Archive | War

A Phantom Decline in Militaries?

This is a guest post by Steven Childs.


In his earlier post at The Monkey Cage, James Fearon noted a general decline in militarization across the globe using regional averages of military spending as a share of Gross Domestic Product (see below in black) as well as the number of soldiers per 1,000 individuals (red). Dr. Fearon hypothesizes that these declines from 1945-2007 are due to the advent of nuclear weapons in reducing great power conflict as well as pacification due to the spread of democracy.

Although these explanations seem intuitive, there are potential validity issues when using spending and force size measures to proxy for arms levels or the health of the industry. In the case of the former, a nation’s defense spending can be wrought with politically induced inefficiencies (on this count it is worth noting that democracies are no more immune to such pork than autocracies).  In the latter instance, as technologies mature and weaponry becomes more capital-intensive, there is less demand for outright military “labor” but rather fewer and better-trained troops. An illustrative analogue would be assuming that the decline in computer prices today are indicative of a “de-digitalization” of society. Consequently, although the numbers in uniform decline, the military capability of the state can remain static or even increase. For instance, the People’s Republic of China has cut numerous divisions over the last decade, but few would make the claim that it is less capable militarily. An analysis worth considering would be one that supplements budgeting and manpower measures with one that accounts for hardware.

To flesh out these ideas, I replicated Dr. Fearon’s regional graphs while adding two more measures. The green line is the regional average of the Polity score—a generally accepted academic measurement for the degree of a nation’s electoral competition (green). For each of interpretation with the lines for expenditure (black) and personnel (red), the range has been rescaled such that 0 reflects a complete autocracy and 20 indicates a full democracy. Additionally, I include a measure of the number of arms imports from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Arms Transfer Database. The unit is their proprietary Trend Indicator Value (TIV). The number of imported TIVs for a country is divided by each 1,000 of its military personnel, and is then averaged for each region (purple, scaled for the right Y-axis). There are limits with this measure, namely that arms imports do not fully address the military capability of  states that purchase their own weapons domestically. Nevertheless, the measure is a reasonable approximation of military capability for the majority of the globe given that the greatest conventional arms producers and exporters are concentrated in the West and the former Soviet Union.

childsFrom these graphs, two observations are apparent. First, at this generalized level, democracy does not seem to have the uniform pacifying result that is expected. That is not to say that democratization fosters militarization, but the relationship between the two seems weak. For instance, Latin America and the Caribbean saw noted democratization in the 1980s “Third Wave,” but the militarization measures were relatively static. Sub-Saharan Africa also did not see much change, despite the region’s movement away from autocracy in the 1990s. Again, this is cautionary in that we are looking at aggregates and not country-specific relationships.

Second, and critically, the measure of arms imports does not suggest demilitarization. For all regions except the Middle East and North Africa, arms levels have remained fairly static since 1960. Moreover, the regional arms import data does not necessarily validate the nuclear revolution, which would anticipate clear reductions in conventional arms imports.

What might account for this difference between declining spending and personnel and static imports?  One explanation is the application of Moore’s law to the defense sector. Moore famously argued in 1965 that microprocessing power would double every 18 months; an economic side-effect is that prices drop for the previous hardware. Similarly, as defense technologies improve and states develop economically, they are able to sustain or increase their militarily capabilities with less expenditure and personnel. The anecdote of Singapore is telling, where military spending as a share of GDP fell from 5.1% in 2002 to 4.2% in 2007. During this time period, the state added 6 frigates, 20 fighter jets, 20 attack helicopters, 96 main battle tanks, and scores of precision-guided munitions into its arsenal.

This analysis suggests that the cross-national declines in military expenditures and force sizes have less to do with political demilitarization, and more to do with the increasing technological efficiencies of defense markets. It is worth noting this distinction before making pacifistic inferences about the international security climate, particularly given turmoil in the Middle East and Asia.

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Cameron Defeated on Syria by Ghost of Blair


We welcome another guest post by Stephen Benedict Dyson.


The UK parliament has voted against authorizing an attack on Syria, in the most direct challenge to executive authority on foreign policy in recent British history. Britain will not be joining any U.S. action, and has taken the significant step of distancing itself from its superpower ally on the eve of a military strike. Prime Minister David Cameron is left a weakened figure, and the development poses terrific problems for President Obama’s Syria policy.

The high drama is reminiscent of Tony Blair’s troubles during the run-up to the Iraq war, when he won endorsement for his Iraq policy in the teeth of huge parliamentary rebellions by his own backbenchers. Blair’s choices then were repeatedly invoked during the Syria debate. Cameron will be reflecting upon the exquisite irony that it was Blair himself who established the precedent of asking for a parliamentary vote before committing armed forces. The government can do it regardless under royal prerogative, yet Blair was in such a pickle over Iraq that he felt he needed parliamentary backing. Cameron followed Blair’s lead and recalled parliament, to the chagrin of senior Conservative Party colleagues who saw the rebellion coming. After the final Iraq vote in 2003, The Guardian newspaper commented that parliament had been given “the power to stop war before it begins,” although it “did not take that chance, alas.” This time, it did.

Why did Blair win, and Cameron lose? Opponents of action in 2003 and 2013 used similar parliamentary tactics, asking for a vote not on the merits of the action per se but on the narrower question of whether the government had proven its case. Chris Smith was a Labour Member of Parliament who tabled the amendment opposing Blair in 2003. The amendment simply stated that “the case for war has not yet been established.” When I interviewed Smith several years ago for my book on Blair, he told me that the wording had been “very carefully chosen in order to try and unite everyone who had doubts, including some who would never under any circumstances have contemplated going to war, right the way through to some who, if the weapons inspectors had come up with evidence, would probably have voted for war.”

Similarly, in the Syria debate the core of Labour leader Ed Miliband’s critique was that the government was moving too quickly, and should follow a multi-stage roadmap of consultation with parliament and the United Nations. Miliband sketched out an elegant if opportunistic position: he was not against the use of force per se, but opposed precipitate military action before parliament had been consulted and the UN process had been exhausted. Beneath his headline moderation, the Labour leader spoke forcefully on the risks of taking action and raised doubts that he was persuadable. The contradictions in Miliband’s argument would have been exposed over time, yet his stance proved durable enough to hold together his own party on the issue and tar Cameron as over-eager to rush to war.

Cameron’s parliamentary position was much less favorable than that faced by Blair a decade ago. Blair made his decisions on Iraq atop a stonking parliamentary majority of 179. The opposition Conservative Party was fully supportive of intervention in 2003, and so Blair could survive a massive rebellion by his own MPs. Cameron presides over a hung parliament – no political party commands an overall majority. He governs in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the only major British party to have opposed the Iraq war. Scores of Cameron’s own backbenchers rebelled on Syria, and several Liberal Democrat MPs voted against their own coalition. The Labour leadership took the highly unusual step of opposing the government on a major foreign policy crisis. The composition of parliament this time left Cameron with very few votes to play with.

The scope of the proposed intervention was also very different. It was clear in 2003 that Blair was asking for the commitment of massive forces by air, land, and sea in order to overthrow the Saddam regime. Although Blair profoundly underestimated – or undersold – the cost and duration of the occupation, he was clearly seeking authorization for a major undertaking. This time Cameron was careful to stress the limited aims and means of the intervention. It was not about regime change, invasion, or taking sides in the civil war.

Paradoxically, these limited aims made it harder for Cameron to win the vote. At every stage in the Iraq debate, Blair raised the stakes, casting the issue in stark world-historical terms and threatening to resign the prime ministership if he did not win parliamentary support. Blair outlined a policy of total commitment in service of era-defining goals. By contrast, Cameron found it difficult to specify the mechanisms by which limited military strikes would achieve limited objectives. Upholding a norm of non-chemical weapons use, or punishing Assad, seemed nebulous aims compared to Blair’s all-in rhetoric. With limited goals and lower stakes, the forensic questioning at which Parliament excels was to the fore: what do we do if Assad uses these weapons again after we have struck him? How will we know if we have been successful in upholding a norm, or punishing a dictator? In 2003, Blair dodged specifics with impassioned appeals to the weight of history and the duties of moral responsibility. Cameron could not.

The thinking of Blair himself is one constant across the years. Possessed of a Manichean worldview, an expansive conception of the UK’s international role, and a healthy regard for his own persuasive powers, Iraq was very much Blair’s war. In 2013, the former prime minister retains the same moralizing, interventionist stance. Syria represents a “crossroads for Western policy,” he has said. The “forces” in Syria are the same as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. “They have to be defeated. We should defeat them, however long it takes, because otherwise they will not disappear. They will grow stronger until, at a later time, there will be another crossroads and this time there will be no choice.” These comments reminded British legislators and the public of the Iraq controversies at the worst possible time for the current prime minister. Cameron, who has in many ways sought to emulate Blair, was doomed to defeat by the long shadow cast by the dominant figure in modern British politics.

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Action is not Synonymous with Force

This is a guest post from Deborah Avant, Sié Chéou-Kang Chair for International Security and Diplomacy and Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.


The debate among Ivo Daalder, John Mearsheimer, and Hisham Melhem last night on the Newshour was quite poignant. All three actually agreed on the important point: the action the US is considering to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons will, as John Mearsheimer put it, “do little good”.  A very good set of arguments from CNAS arrive at similar conclusions.  There are many nods to the brutality to Assad’s regime but no one thinks the options being considered will improve the situation.

Really?  The US is thinking of launching a missile attack at no insubstantial cost (extrapolating from the costs of the Libyan intervention, which of course no one can agree on, we are looking at $1 billion minimum or as much as $2 billion/day) that will kill Syrians and promise many disruptions. Yet we cannot possibly foresee—when the vast majority of experts who agree on little else finally agree—that it is likely to do little good?

The conversation on the Newshour demonstrates how poorly the options the US is considering address the concerns American leaders feel.  Ivo Daalder admits (and Hisham Melhem is incensed by) the fact that we are considering only something that will punish Assad, not something that will help the situation on the ground.  The best one can say about the action being considered is that punishment is meant to “deter” future action, but Jon Mercer and others have demonstrated how fraught such a deterrence strategy is. I disagree with John Mearsheimer’s assumption that we should only act in ways that further our narrowly defined national interest, but he does have a point that taking action that promises to do little good makes little sense.  The other implicit option in this conversation, though, is doing nothing.  This is also hard to stomach (on that, see George Packer’s conversation with himself).

Perhaps it is time to move beyond the fallacy that the only action that counts is military force.  There are many, many things the US could do (and may be already doing) – working with the Arab League, working with global businesses who have impact in Syria, engaging people close to Assad…maybe even engaging with Hassan Rouhani.  These are all actions too.  Indeed, as Charli Carpenter points out, even if all the US wants to do is to punish Assad, there are many actions that may be more effective than a military strike.  The exercise of power does not require military force.  Power comes in many forms and often the most effective forms are the least violent.

Rather than being boxed in to a military strike (serious action) vs. no military strike (doing nothing) frame, Obama could use his considerable rhetorical skill to reframe the question as: what can the US do to either 1) reduce the chance that Assad will not use these weapons in the future or 2) improve the situation for civilians on the ground?  I am not suggesting there are easy answers to either of these questions. But at least if the US frames the questions in the right way, it will be less likely to take costly action that is worthless – or worse.

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Threading needles in Syria

Erica, Erik, and several scholars over at the Duck have done a great job of rounding up and discussing political science research on intervention that might be relevant to the likely US attack on military installations in Syria.  I think I agree with Erik, however, that the cases typically studied (frequently peacekeeping operations) probably don’t have a lot to tell us about this one.

As explained by administration officials—in  remarkable detail— they are thinking about this as a punitive action to impose costs on Assad for violating an international norm that they believe is important to uphold.  Degrading Assad’s military capability is also mentioned, but seems to be secondary or rather the means by which costs are to be imposed, rather than the core objective.  So the most relevant comparison cases would be punitive strikes designed to “reestablish deterrence,” such as, in part, recent Israeli interventions in Gaza and southern Lebanon; the US strikes against a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan and al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in 1998 in reply to embassy bombings; the US air attacks on various targets in Iraq in 1998; perhaps Reagan’s bombardment of Syrian positions in Lebanon in 1983 after withdrawing the Marines from Beirut; and, going farther back, the US’s graduated bombing campaigns of North Vietnam, which were carefully designed to try to send the sort of signals that the Obama administration now wants to send to Assad, but which didn’t work so well.

See Wallace Thies’ book for an analysis of this last case.  He found, if I recall, that the North Vietnamese didn’t really get the careful, contingent messages the Johnson administration was trying to send.  I’d add that they did correctly get that bombing was not very costly for the US and thus didn’t convey a willingness to actually invade the North.  That would be all the more so in the case of Obama and Syria, since his officials have been very clear that they do not intend an intervention in the sense of using force to give a decisive advantage to one side (as in Kosovo or Bosnia).  I can’t think of a case where the idea was to use force to thread such tiny needles.

Needle 1:  The attack can’t be so large that it kills so many civilians that the reaction is, You killed almost as many as the gas attack did!  (And you can bet that the Assad regime will do what it can to make it so attacks do kill, or appear to kill, a lot of civilians.)  Further, at least according to Max Fisher’s reporting, the administration doesn’t even want to cause the Assad regime to collapse completely, because they imagine that the best endpoint is not rebel victory but some kind of negotiated power-sharing deal.  (At least that’s how I interpret Fisher’s explanation of what they are thinking).

But, as many have pointed out, the attack can’t be too small, or it looks pathetic and pointless, and you have Assad still there thumbing his nose at you.   This needle eye is so small that it may not exist.

Needle 2:  The strike has to serve its purpose for enforcing an international norm against the use of chemical weapons, but at the same time not really take sides in the civil war, or commit us more seriously to military action on behalf of the rebels.

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More Political Scientists on Intervention

Josh Busby gives a good timeline of the political science blogosphere’s Syria conversation so far. The thesis: we are all conflicted. Prior studies should generally make us pessimistic, but not all cases are the same.

Additional links:

Commentaries by political scientists at the Center for a New American Security are all over the map in terms of whether intervention in Syria is a good idea. All of them urge caution and a clear strategic endgame for any intervention.

Marc Lynch warns against the possibility of mission creep.

Sara Bjerg Moller argues that compellence is the best way to describe an American air strike in Syria (if it happens).

For some more optimistic takes on the potential effectiveness of intervention:

In the July 2013 issue of the American Journal of Political Science, Andrew Kydd and Scott Straus argue that interventions can have modest benefits (in terms of further atrocity prevention) “if the third party is relatively neutral and if alternative costs are imposed on decision makers.” Their paper is here (gated).

In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, Jacqueline Demerrit finds that international intervention in support of rebel groups can limit the escalation of killings, whereas intervention in support of the government can prevent the onset of mass killings. Her paper is here (ungated).

Please feel free to add more in the comments section below.

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Americans Are Reticent About Attacking Syria — and Why That Doesn’t Matter

I think that the fact that the polls say Americans are wary in Syria does not mean all that much. If the Obama administration is able to do something that has a decisive effect, they will look like heroes. And if they look impotent in their use of military force, it will rebound against them. But the polling numbers showing American reticence, as of right now, doesn’t add up to much, because it’s really not a salient issue. It’s not enough to look at the numbers of people opposing intervention; you have to look at how much people care and at this point it isn’t very high on the list, as of today. That can change if things escalate and it starts to look like a “real” war, as opposed to Libya — which was obviously real if you were there — but from the United States the perspective was that no Americans were on the ground and no American planes were being shot down. If Syria looks like that, the pubic won’t get all that engaged. It would potentially be foreign policy success for the Obama administration, though coming awfully late, after a lot of horrible things have happened there. But if it doesn’t go well and America is gradually sucked in — throwing good resources after bad — eventually it could become a big political liability, and you could get significant public engagement. This could have happened in Afghanistan, too, if more Americans started getting killed. But it hasn’t escalated in that way.

From an interview with Matthew Baum at Journalist’s Resource.  More here.

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When Do Interventions Work?

Jon Western is right to point out that there are certainly cases of intervention success. Indeed, those arguing in favor of intervention in Syria will surely draw on cases like Bosnia and Kosovo to make their case for intervention in Syria.

Setting aside the possibility that cases like Bosnia and Kosovo are not great examples of intervention success, there is certainly some persuasive evidence that military interventions can work. The cumulative research from people like Page Fortna, Barb Walter, and Michael Doyle & Nicholas Sambanis suggests there are some important qualifications to this.

First, the interventions need to take the form of peacekeeping missions—with well-resourced boots on the ground to protect civilians and enforce the peace.

Second, the missions must be multilateral, providing further credibility to enforcement and legitimacy to the cause.

Third, the peacekeeping missions must be multidimensional. This means they aren’t just military missions, but that they also involve extensive efforts at state capacity-building, humanitarian assistance, refugee resettlement, economic development, election monitoring, and the like.

Fourth, the combatants are ready to negotiate and consent to the intervention. Although there is some controversy about this (Fortna finds that Chapter VII enforcement missions are just as effective as consent-based ones), Doyle & Sambanis suggest that multilateral peacekeeping missions aren’t too successful at ending civil wars; rather, they help to enforce the peace once hostilities have ceased.

All of these conditions being present, there have been some peacekeeping successes (e.g. East Timor, El Salvador, etc.). Any of these being absent, the results are more mixed. All of them being absent, the outcomes of international intervention are much less favorable in both strategic and humanitarian terms. See several of my previous posts (here, here, and here) for more on this.

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Do Military Interventions Hasten the End of Civil Wars?

Political scientists argue: generally, no.

From the abstract of an influential 2002 paper, Patrick Regan:

Recent research has begun to focus on the role of outside interventions in the duration of civil conflicts. Assuming that interventions are a form of conflict management, ex ante expectations would be that they would reduce a conflict’s expected duration. Hypotheses relating the type and timing of outside interventions to the duration of civil conflicts are tested. The data incorporate 150 conflicts during the period from 1945 to 1999, 101 of which had outside interventions. Using a hazard analysis, the results suggest that third-party interventions tend to extend expected durations rather than shorten them.

From the paper:
The policy implications of these results are fairly stark. If the objective of an intervention is to shorten the length of a civil conflict, then an outside military or economic intervention is not a terribly effective strategy to do so. Regardless of how the intervention is conceived – or empirically operationalized—there seems to be no mix of strategies that lead to shorter expected durations. Even maintaining a neutral posture or organizing the intervention under the auspices of a multilateral rubric is not sufficient to form an effective means of conflict management (p. 31).

Full paper is here (gated). See also his comprehensive overview of the literature here (gated).

Also, in an earlier paper, Andrew Enterline and Dylan Balch-Lindsay find similar effects. From their abstract:

To test our hypotheses about the impact of third parties and geopolitical factors on civil war duration, we rely on event history analysis and a sample of 152 civil wars for the period 1820–1992. We find empirical support for the idea that extremely long civil wars correspond to the equitable distribution of third party interventions—stalemates prolong wars.

And from the paper:
as [international] support for either of the domestic combatants increases, the hazard rate [of civil war termination] decreases, corresponding to a lengthening of the duration of civil wars (p. 632).

Their full paper is here (ungated) or here (gated).

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Do Military Interventions Reduce Killings of Civilians in Civil Wars?

From the abstract of a 2012 paper by Reed Wood, Jason Kathman, and Stephen Gent:

As a conflict actor weakens relative to its adversary, it employs increasingly violent tactics toward the civilian population as a means of reshaping the strategic landscape to its benefit. The reason for this is twofold. First, declining capabilities increase resource needs at the moment that extractive capacity is in decline. Second, declining capabilities inhibit control and policing, making less violent means of defection deterrence more difficult. As both resource extraction difficulties and internal threats increase, actors’ incentives for violence against the population increase. To the extent that biased military interventions shift the balance of power between conflict actors, we argue that they alter actor incentives to victimize civilians. Specifically, intervention should reduce the level of violence employed by the supported faction and increase the level employed by the opposed faction. We test these arguments using data on civilian casualties and armed intervention in intrastate conflicts from 1989 to 2005. Our results support our expectations, suggesting that interventions shift the power balance and affect the levels of violence employed by combatants.

In fact, they find that military interventions in favor of the rebel faction (as opposed to pro-government or neutral interventions) tend to increase government killings of civilians by about 40% (see Figure 2 below from p. 656).

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From their conclusion:

Supporting a faction’s quest to vanquish its adversary may have the unintended consequence of inciting the adversary to more intense violence against the population. Thus, third parties with interests in stability should bear in mind the potential for the costly consequences of countering murderous groups. Potential interveners should heed these conclusions when designing intervention strategies and tailor their interventions to include components specifically designed to protect civilians from reprisals. Such strategies could include stationing forces within vulnerable population centers, temporarily relocating susceptible populations to safe havens that are more distant from the conflict zone, and supplying sufficient ground forces to be consistent with such policies. These actions could fulfill broader interests in societal stability in addition to interests in countering an organization on geopolitical grounds. Successful policies will thus not only counter murderous factions but will explicitly seek to protect civilian populations.

The full paper is here (gated).


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How Do Military Interventions Affect Human Rights Practices?

With a military intervention in Syria on the table, it’s worth considering what the impacts of such interventions are. Over the next few days I’ll be featuring political science research on this topic.

From the abstract of a paper by Dursun Peksen in the September 2012 issue of Political Research Quarterly:

military intervention contributes to the rise of state repression by enhancing the state’s coercive power and encouraging more repressive behavior, especially when it is supportive or neutral toward the target government. Results … show that supportive and neutral interventions increase the likelihood of extrajudicial killing, disappearance, political imprisonment, and torture. Hostile interventions increase only the probability of political imprisonment. The involvement of an intergovernmental organization or a liberal democracy as an intervener is unlikely to make any major difference in the suggested negative impact of intervention.

The full article is here (gated).

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