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

14 September 2013, 1613 EDT

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!”

With the obvious caveat that events are unfolding rapidly and anything we say today is prone to looking quite silly within a week, I’m going to outline two possibilities. I might be wrong about them—no outlandish bets this time—but I hope this exercise illustrates are more enduring point: the literature on coercive bargaining did not end with Schelling. And there’s a lot more to game theory than chicken and the prisoner’s dilemma. Before one can proclaim that bargaining theory is irrelevant, that interests are irreconcilable, one needs to go just a bit further than that. As a general matter, one cannot dismiss a broad theoretical approach by shooting down the weakest argument associated therewith. (One cannot even dismiss an approach by observing that all published work to date shares a flaw, as I’ve seen others do—if you’re going to say that an entire approach fails, you need to demonstrate that it would be impossible to avoid that flaw while using the approach—and that’s no easy task.)

First, communicating resolve brings one bargaining leverage if and only if one is dealing with an information problem stemming from uncertainty about one’s resolve (and the incentive one has to misrepresent such). This should seem obvious, once stated like that, but this isn’t a trivial point. That Putin proposed a deal only after it became clear that nothing more than an “incredibly small” US intervention was forthcoming, if one was at all, is only puzzling if we assume that what kept Putin from pushing Assad to offer concessions up until that point was a belief that the US wasn’t going to use force. That may be the case. I don’t claim to know the mind of Putin or Assad. But it strikes me as perfectly possible that Putin assumed much the opposite. That all talk of enforcing global taboos was mere pretense for a wider war that would end with regime change. After all, the US invoked lofty liberal principles when justifying its intervention in Libya, but rather than simply preventing a massacre, the US ended up playing the role of rebel air force. And when Saddam Hussein finally started to comply fully with UN weapons inspectors, the US showed no interest in negotiating. One can see how Putin might have come to the conclusion that you can’t believe the US when it says “all we want to do is stop this bad thing from happening; we promise we won’t keep bombing the crap out of you until your government falls and one that’s willing to let us write their constitution for them takes over.  Pinky-swear.”

In other words, the most relevant obstacle to negotiation, up until very recently, might well have been a belief on behalf of Putin and Assad that the US couldn’t be appeased. That they faced a commitment problem stemming from the inability of the US to credibly promise to leave Assad alone if he ceased using chemical weapons. Once debate within the US made it clear that regime change wasn’t the goal, that the US really doesn’t much care how many innocent people are raped and killed so long as they aren’t gassed, everything changed. The lack of resolve signaled by the US might have served to convince Putin and Assad that the US could be bought off, and relatively cheaply.

More relevant than Schelling, then, would be this piece by Wolford, Carrubba, and Reiter (gated), which demonstrates that developments which would bring about a negotiated agreement in a world characterized strictly by information problems may instead shut down the possibility of negotiation if the actors are uncertain over whether they face a commitment problem. While the game they analyze has but two players, the basic logic still applies. If there is uncertainty over whether a commitment problem exists, revealing that it does not will facilitate agreement.

The other explanation for this seemingly strange development, which is related to the one above but is nonetheless distinct, focuses on how little Assad is giving up. After all, it’s only surprising that the US could “win” concessions by appearing weak if you think the US actually has won significant concessions. Assad’s willingness to give up his chemical weapons is only surprising if we think he really needed them to remain in power. (Or if we assume that he cares more about the weapons themselves than the outcome of the war—but come on.) There are good reasons to doubt this. We don’t even know that Assad ordered the chemical weapons attack that sparked serious discussion of intervention. Even if we assume that Assad has ordered chemical weapons attacks, the motivation may have been to render his remaining supporters culpable in a war crime so they’d find it harder to defect. In the words of Dan Trombly, chemical weapons “simply are not very effective outside of certain battlefield circumstances.” If further use of chemical weapons will bring little tactical advantage, and if the recent attack served to wed Assad’s remaining supporters to him, then it’s not much of a concession for Assad to surrender them. Obviously if he saw no value to them whatsoever, he wouldn’t need prompting from Russia, but even so, we shouldn’t be too quick to think the US has coerced anyone into anything all that dramatic. Especially since Russia is increasing its support of Assad through the provision of conventional weapons.

Put differently, recent events in the US may have revealed the possibility of issue-linkage. For the Obama administration, the primary goal now appears to be claiming to have upheld a global norm prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. For Putin and Assad, the primary goal has always been keeping Assad in power. If Assad ends up surrendering his chemical weapons while acquiring additional conventional ones from Russia, if the deal struck today holds, everyone will get what they want most. That a negotiated agreement only became possible when it became clear that the two sides placed very different weights on the two dimensions over which they were simultaneously bargaining is perfectly consistent with bargaining theory.

In short, I agree with Steve that focusing too much on generating commitments and communicating resolve can be counter-productive. But as I said above, there’s more to bargaining than Schelling.