Why is war puzzling? What rationalist explanations can resolve the puzzle? Why?
What are the limitations of the bargaining theories? (*)
Fearon aims to show that “ex-post inefficiency of war opens up an ex-ante bargaining range” (p. 390).
Rules of the game (complete information).
- Randomly assign the probability of winning (to simply, how many candies each side can win).
- Each side draws and shows their respective “cost of war” (how many candies they need to pay after fighting a war).
- Both sides are fully informed of the above information. Side A chooses an offer (i.e. an ultimatum), side B decides to accept or reject it. If B chooses to reject the deal, the negotiation ends and both sides engage in war.
Spice it up (incomplete information).
- Each side draws but does not reveal their respective costs.
- Both sides can talk and negotiate before deciding whether to strike a deal. But again, the costs cannot be revealed.
Some points to work through in the activity.
Central puzzle. Plus private information.
“War can occur despite complete agreement on relative power across states.”
Fearon (1995, p.380) argues
“(I)t is not enough to say that under anarchy nothing stops states from using force, or that anarchy forces states to rely on self-help, which engenders mutual suspicion and (through spirals or the security dilemma) armed conflict. Neither do diverse references to miscalculation, deterrence failure because of inadequate forces or incredible threats, preventive and preemptive considerations, or free-riding in alliances amount to theoretically coherent rationalist explanations for war.”
Let us unpack a bit about the critique.
Anarchy and the related security dilemma or spiral arguments do not address the central puzzle at all. The core of the arguments is that because of anarchy states need to rely on themselves to seek security. In improving their own security, they also make other states feel less secure and adversaries more likely to respond (which ultimately results in less security for these states). There are two possibilities here. First, states choosing to ramp up their arming did not anticipate the outcome, then this is more of a miscalculation explanation rather than anarchy. Second, if states anticipate the reaction, then the arguments are deadlocked. As a side note, Fearon suggests that conventional theories suggest anarchy can result in a security dilemma or conflict spiral because states cannot fully observe others’ motivations or that motivations can change (for more, read p. 401). If we apply the same rationalist critique to this reason, we would wonder why states can’t just reveal their true intentions to others. Moreover, even if states can observe each others’ motivations with certainty, preventive wars can still arise due to states’ incentives to renege.
Miscalculation of resolve or power. There are three possibilities of miscalculation: irrationality, bounded rationality, and private information. From a rationalist perspective, only the third explanation aligns with the standard definition of rationality. Following the reasoning that states miscalculate due to private information of their power or resolve, the question derived from the central puzzle is: what precludes states from sharing the private information which can help them avoid war? Note that this is the main critique Fearon has for these two related conventional rationalist/neorealist theories of war. Because without answering the question, the central puzzle is still not fully addressed. The explanation Fearon offers is that rational states always have to engage in this risk-return trade-off. Although states can reduce the risk of war by sharing their private information, the downside is this also reduces the potential benefits (e.g. reducing the likelihood of winning). A rational state “may choose to run a real risk of (inefficient) war in order to signal that it will fight if not given a good deal in bargaining” (p. 397). Buying into this rational framework, we can deduce that there could be at least two important mechanisms of why states choose to fight. First, states may choose to fight to build a reputation (for having low costs or more vital interests). Second, war can be a credible means to reveal private information about one’s military prowess.
Preemptive war. Fearon suggests preemptive wars can generate commitment problems if an offensive side does enjoy higher odds of winning. He acknowledges this is probably important in a few cases. But it is not first-strike and offensive strategies “make mobilization and attack a dominant strategy” (i.e. not because it eliminates the bargaining range, see p.403). Instead, his conjecture is that it narrows the bargaining range (i.e. the possible deals both states can agree on). For more on the historical record, see Reiter (1995).
Preventive war. This is empirically “more prevalent and important” (p.404). Fearon argues that preventive war can be properly understood as “a commitment problem occasioned by anarchy” (p.405). The intuition is that if we think of states as engaging in potentially infinite bargaining over time, then power shifts can lead to different deals that states are willing to strike across different time periods. Commitment problems can arise (under anarchy which means there is no third party to enforce a deal) if adverse power shits are too large relative to the costs of war. For more discussions, see Powell (2006). There are several additional points that Fearon further stresses. First, preventive war can happen despite an agreement with relative power. Second, declining states attack not because of fear of being attacked but of the peace it will have to swallow. Third, lack of trust is not about states’ current or future motivations (as in security dilemma or spiral conflict). It is instead occasioned by “a structure of preferences and opportunities, that gives one party an incentive to renege” (p.406).
Reiter (2003). What are the theoretical limitations of the bargaining theory of war?
Gartzke & Poast (2017). What are the empirical limitations of the bargaining theory of war?
Had Russia been a democracy, would the current Russia-Ukraine war still have broken out? (*)
We will begin with a group activity summarizing the rationalist explanations for war. In doing so, we will revisit some of the jargon. We can also visit some of the lingering questions/comments of Fearon (1995).
- Bargaining space
- Risk-return trade-off
We will then discuss our critique of the bargaining theory.
- Deterrence theory and spiral model (security dilemma)
- Cognitive psychological biases.
“(R)evelation of information about the opponent during peacetime ought not significantly reduce the likelihood of war breaking out, and that revelation of information about the opponent during wartime ought not significantly reduce the likelihood of war ending … that cognitive and motivated biases are likely to swamp clear-headed thinking during war.” — Reiter(2003, p.34)
Organization theory. There can be three general critiques: organizational rigidity, military entrepreneurship, and different metrics to measure success. Organizational rigidity might prevent states from correctly interpreting others’ signals or recognizing their own failures. Active military entrepreneurship can add to states’ existing military capacity and change their military strategies. And actors across both sides or within a single side may not interpret the same battle outcome in a similar way. These can slow down or even preclude the two opposing sides from reaching convergence of their expectations (i.e. opening up the bargaining space).
Domestic politics. There could be several domestic factors that can extend the bargaining theory. First, regime types may shift states’ calculation on costs of conflict (e.g. democracy or sensitivity to election). States may also have incentives to gamble for resurrection (leaders more fearful of punishment), to divert domestic attention, and to rally citizens’ support around the flag.
Constructivism. Constructivists sees war as best explained by norms and culture (e.g. international culture or taboos against using nuclear weapons). War can also serve the function of generating or reinforcing group/national identity.
Gartzke & Poast frame the work of empirically testing the bargaining model in two directions:
Bargaining as a paradigm. Scholars build “richer theories” for empirical investigation.
Bargaining as a theory. If so, scholars should directly test the theory’s implications and answer important questions such as whether, how much, and what type of uncertainty would cause war.
With the latter direction in mind, let us take a step back and think about whether and how uncertainty (and maybe also balance of power) would cause war.
Ukraine war accelerates the stealth erosion of dollar dominance. See also Adam Tooze’s take here: The new buttresses of the dollar system and here: The Rise and Fall and Rise (and Fall) of the U.S. Financial Empire The dollar is dead. Long live the dollar