Classroom Activity: Commitment Problems

11 April 2014, 1341 EDT

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.”

As usual, I broke the activity up into two parts. This is particularly useful for capturing the tension between short run and long run incentives that lie at the heart of commitment problems.

In the first stage, they were assigned the part of a rebel group who is offered seemingly reasonable terms by the government. The catch, however, is that they were asked to disarm.

This didn’t give them enough information to see why that’s a bad idea. So it came as no surprise to me that many accepted. (It also didn’t surprise me that many did not. As the last activity demonstrated, fairly predictably, most students behave as aggressively as allowed, even when they’ve no incentive to do so, at least when participating in classroom activities that thankfully don’t spill any blood.) At any rate, I very deliberately set things up so that this first stage has minimal impact on their grade. I hope the description of what happens in the second stage still gets the point across, but I figured there’d be a lot of frustration if the peaceful path was punished egregiously when they weren’t even given information about the second stage yet.

In the second stage, the rebels have put themselves in a position where accepting an agreement won’t leave them so vulnerable. Though I didn’t get into specifics about expected seat shares or anything, which I think would only have distracted them, I think the information provided was enough to signal to those who understand the general logic of commitment problems that there no longer was one, since the rebels had held out long enough, and done well enough, that the only agreement the government could expect them to prefer to continued fighting in the short run would have no more than modest implications for their long run security. My sense is that some of them failed to connect the dots, unfortunately. Despite my best efforts, some students continue to see these activities as kinda fun but mostly annoying gotcha games that don’t really relate to anything (besides their grades). However, it did seem like a fair number of them were receptive to the claim that this helps us understand why civil wars tend to last so much longer than interstate wars (which seldom end with anyone being asked to disarm), and could also see how the mechanism at work here is basically identical to the one I argued in the lecture can cause preventive wars.