Author Archive | James Fearon

All this has happened before … and it will happen again: Syria, US “outside options,” and the Security Council

The path to where the U.S., Russia, and Syria are now—with an initial US/Russia agreement on a plan for disarmament of Assad’s chemical arsenal, to be put before the UNSC — has been idiosyncratic to the point of good comedy.  But where they have ended up should be starting to look familiar, and arguably tells us something about the structure of post-Cold War international politics.

Way back in 2001 the Monkey Cage’s very own Erik Voeten published an article (gated) in the American Political Science Review called “Outside Options and the Logic of Security Council Action.”  He noted the large increase in multilateral cooperation through the UNSC after the end of the Cold War.  For example, between 1990 and 1998 the UNSC approved 31 peacekeeping operations (PKOs) and passed 145 resolutions under Chapter VII (which can authorize use of force).  By contrast, from 1945 to 1989 there had been only 15 PKOs and 22 resolutions under Chapter VII.  One major, relevant change was that the veto has been exercised much less often.

During the Cold War, veto threats by either side came along with the implicit understanding that acting unilaterally could lead to a dangerous escalation between the US and the USSR.  With the collapse of the USSR, all kinds of US threats to intervene—often against regimes it doesn’t like for one reason or another—have become more credible.  However, the US, the rest of the Permanent Five on the UNSC, and a lot of other countries all would, in general, prefer that US or US-led military interventions be approved and sanctioned by the UNSC.  The other veto players, and especially Russia, want to be able to constrain and influence US use of force.  US administrations, on the other side, want formal authorization because they correctly see this as reducing the costs of intervention and also as a way to increase domestic support from an intervention-averse US public.

Voeten’s article observes that this configuration of preferences, capabilities, and the institution of the UNSC sets up a typical bargaining situation:  The US and the rest of the P5 both have reasons to want an intervention, should it happen, to go through the Security Council, but they always have conflicting preferences over the terms.  In many cases, of course, Russia would strongly prefer no intervention at all, but at least a deal in the UNSC preserves the apparent authority of the institution, where Russia still has the symbolically important veto.  According to Dmitri Trenin, this is an important consideration for Putin in the current crisis.

Multilateral cooperation through the UNSC thus often take the form of the US, sometimes with allies, threatening to intervene without UNSC authorization.  This is the “outside option,” and it stands behind negotiations over whether there are terms for a UN resolution that both the US and the “constrainers” would both prefer to its exercise.  Usually this leads to intervention or multilateral action with UNSC authorization, as in Bosnia or Haiti.  But sometimes not, as in Kosovo or Iraq.  So the way this episode with Syria is playing out has basically happened before, and there are good reasons to expect that it will happen again, sooner or later.

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The Nobody’s Fool Problem and Escalation of U.S. Aims in Syria

Just a second.  A couple of days ago, no one was even talking about disposing of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal and Syria signing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).  The military and the administration were not saying “We are going bomb the chemical weapons depots in an effort to eliminate his stockpiles” because this was seen as unlikely to work and very dangerous to boot—bombing these places might release a lot of poisonous gas.  The point of the planned strike was to try to demonstrate to Assad and other potential bad guys in the future that there could be a serious cost to using chemical weapons.

Flash forward to now, and a major part of the Serious Commentary by the President, the Secretary of State, members of Congress, and members of the commentariat is all about Whether we can trust the Russians and Assad, Whether it’s technically feasible to disassemble and dispose of Syria’s stockpiles, Whether Russia and Assad arestalling” or “playing Obama for time”, and Whether any deal will be sufficiently “verifiable.”

What?  Those questions might make sense if the original aim had been to actually disarm Assad of chemical weapons, but that’s definitely not what the administration or, I think, practically anyone was imagining.  The concern was about his and others use of the weapons.  So on that score the question should not be whether you can implement and verify disarmament in a civil war zone—which doesn’t sound likely, or not in the short run anyway – but rather whether you can verify that he hasn’t undertaken more attacks with chemical weapons.  For some scale of attack, that’s obviously feasible, as the events of August 21 show.  (I was trying to make this point, mixed in with some others, here and am trying again after reading the reactions to the president’s speech and the Russian initiative.)

So what’s with this worry about Russia and Assad tricking Obama by “stalling” and “playing for time”?  Stalling for what purpose?  So he can keep carrying out massive chemical weapons attacks while the Security Council negotiates?  If his regime is saying “we’ll disarm, accept monitors, and sign the CWC,” does it seem likely that he would then continue to carry out massive gas attacks traceable to his military?  If he did this, Obama would be in a better position than ever to get support for punitive strikes.  Basically, this reflex “I’m nobody’s fool” reaction misses the point that the Russian proposal and Assad’s apparent acceptance of the approach is already a probable win on the question of continued use of poison gas by the Assad regime. (It’s not a certain win because nothing is certain.  For instance, maybe Assad doesn’t fully control his own military in this area, or maybe he later finds himself in a situation where he thinks he either uses the weapon or almost surely loses power.  But I have a hard time seeing how this move – even without disarmament – doesn’t amount to a concession that makes it harder for Assad to continue to use chemical weapons at level that is traceable to the regime.)

At least for Obama and Kerry, as opposed to the commentariat, you could say that they have strategic reasons to pivot immediately to questions about verifiability and timing and so on.  Pocket what amounts to an unexpected concession without appearing to notice that there was a concession, and move immediately to seeing what more you can get on the issue of disarmament.  But we should not miss that despite the foreign-policy-zombie-like warnings about not being played by Russia or Assad, in fact there has been a big escalation of U.S. aims here, from the goal of stopping and deterring chemical weapons use to the goal of disarmament.  If seriously pursued, this new goal will open up a whole new set of possible paths to intervention.

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Try bargaining before fighting

This, or something like it, is a very good idea, wholly independent of whether you can get Russian agreement and participation.  Much better to make a reasonable demand of Assad—such as verifiably destroy your chemical weapons, and/or sign the CWC —and then strike if he doesn’t comply than to just jump to a punitive spanking.  If he says Ok and complies, then Obama will have achieved the goal of stopping further use of chemical weapons in Syria and also of upholding and furthering a global norm against their use.  If Assad says No or says Yes and then goes ahead and carries out more gas attacks, then it is much easier to make the case and probably get more domestic and international support for a punitive strike.

Administration officials are reportedly worried about whether this could work because it would be hard to verify compliance:

“If Assad said he was turning this stuff over, how would we know if he has really complied?” asked the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence issues.

You wouldn’t know if he had turned it all over, but you would be able tell if he or his minions carried out more major gas attacks.  It would be great if you could get an outcome where he actually doesn’t have any chemical weapons, but that’s not even what the punitive strikes already envisioned were supposed to bring about.  The point was to lower the likelihood that they would continue to be used (and/or deter others …).  So verifying compliance on that crucial question shouldn’t be any more of an issue than it already was.

The use of military force is costly and risky for both sides, usually, and this means that there should be deals both sides would prefer to rolling the iron dice (I wrote about this here, gated though).  In some cases, one or both sides has no interest in trying to find such a deal because it anticipates that the adversary would subsequently be in a position to renege on the deal without significant consequence.  For example, the George W. Bush administration didn’t want to try to cut a deal with Saddam Hussein because they didn’t think Saddam could be trusted not to use an end of the sanctions regime, etc, to re-arm and get a nuclear weapons program going again.  Roosevelt and Churchill made unconditional surrender their war aim because they didn’t think any deal with Hitler would be stable in the long run. When these are the concerns, you get wars of regime change.  Here, by contrast, making the deal doesn’t increase Assad’s capability to break it and get away with it in the future.  So it’s a different sort of situation and one where a bargain should be feasible.  But a bargain requires a proposal.

[By the way:  In the International Relations literature, Andrew Coe has an interesting account of the 2003 Iraq war that stresses how commitment problems made bargaining beside the point for the Bush administration.   Alex Weisiger’s new book Logics of War:  Explanations for Limited and Unlimited Conflicts argues that big, destructive wars are usually wars of regime change driven by commitment problems like those just mentioned.  The situation is different here both because it’s not clear that the administration would want the Assad regime to disappear if the only route was total collapse, and because what they want him to do (stop using chemical weapons) doesn’t involve the sort of commitment problem that drives wars of regime change.]

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“Credibility” is not everything but it’s not nothing either

In the deluge of blogospheric commentary on the administration’s massive Syria problem, you see a lot of extreme positions on the question of whether it is important to use force to uphold Obama’s or the US’s “credibility.”  Advocates of intervention (who are relatively few) often argue that this is a critical consideration (eg, Walter Russell Mead, or John Kerry).  Opponents argue that maintaining credibility is in general a crazy reason to use military force (eg, Andrew Sullivan, Conor Friedersdorf, Jim Manzi, Stephen Walt, among many others).  Maybe it’s boring to say, but both extreme positions are wrong.  Credibility, or following through on previous diplomatic commitments, should clearly not be the only consideration but neither should it be completely disregarded.

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If science tells you you can’t predict something, is it no longer science?

The NYT ran an op-ed last week by philosophers of Science Alex Rosenberg and Tyler Curtain that said that (1) economics is not a capital-S Science because it has no “record of improvement in predictive success” and (2) therefore the next Fed chair should be someone who understands that economics is not a capital-S Science and instead has “wisdom” and “a feeling for the economy.”  (Interestingly, experience was not mentioned, which you’d think would be more important the more the job is a matter of craft, as R and C say, than of book learning, which is mainly what Ben Bernanke had.  R and C applaud Bernanke for his craft.)

Harvard Econ theorist Eric Maskin wrote a letter in reply and then NYT did a “Room for Debate” exchange between Maskin and other readers.  Maskin made the point that explanation can be valuable and scientific independent of whether it leads to sharp predictions in some particular domain.  But most of the readers the Times printed were not buying this at all—for them, sufficient evidence that Economics is not a capital-S Science is that it can’t predict stock market movements and crashes reliably.  Rosenberg and Curtain also seem to have this in mind as the key example.

But what you could reasonably call a scientific thought experiment is enough to show that you can’t have a Scientific Theory that reliably predicts stock market movements and crashes:  If such a theory existed that predicted a giant market collapse on date T, the collapse wouldn’t happen on date T.  Ditto for forecasting market movements from publicly available data.  In the long run, or “in equilibrium” in the sense of the developed formal models of this kind of thing, market movements and crashes should be random or unpredictable based on public information.  Yes, that’s an “idealization,” and an idealization that R and C obliquely criticize at the end of their op-ed.  But it’s an idealization that provides an important and valid insight into the kind of system an asset market is.

The reply by reader David Berman raises this issue indirectly, but he concludes that it means that Economics can’t be a “proper” capital-S Science (“if only we could [predict market crashes] without the prediction’s entirely changing the behavior of the markets! That’s the other critical difference between economics and meteorology, or physics, or any of the disciplines we properly call scientific”).  I read what R and C are saying the same way, although it’s less spelled out there.  But can that be right?  I would have thought the argument should be that scientific inquiry has clarified the reasons for why a theory that predicts specific market movements or crashes is difficult, or impossible in the long run, in contrast to theories of simple physical systems.  In other words it’s not so much a case of inappropriate hubris of Economics in trying to be like Physics, but of a scientific effort producing a better and deeper understanding of why this sort of system (an asset market, here) is different from a physical system that doesn’t have agents that condition what they do on expectations about what others will do.

Of course, not all markets—or economic, political, or social interactions—have this specific dynamic that asset markets have, so the difficulties in predicting the stock market from public information do not imply that you can’t develop theory that makes reasonably good predictions in other areas (eg., basic supply and demand analysis for prices and quantities).  R and C were making a reasonable point about choosing Fed chairs.  Sure, I’d like someone who is wise and not rigidly attached to some particular mathematical idealization.  But the broader line of argument seems wrong.

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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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Militaries: An industry in decline


Apropos of nothing in particular that’s in the news (except maybe this), here is a graph of how two measures of military effort have evolved from 1945 to 2007, by region.  (I’m working on a project that has gotten me mired in available data on military spending and force sizes, and I just thought this was interesting.)

The black line is the average across countries of military spending as a percentage of GDP, using the Correlates of War (COW) estimate of total spending divided by World Bank GDP figures (which only start in 1960).  The red line is the average across countries of armed forces per 1,000 population, again using COW estimates.

You see really striking long-run declines in the West, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and Asia.  In these areas it almost looks as if demobilization from World War II has taken place gradually and over 60+ years.  In Latin America and North Africa/Middle East,  you see pretty striking declines since the end of the Cold War, and perhaps some decline in subSaharan Africa since around 2000.

Why the long-run declines?  Many factors, surely, but on the international side it’s plausible to credit the disappearance of intense conflict among the militarily strongest states, which completely dominated international politics before 1946.  US-Soviet conflict was pretty intense into the mid-1960s, but since then the major powers have been less and less concerned about being invaded by each other.  I’d credit the nuclear revolution above all else, although there’s a lot of debate on this question and even without nukes there are probably other things that have been pushing in the same direction.  Such as, perhaps, democracy …

On the domestic side of things, there is pretty good evidence that the spread of democracy has been a significant factor.  Not worth getting into the details here, but if you look at the data country by country you find that on average, when countries transition to democracy their military spending and army sizes go down, quite substantially.*  In fact they tend to go down when they transition from very autocratic to only somewhat autocratic (that is, to “anocracies”, or semi-democracies using the Polity data).  The effect of a democratic transition on arms levels in the state in which the transition occurs looks to be larger than the effect of transitions in neighbors on a state’s own military spending, although this is hard to be sure about statistically due to endogeneity issues.  I would guess that most of the democracy effect is a domestic matter—for instance, autocracies want bigger militaries to help put down domestic opposition or to pay off cronies, or democracies want smaller militaries to lower coup threats—but some of it might also be an international effect.  That is, if democracies want smaller militaries then this could reduce the demand for big armies in their neighbors.

The graph also shows some interesting variation across regions.  E. Europe/FSU and N. Africa/Middle East stand out for high levels of military spending during the Cold War, though both now appear to be converging towards the rest of the world (except maybe for army sizes in the Middle East).

Update:  Mark in comments asked what the data for the US looks like, so at risk of the Wrath of Gelman I’ve added these to the graph for the West.  We spend and hire considerably more than other countries, both in absolute terms (which is well known, I think), and relative to GDP and population (maybe less so).  Note also the upward movement following 9/11, especially in military burden.

Cleaner pdf version here:  milburbyregion


*This is based on models with country and year fixed effects, so it’s probably not just that there is a coincidental global trend up in democracy and down in arms spending.  Benjamin Goldsmith reported the same pattern concerning democracy and the military spending in his 2003 JCR article “Bearing the Defense Burden,” (gated), looking at data from 1869-1989 (though he didn’t include time fixed effects in his model).


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Is the US fighting one war, or four?

Linda Blimes and Michael Intriligator ask the surprising (relative to NYT, WP discourse) and interesting question “How Many Wars is the US Fighting Today?” in a short paper that is unfortunately gated.  The gist of it:

In addition to these two large-scale conflicts [Iraq and Afghanistan, as of late 2011] the US is also fighting a number of unannounced and undeclared “wars”. These unannounced wars are fought mainly with air power and increasingly with drones rather than ground troops. If we define war to include conflicts where the US is launching extensive military incursions, including drone attacks, but that are not officially “declared,” then the US is directly involved in at least three wars – in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia – in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan. These unannounced wars follow in the tradition of many previous covert US military incursions, such as in Chile, Cuba, and Nicaragua. The difference is that advanced military technology now enables the US to fight such wars in a different way, which is far less transparent, and to sustain operations over several years.

The comparison to Cold War covert “incursions” is apt, though I don’t think they were far more transparent than our current drone wars.  Moreover, they were arguably less “U.S. wars” than Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia today, because in these recent cases U.S. military (and CIA) personnel are actual trigger pullers on a scale much larger than they were in Chile, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the like.

But is it a war if one side doesn’t have a lot of troops on the ground at risk of getting killed?  And what if the targets are technically civilians and not uniformed troops of the country where they live?  These are reasons why it’s at least not perfectly obvious that these conflicts should be termed “wars” in the traditional sense.   So yes, there are some differences, but as Blimes and Intriligator suggest, there is at a minimum a strong family resemblance as well.  At great cost and a high level of mobilization, the US military is engaged in killing large numbers of presumed combatants (with much collateral damage) who live in countries whose governments may object to the practice.  That’s plausibly described as a war.

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How is the ICC supposed to work?

I just got back from a fascinating week in Rwanda with a great group of graduate students in Stanford’s International Policy Studies program.  One of the hot conversation topics was Bosco Ntaganda’s surprise appearance at the US Embassy in Kigali on March 18 and his subsequent departure for the International Criminal Court.  In 2006, the ICC indicted  Ntaganda for war crimes he is alleged to have committed in eastern DRC in 2002 and 2003.  The ICC has no police force, however, and Ntaganda remained at large continuing to fight and commit egregious human rights abuses.  So his arrest and appearance at the Hague has been widely commented on as a big win for the ICC.  A “Victory for Justice” as Human Rights Watch put it.

In an abstract sense—or thinking about “justice” independent of the consequences of the ICC as an international institution—I can see the argument that, yes, this is a victory for justice.  Typical one-line summary statements of the rationale for the ICC is that its purpose is to “end impunity” for big-time human rights abusers, including government leaders and officials.  The ICC is said to be about creating “accountability” for a class of criminals who have not faced prosecution and punishment in the past.

One could argue for such an institution independent of whether it has any good consequences beyond satisfaction that victims and others take at seeing people like Ntaganda in the dock.  But in the next breath supporters of the ICC usually make the argument that “ending impunity” and creating accountability will have the good effect of reducing human rights abuses by increasing deterrence.   The model that advocates have in mind is exactly that of policing and domestic crime:  If you increase the probability of prosecution and punishment for committing certain crimes, the total amount of these crimes should go down.

But the domestic analogy doesn’t work here because as noted the ICC has no police force.  Instead it relies on states that are party to the ICC to hand over any indictees they happen to come across, or, as in the Ntaganda case, on voluntary surrenders.  The implications of this difference aren’t immediately obvious.  But there are good reasons to think that they include the possibility that the ICC will have no effect on reducing abuses or might even increase them.  There are two main ways this can happen.

First, the ICC option can actually limit the liability of human right abusers, to the extent that they can choose whether to turn themselves in.  Ntaganda’s case is a great example of this.  He almost surely turned himself in because his option in the DRC had recently become worse.  He lost a fight with another faction of his M23 group and would very likely have been killed had he stayed in DRC.  (It’s possible that this decision was made for him by some higher powers—that is, “go to the ICC and keep your mouth shut or we will kill you here”—but the implication is basically the same for limited liability.)

So is that a great victory for the ICC?  His surrender ends the embarrassment of having Ntaganda on the loose committing more crimes, but if the general principle is, The ICC is a way to save yourself from death if things get too hot, then the institution is potentially encouraging, not deterring, human rights abuses.   Continue Reading →

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The unbelievable lightness of some African states

Anjan Sundaram writes in Foreign Policy about the dangers posed by rebel group M23 in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  They are fighting in a conflict that he says “threatens to redraw the map of Africa.”   M23 are “powerful” , “well-equipped and professional.”  They put on “a remarkable show of force over the weekend to move within a few kilometers of the provincial capital, Goma.”  After Sundaram’s article was posted, M23 went on to take over Goma and then started making noises about continuing all the way to Kinshasa, 1000 miles to the East, to take over the country.  This prospect was deemed credible in various news articles covering the conflict.

Well, you might think, surely this must be a very powerful rebel group, with tens of thousands of disciplined fighters, if they can roll over units of 40,000 strong Congolese army, backed to some limited extent by units of the 17,000 strong UN peacekeeping force, and plausibly threaten to go all the way to Kinshasa?  Nope.  According to Sundaram, “In the end, some 3,000 Congolese soldiers, backed by hundreds of U.N. peacekeepers with air power, were unable to contain M23 forces numbering in the few hundreds” (emphasis added).

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