that depicted by the game-theoretic model discussed in the lecture. But whereas the lecture walks through a general solution to the model, identifying optimal strategies under all possible conditions, and thus involves a fair amount of algebra, the activity assigns concrete numbers to everything and so simplifies things greatly. In fact, while I allowed the students to consult their notes and/or the slides during the activity, as a handful did, the optimal strategies here are sufficiently straightforward that most students correctly identified them without doing so (and probably, in many cases, without having listened to the lecture before class.)

Of course, it helps that this time around, I didn’t throw things wide open the way I did with a previous activity. The only two options that make any sense (the largest land grab the blue type would be willing to live with, which would provoke a war if D happens to be red but bring a better payoff if they’re blue; and the largest land grab that the red type would tolerate, which ensures peace but not necessarily on the best possible terms) are identified for them. All they have to do is figure out which makes more sense.

As many correctly determined, it makes sense to gamble here. That’s not terribly interesting, in and of itself. But what one might overlook is that they just proved to themselves, through their own behavior, that it can make sense to risk war even if you know that, should the war that you genuinely hope to avoid occur, the outcome would be pretty terrible. In this case, grabbing 50% of the territory meant accepting a 30% chance of provoking a war that would leave you feeling as though you’d gained nothing at all (acquiring 10% of the territory but incurring costs that completely offset that gain). And yet most of them went for it. As they should have.

The second part is nearly identical to the first. However, here, any potential war would go pretty well for the challenger, even against the red type. The costs of war have even come down a bit. So it’s not surprising that even more of them decided to gamble here, taking 90% of the territory. Again, that’s not what I what I was trying to show. What I wanted them to focus on was that the vast majority of them went for the larger land grab despite the fact that they knew (or, at least, should have known) there was a 65% chance that they wouldn’t get away with it. As I hope was clear to at least some of them, taking 60% of the territory, which they’d have been sure to get away with, would certainly leave them better off than fighting a war against the red type would, since that would leave them feeling as though they’d acquired 50%. So even though the war they risked provoking wouldn’t prove disastrous, its occurrence would still entail ex post regret. It would be a war no one wanted. As most wars are.

As ever, I’m not sure everyone got what I was trying to convey. But I think most of them did. Hopefully, most of them will now be less inclined to confidently assert (the way so many do) that it makes no sense to involve yourself in a war you don’t expect to win, or to see a war that no one really wanted and conclude that some or all of the personalities involved must have been deficient in some way. As I discussed in the lecture, it’s entirely possible that those factors were at work in many historical cases. But we don’t know that. We can’t know that, at least not with the sort of confidence many exhibit. Because despite what many seem to believe, such outcomes can arise as the result of optimal decision-making.

Classroom Activity: Commitment Problems

This activity comes after students are to have listened to a lecture (slides) on commitment problems. The lecture focused in particular on how the anticipation of future shifts in power can create incentives for preventive war. After walking them through a formal model fleshing out the argument, I then discussed the role of preventive motives in the US Civil War and showed them that interstate wars have occurred more often historically when there was reason to believe that war in the current year would have a significant impact on the distribution of military capabilities in the subsequent year. This activity applies that same argument to a slightly different setting: the problem of rebel demobilization, which Walter has called “the critical barrier to civil war settlement.”

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Classroom Activity: Issuing Ultimata

This activity comes after students are to have listened to a lecture (slides) introducing the second big puzzle of the course: why states sometimes burn what they want in order to get more of it—that is, why wars occur despite the inefficiency their costly nature implies.


Over the course of the next few lectures, I’ll be taking them through the main arguments of Fearon 1995 (see also this blog post) step by step. But before we turn to the explanations for war, we first need to understand the inefficiency argument so as to fully appreciate why common explanations fail.

Today’s activity was simpler than many of the previous ones, consisting of a single decision that should have been pretty straightforward for those who actually understood the lecture (of which, it appears, there were only so many).

The correct answer is 75%, as a handful (but, sadly, only a handful) of students determined. The reason is that D has no incentive to start a war unless doing so leaves them feeling as though they held onto more territory than if they allowed C to get away with their fait accompli, and since D will feel as though they have held onto a mere 25% of the territory if they resist (despite retaining control of 40%), C can safely take 75% without provoking a war. Should C take less than this amount, C will avoid a war, but will fail to achieve the best outcome possible. To take less than 75% of the territory in this case would be the equivalent of insisting on paying more than amount due at the grocery store. Sure, you can. I think. I mean, I’m certainly not aware of any law against that. But why would you? (Of course, there’s a very important moral difference between countries taking less land than they could have gotten away with and individual consumers overpaying at the grocery store, but they weren’t asked what % of territory C could morally justify taking, nor do I think they understood it as such. If they had, I’d have expected a lot more answers of “0%” or “none” and a lot fewer of “100%” or “everything.”) On the other hand, taking more than 75% provokes a war, which leaves C feeling as they’ve only acquired 50% of the territory. So that can’t be optimal.

The most common answer was 100%. Every number on the slide made a pretty strong showing, particularly 60% and 50%, leaving me with the impression that a good number of students were guessing randomly. Some did, however, offer explanations for their answers that indicated they were thinking along the right lines but just didn’t quite connect all the dots. At any rate, after I explained the optimal strategy, they seemed to get it right away, which was encouraging.

Hard to Say I’m Sorry

The reports about the bilateral agreement between the US and Afghanistan that would allow American troops (and other western countries essentially) have suggested that President Hamid Karzai would support the agreement if President Obama apologized or admitted mistakes in the conduct of the war.

This, of course, has produced a reaction or two, given that President Karzai might have a lot of gall to be asking of this given that more than three thousand outsiders (Americans, Danes, Canadians, etc) gave their lives to help the Afghan government.  On the other hand, Obama just apologized for Obamacare’s rollout which has yet to produce any real collateral damage, unlike the American and ISAF efforts in Afghanistan.

So, should Obama admit the US made mistakes in Afghanistan?  Well, did the US make mistakes in Afghanistan?  Here are some that might come up?

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The American Civil War as an Illustration of War to Forestall Adverse Shifts in Power

A prominent “rationalist” explanation for war concerns commitment problems created by the anticipation of rapid shifts in power (see also here and here). When a state expects that the civil-war-soldiersmere passage of time will lead it to fare worse in a potential future war against its rival, the rival’s inability to credibly promise not to exploit its future power by demanding a revision of the status quo can lead tempt the first state to attack so as to forestall (or at least slow down) the shift in power.

The canonical example of this was provided by Thucydides, who wrote in History of the Peloponnesian War “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that it inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.” But today’s international relations students, alas, have little interest in antiquity. Nor are they particularly impressed by systematic evidence that wars occurred more frequently between 1816 and 2001 in the presence of observable indicators that a substantial shift in the bilateral distribution of capabilities was on the horizon (which I nonetheless provide in class). For better or worse, our students view as immediately suspect any theoretical claim that cannot be illustrated with an example they’ve actually heard of.

For that reason, I now discuss the American Civil War after explaining the general logic of commitment problems induced by an anticipation of a future shift in power.

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How Could US Signals of Weakness bring Russia and Syria to the Table?

That’s essentially the question Steve Saideman asked here (and which he more explicitly asked on Twitter).

His answer, which I find problematic, is

But here is the big problem in all of this: perhaps much of IR is not about bargaining and persuasion about commitment and resolve. Perhaps much of IR is a conflict of interests, and that countries engage in conflict when their various interests cannot be resolved.

He goes on to say

The amateur game theorist might want to argue that this then is not chicken or prisoner’s dilemma but deadlock.  And they would probably be right–that much of what is important in IR is what shapes the preferences of the actors, which determines the game being played.  I guess my main point is that much of the time, we are not playing chicken, so perhaps Schelling’s insights might not be all that useful and could even be counter-productive.

Notice how Steve implicitly assumes that either Schelling is God or bargaining is irrelevant or even impossible. As Steve might say, if he found himself on the other side of the discussion, “Holy mother of false dichotomies, Batman!  Time for some perspective sauce!”

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Does it Pay to Divide and Conquer?

duckThe intuition behind the maxim divide et impera is clear.  If they’re busy fighting each other, they not fighting you.  And that’s obviously in your interest (assuming, that is, you are some sort of occupier or metropole seeking to extract rents from a local population.)  Devious and underhanded?  Sure.  Morally repugnant?  If you’re inclined to view politics through such a lens.  But effective?  Self-evidently.

Or so you might think.

Brenton Kenkel, a University of Rochester doctoral student currently on fellowship at Princeton, argues otherwise in this fascinating working paper.

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Are Weapons Inspections about Information or Inconvenience?

Editor’s note: this is a guest post by William Spaniel, a doctoral candidate at the University of Rochester.  See this previous Duck post describing some of his work, and this post at his own blog providing more information about the research discussed here.

Spurred by a new International Organization article by Alexandre Debs and Nuno Monteiro (DM), the Duck of Minerva has recently hosted a debate on the cause of the Iraq War (see here, here, and here). To sum, DM argue that the United States’ imperfect knowledge of Iraq’s weapons programs led to a rational war. In contrast, speaking strictly from a unitary actor standpoint, this post argues that imperfect information cannot explain the conflict. Just prior to the start of the fighting, Saddam took credible steps to reopen negotiations with the United States. The Bush administration outright ignored these efforts. War began soon thereafter.

I divide this post into three parts, based on work from my dissertation. First, I review DM’s main theoretical contribution. Second, I briefly run down the logic of nuclear negotiations. And third, I argue that weapons inspections increase the cost burden on a potential proliferator, which in turn makes nonproliferation commitments credible. I then trace this logic in the lead up to the Iraq War.

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What Caused the Iraq War? Debs and Monteiro reply to Lake

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Alexandre Debs and Nuno P. Monteiro, both of Yale University. In it, they discuss the causes of the Iraq War, a subject of some recent discussion at The Duck of Minerva. This (surprise) third installment responds to David Lake’s post, which itself was an engagement with Debs’ and Monteiro’s article–and its summary post at The Duck of Minerva.

We thank David Lake for writing a thoughtful response, Daniel Nexon for offering a platform to discuss this important issue, and readers of The Duck of Minerva and The Monkey Cage for engaging our argument.

As Lake mentions in his response, we share many views. Here, we’ll just focus on our differences, which also seem to underlie several reactions by readers in the comments to our initial post. We would also like to offer some points of clarification. We’ll center on three topics, from the most empirical to the most theoretical: how much of the Iraq War our theory explains; our contribution to the ‘rationalist’ framework; and the status of ‘rationality’ in IR theory more generally. Let us address these in turn.

The causes of the Iraq War

The first point on which we’d like to elaborate is to clarify what our theory does and does not do about Iraq. Is it a complete account of the run-up to the Iraq War? Of course not. In claiming that the Iraq war can be explained within the rationalist framework (i.e., without requiring that actors act in non-rational ways), we do not claim to capture all the features of the case. No theory — no useful theory — can provide a complete explanation of a phenomenon as complex as a war. Theories are useful when they highlight important aspects of a certain phenomenon, shedding light on dynamics that were previously in the dark and allowing for comparisons between different cases.

Like all social scientists, we constantly have to decide the proper balance between close description of a case and applicability to other (“out-of-sample”) cases. There is no magical solution to this, and reasonable people can reasonably disagree. We strove to find what was, in our view, the minimally sufficient description of the case that had the potential to generate generalizable claims about the causes of war.

Our theoretical view is that, first, as states become less certain of detecting other states’ militarization attempts, war becomes more likely; and, second, for any given level of uncertainty about this, as the cost of a preventive war lowers relative to the shift in the balance of power it is meant to avoid, war becomes more likely.

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What Caused the Iraq War? David Lake Replies to Debs and Monteiro

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by David Lake, who is the Jerri-Ann and Gary E. Jacobs Professor of Social Sciences and Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego. It responds to an article published in International Organization by Alex Debs and Nuno Monteiro. Their post on the subject appeared yesterday. The article will be ungated for approximately two weeks.

Known Unknowns,” by Alex Debs and Nuno Monteiro (DM), newly released electronically by International Organization in advance of its publication this fall, is an important addition to the bargaining theory of war and adds new insights to the causes of the Iraq War of 2003. Since DM challenge several points in my International Security article (PDF) on bargaining theory and the Iraq War, let me respond briefly.

The key innovation in the model is that investments in military capabilities by the Target (T, Iraq in the case) produce changes in the probability of military victory only with some lag, thus openning a window for the Deterer (D, the U.S.) to launch a preventive war. The lower the costs of war, the more uncertain D is about T’s program, and the more effective the war is likely to be in eliminating the threat to D, the greater the chance of preventive war and the greater the likelihood that the war will be mistaken. This is a nice addition to the basic bargaining model with important implications that go beyond the Iraq case on which the theory is based.

From the outset, I want to clarify that we agree far more than we disagree, including about the central tension between Iraq and the U.S., the effects of 9/11 on the timing of the Iraq War, and the difference between Iraq and North Korea. Debs and Monteiro engage in the product differentiation usual in academic scholarship — highlighting differences rather than commonalities — but the latter are large and overwhelm the points of disagreement, in my view. Continue reading

What Caused the Iraq War? A Debate. Part 1 of 2

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Alexandre Debs and Nuno P. Monteiro, both of Yale University. In it, they discuss the causes of the Iraq War, a subject of some recent discussion at The Duck of Minerva. This post discusses their forthcoming International Organization article, which is now available as an “online first” piece and will be free to download for the next two weeks. Tomorrow we will run a response by David Lake [now available here].

In a forthcoming article in International Organization,Known Unknowns: Power Shifts, Uncertainty, and War,” we introduce a new theory connecting power shifts to war. Out theory provides novel answers to these questions on Iraq. Contrary to widely shared views according to which the war was caused by misperceptions and other irrational behaviors on the part of Saddam Hussein and the Bush Administration, we argue that the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq can be accounted for strictly within a rationalist framework.

Below we make four specific points on the causes of the Iraq War and then contrast our view with David Lake’s International Security article “Two Cheers for Bargaining Theory: Assessing Rationalist Explanations of the Iraq War” (PDF), where he argues that the Iraq War should prompt a behavioral revolution in the study of the causes of war. We conclude with brief implications for theory and policy.

Our Argument

Our first point is that the United States’ main motivation for invading Iraq on March 20, 2003, was to prevent suspected Iraqi nuclearization, which Washington thought would bring about a large and rapid shift in the balance of power in favor of Iraq. During the run-up to the invasion, the U.S. government’s casus belli rested on suspicion that Saddam was developing WMD — including nuclear weapons — thus presenting an imminent threat. Iraq’s nuclear acquisition would represent a large and rapid power shift that would make Saddam immune to any externally-driven regime-change efforts, ending his vulnerability to U.S. military action. The cost of war against a non-nuclear Iraq, in contrast, was expected to be relatively low, as U.S. forces would, given the precedent of the 1991 Gulf War, no doubt prevail. Specifically, the cost of a preventive counter-proliferation war against Iraq was expected to be orders of magnitude smaller than the expected cost of deterring, not to mention deposing a nuclear-armed Saddam. This difference accounts for U.S. insistence in guaranteeing Iraqi non-nuclear status, if necessary by force. Continue reading

Debating the Benefits of Nuclear Superiority for Crisis Bargaining, Part IV

KroenigEditor’s Note: Back in February I riffed on a post by Erik Voeten in which Erik discussed two articles in International Organization (IO). One, by our colleague Matt Kroenig, argued that nuclear superiority gives states advantages in crisis bargaining (PDF). Another, by Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann, rejects this claim (PDF).

After the two posts sparked some interesting discussion–both on- and offline–I approached all three about doing a mini-symposium at the Duck of Minerva. They agreed.  Kroenig kicked us off with objections to Sechser and Fuhrmann, and soon after we ran Sechser’s and Fuhrmann’s critique of Kroenig’s article. Next, Sechser and Fuhrmann respond directly to Kroenig’s earlier post. This is Kroenig’s answer.

This is a guest post by Matt Kroenig. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.

As I stated in my previous post, my new article, “Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve: Explaining Nuclear Crisis Outcomes,” develops the first coherent theory for why nuclear superiority matters even when both states possess second-strike capabilities.  The article then goes on to present a wide array of empirical tests demonstrating that states with a nuclear advantage are more likely to achieve their basic goals in nuclear crises.

Readers may be interested to know that when I began this research almost four years ago, I fully expected to find that nuclear superiority did not matter, but over time I became convinced by the unambiguously strong correlation between the nuclear balance of power and nuclear crisis outcomes in my empirical tests.  Turning up what was initially a surprising result, I spent several months racking my brain, and re-reading sixty-years-worth of literature on nuclear deterrence theory, until I was eventually able to develop a coherent logical explanation that accounted for these findings to my satisfaction.  I proudly present the result of these years of labor in my new article.

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Debating the Benefits of Nuclear Superiority, Part III

Sechser and FuhrmannEditor’s Note: Back in February I riffed on a post by Erik Voeten in which Erik discussed two articles in International Organization (IO). One, by our colleague Matt Kroenig, argued that nuclear superiority gives states advantages in crisis bargaining (PDF). Another, by Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann, rejects this claim (PDF).

After the two posts sparked some interesting discussion–both on- and offline–I approached all three about doing a mini-symposium at the Duck of Minerva. They agreed.  Kroenig kicked us off with objections to Sechser and Fuhrmann, and soon after we ran Sechser’s and Fuhrmann’s critique of Kroenig’s article. In this post, Sechser and Fuhrmann respond directly to Kroenig’s earlier post.

This is a guest post by Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann. Sechser is an Assistant Professor in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. Fuhrmann is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University.

First, we want to thank Dan Nexon and the folks at the Duck of Minerva for the opportunity to participate in this important exchange.

The key question in our debate with Matthew Kroenig is whether nuclear weapons (or nuclear superiority) are credible and effective tools of coercion.  Nuclear weapons may be useful for deterrence, but can they also coerce?  Our theories reach opposite conclusions: we say no; Kroenig says yes.  Both sides marshal evidence to support their arguments.  So who is right?  Our goal in this post is to evaluate Kroenig’s empirical results and respond to his critique of our article.

We begin with Kroenig’s response. We appreciate his engagement with our research, but his harsh criticisms generate more heat than light.  Kroenig’s critique of our article boils down to two basic points:

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Debating the Benefits of Nuclear Superiority for Crisis Bargaining, Part II

Sechser and FuhrmannEditor’s Note: Back in February I riffed on a post by Erik Voeten in which Erik discussed two articles in International Organization (IO). One, by our colleague Matt Kroenig, argued that nuclear superiority gives states advantages in crisis bargaining (PDF). Another, by Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann, rejects this claim (PDF).

After the two posts sparked some interesting discussion–both on- and offline–I approached all three about doing a mini-symposium at the Duck of Minerva. They agreed.  Earlier we ran Kroenig’s piece. In this post, Sechser and Fuhrmann critique the claims he made in his IO article. Both sides will have an opportunity to respond.

This is a guest post by Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann. Sechser is an Assistant Professor in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. Fuhrmann is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University.

Iran’s nuclear program has been a source of international concern for a long time. Some observers in Israel and the United States are now pushing for war, arguing that a nuclear Iran would brandish its capability like a club, waving it around recklessly and bullying neighbors and rivals into submission with nuclear threats.

This fear stems from a common belief that nuclear weapons are more than just weapons of self-defense and deterrence – they are offensive diplomatic tools as well.  But is this view correct?  Are nuclear weapons useful for coercion and intimidation?

We recently conducted a study that found a surprising answer.  Our study, published in the journal International Organization, investigated whether nuclear states enjoy more coercive success than other states. We found that they do not: nuclear weapons have little impact on the effectiveness of coercive threats.  (Note that we use the term “coercive” to refer to attempts to persuade an adversary to change its behavior or give up something valuable.  This is distinct from deterrence, where the goal is to preserve the status quo, not change it.)

Our conclusion challenges conventional thinking about nuclear weapons, which holds that nuclear weapons are useful for coercion – and not just deterrence – simply because they are so destructive.  This view argues that nuclear-armed states can more easily compel others to make concessions in international crises – and that they can do so without actually going to war.  But the conventional view fails to fully appreciate two important limitations of nuclear weapons.

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Debating the Benefits Nuclear Superiority for Crisis Bargaining, Part I

Kroenig Editor’s Note: Back in February I riffed on a post by Erik Voeten in which Erik discussed two articles in International Organization. One, by our colleague Matt Kroenig, argued that nuclear superiority gives states advantages in crisis bargaining (PDF). Another, by Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann, rejects this claim (PDF).

After the two posts sparked some interesting discussion–both on- and offline–I approached all three about doing a mini-symposium at the Duck of Minerva. They agreed. In this post, Kroenig critiques the claims made by Sechser and Fuhrmann. Seschser’s and Fuhrmann’s piece follows later today.

This is a guest post by Matt Kroenig. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. Todd Sescher’s and Matthew Fuhrman’s piece will appear tomorrow.

What determines the outcomes of nuclear crises? For decades scholars have debated whether nuclear superiority (an advantage in the size of a state’s nuclear arsenal relative to an opponent) or the balance of resolve (the relative willingness to run a risk of nuclear war), determines which state achieves its goals in high-stakes nuclear crises, like the Cuban Missile Crisis.  In my new article, “Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve: Explaining Nuclear Crisis Outcomes” (PDF), published in the current (Jan 2013) issue of International Organization (IO), I synthesize these arguments to create a new theory of nuclear crisis outcomes. I demonstrate that nuclear superiority reduces a state’s expected cost of nuclear war, permitting it to run a greater risk of nuclear war in a crisis, and, therefore, improving its prospects for victory. In so doing, I also provide the first, coherent, rationalist account for why nuclear superiority matters even when both states possess secure, second-strike capabilities.  This is an important theoretical contribution and also has implications for other related debates, such as whether nuclear arms racing is rational under certain conditions.

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The Role of Assumptions

Earlier today, Brian Rathbun criticized “rationalists” for making assumptions.*  I have some thoughts on the matter, and I expressed many of them on Twitter.  And in the language of Twitter — snark.  That was not the best response, and I regret the tone of my reaction, if not the substance thereof.  I’d like to try now for a more constructive dialogue.

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Explaining Butter for Bombs Agreements

In 1963, JFK predicted that there would be as many 25 nuclear powers by the 1970s.  Yet here we are, some 70 years later, and the number of states believed to possess nuclear weapons has grown from 4 to 9.  Why haven’t more states joined the club?

A variety of factors are undoubtedly at work (see this piece by Gartzke and Joon for a good attempt at bring systematic evidence to bear on this question). In this post, I am going to discuss one in particular: what William Spaniel refers to as “butter-for-bombs” agreements, wherein one state makes concessions to another in attempt to dissuade them from proliferating.

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Bolton needs to re-read Arms and Influence

Sandeep Baliga of Cheap Talk channels Schelling to point out how skewed John Bolton’s understanding of foreign affairs is:

…John Bolton thinks every international interaction is the game of Chicken, not just the recent episode with North Korea. Schelling thought a lot about Chicken and here is what he said in Arms and Influence in 1966:

Is a Berlin Crisis…..mainly bilateral competition in which each side should be motivated mainly towards winning over the other? Or is it a shared danger – a case of both being pushed to the brink of war – in which statesmanlike forbearance, collaborative withdrawal and prudent negotiation should dominate?

He classifies the Cuban Missile Crisis as the second sort of game and the Hungarian Uprising as the first. He points out that it can be hard to tell which kind of crisis a country is involved in. So, we have different games and uncertainty about the game one is playing. This is level of knowledge from 1966. It disappeared in the last 40 odd years. Hopefully it can be recovered.

Elections do have consequences, and we are lucky for that.

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