Tag: unipolarity

What Caused the Iraq War? Debs and Monteiro reply to Lake

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Alexandre Debs and Nuno P. Monteiro, both of Yale University. In it, they discuss the causes of the Iraq War, a subject of some recent discussion at The Duck of Minerva. This (surprise) third installment responds to David Lake’s post, which itself was an engagement with Debs’ and Monteiro’s article–and its summary post at The Duck of Minerva.

We thank David Lake for writing a thoughtful response, Daniel Nexon for offering a platform to discuss this important issue, and readers of The Duck of Minerva and The Monkey Cage for engaging our argument.

As Lake mentions in his response, we share many views. Here, we’ll just focus on our differences, which also seem to underlie several reactions by readers in the comments to our initial post. We would also like to offer some points of clarification. We’ll center on three topics, from the most empirical to the most theoretical: how much of the Iraq War our theory explains; our contribution to the ‘rationalist’ framework; and the status of ‘rationality’ in IR theory more generally. Let us address these in turn.

The causes of the Iraq War

The first point on which we’d like to elaborate is to clarify what our theory does and does not do about Iraq. Is it a complete account of the run-up to the Iraq War? Of course not. In claiming that the Iraq war can be explained within the rationalist framework (i.e., without requiring that actors act in non-rational ways), we do not claim to capture all the features of the case. No theory — no useful theory — can provide a complete explanation of a phenomenon as complex as a war. Theories are useful when they highlight important aspects of a certain phenomenon, shedding light on dynamics that were previously in the dark and allowing for comparisons between different cases.

Like all social scientists, we constantly have to decide the proper balance between close description of a case and applicability to other (“out-of-sample”) cases. There is no magical solution to this, and reasonable people can reasonably disagree. We strove to find what was, in our view, the minimally sufficient description of the case that had the potential to generate generalizable claims about the causes of war.

Our theoretical view is that, first, as states become less certain of detecting other states’ militarization attempts, war becomes more likely; and, second, for any given level of uncertainty about this, as the cost of a preventive war lowers relative to the shift in the balance of power it is meant to avoid, war becomes more likely.

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What Caused the Iraq War? David Lake Replies to Debs and Monteiro

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by David Lake, who is the Jerri-Ann and Gary E. Jacobs Professor of Social Sciences and Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego. It responds to an article published in International Organization by Alex Debs and Nuno Monteiro. Their post on the subject appeared yesterday. The article will be ungated for approximately two weeks.

Known Unknowns,” by Alex Debs and Nuno Monteiro (DM), newly released electronically by International Organization in advance of its publication this fall, is an important addition to the bargaining theory of war and adds new insights to the causes of the Iraq War of 2003. Since DM challenge several points in my International Security article (PDF) on bargaining theory and the Iraq War, let me respond briefly.

The key innovation in the model is that investments in military capabilities by the Target (T, Iraq in the case) produce changes in the probability of military victory only with some lag, thus openning a window for the Deterer (D, the U.S.) to launch a preventive war. The lower the costs of war, the more uncertain D is about T’s program, and the more effective the war is likely to be in eliminating the threat to D, the greater the chance of preventive war and the greater the likelihood that the war will be mistaken. This is a nice addition to the basic bargaining model with important implications that go beyond the Iraq case on which the theory is based.

From the outset, I want to clarify that we agree far more than we disagree, including about the central tension between Iraq and the U.S., the effects of 9/11 on the timing of the Iraq War, and the difference between Iraq and North Korea. Debs and Monteiro engage in the product differentiation usual in academic scholarship — highlighting differences rather than commonalities — but the latter are large and overwhelm the points of disagreement, in my view. Continue reading


What Caused the Iraq War? A Debate. Part 1 of 2

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Alexandre Debs and Nuno P. Monteiro, both of Yale University. In it, they discuss the causes of the Iraq War, a subject of some recent discussion at The Duck of Minerva. This post discusses their forthcoming International Organization article, which is now available as an “online first” piece and will be free to download for the next two weeks. Tomorrow we will run a response by David Lake [now available here].

In a forthcoming article in International Organization,Known Unknowns: Power Shifts, Uncertainty, and War,” we introduce a new theory connecting power shifts to war. Out theory provides novel answers to these questions on Iraq. Contrary to widely shared views according to which the war was caused by misperceptions and other irrational behaviors on the part of Saddam Hussein and the Bush Administration, we argue that the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq can be accounted for strictly within a rationalist framework.

Below we make four specific points on the causes of the Iraq War and then contrast our view with David Lake’s International Security article “Two Cheers for Bargaining Theory: Assessing Rationalist Explanations of the Iraq War” (PDF), where he argues that the Iraq War should prompt a behavioral revolution in the study of the causes of war. We conclude with brief implications for theory and policy.

Our Argument

Our first point is that the United States’ main motivation for invading Iraq on March 20, 2003, was to prevent suspected Iraqi nuclearization, which Washington thought would bring about a large and rapid shift in the balance of power in favor of Iraq. During the run-up to the invasion, the U.S. government’s casus belli rested on suspicion that Saddam was developing WMD — including nuclear weapons — thus presenting an imminent threat. Iraq’s nuclear acquisition would represent a large and rapid power shift that would make Saddam immune to any externally-driven regime-change efforts, ending his vulnerability to U.S. military action. The cost of war against a non-nuclear Iraq, in contrast, was expected to be relatively low, as U.S. forces would, given the precedent of the 1991 Gulf War, no doubt prevail. Specifically, the cost of a preventive counter-proliferation war against Iraq was expected to be orders of magnitude smaller than the expected cost of deterring, not to mention deposing a nuclear-armed Saddam. This difference accounts for U.S. insistence in guaranteeing Iraqi non-nuclear status, if necessary by force. Continue reading


The Peculiar Stability of Instability

The caption for this photo is, no joke,
“All the experts posing for a group photo after the event.”
So, here’s all the experts.

Conventional wisdom from a foreign-policy expert:

It is one of the truisms of our time that because of the sensational development of communications and transportation, the globe has shrunk with distances between formerly far-away countries having been reduced to mere hours of flight time. We all pay continuous lip service to the axiom that the hallmark, today, of relations among States, even among continents, is interdependence rather than independence. But while every political writer and speaker belabors this point ad nauseum, we actually deal with the Mideast, Latin America, the Atlantic Region, Eastern Europe, NE Asia, and SE Asia as if we were still living in the WW-II era when it was realistic and feasible to speak of a European, an India-Burma-China, a Pacific “Strategic Theater” as essentially separate and autonomous. …

  • In the Middle East … moderate [pro-U.S.] Arab governments are under increasing pressure.
  • In Europe, NATO is in a state of malaise, accentuated by our shifting policies over the last 10 years. Europeans are increasingly concerned about isolationist currents within the U.S.
  • In Asia, as you saw on your trip, leaders are concerned about the future U.S. role there.

The lesson one can draw from it is not that we can fight this trend on every issue. But foreign policy depends on an accumulation of nuances, and no opponent of ours can have much reason to believe that we will stick to our position on the issues which divide us. When the Taliban compares our negotiating position on Afghanistan now with that of 18 months ago, it must conclude that it can achieve its goals simply by waiting. Beijing must reach the same conclusion. …

This then is the overall image of the US as a reluctant giant: seeking peace and reconciliation almost feverishly, withdrawing forces not in one but in many parts of the world, tired of using its physical power and firmly resolved to cut existing commitments and keep out, for a very long time to come, of any confrontation that might lead to any military involvement.

All right. Cheap trick: This is really a memorandum from “an acquaintance” of Henry Kissinger sent to President Nixon in 1969. I changed a few words — “Hanoi” to “Taliban,” “Afghanistan” to “Vietnam,” and “Moscow” to “Beijing”–but the overall sense of pessimism and gloom is the same as you find in certain quarters of the foreign policy community today.

Reading over the full memorandum, what is striking is not just the impressive racism of the piece (did you know the Latin temperament is fiery? It is!) but also the continuity of concerns. Arab/Israeli conflict? Check! Rising China causing problems with U.S. allies? Check! Worries about European burden sharing (and their worrying about U.S. policy)? Double check! Other governments using U.S. policies to justify their own actions (anti-terrorism now, anti-Communism then)? Triple check! And, behind it all, the idea of the United States as a shriveled, retreating power–an idea that definitely has currency today.

This is important for three reasons:

  • If you’re not familiar with Cold War history, the notion of U.S. relative decline during the Cold War may be unfamiliar to you. But we have been here before, and the debates about declinism are proceeding along familiar paths. (Robert Lieber’s new book about declinism is useful for its able recapping of previous generations’ declinism debates even if you’re skeptical about the book’s central hypothesis.)
  • Although the Cold War is almost uncritically presented in most intro IR courses as a period of bipolarity, the similarity of today’s declinism debates (during a period usually described as unipolar) to those that took place more than forty years ago should raise questions about whether we’ve misclassified one, or both, of those periods.
  • Viewed from our perspective, the central point of the memorandum is wrong: the United States has unequivocally retreated from the commitments it made during the height of the Cold War (just ask Nguyen Van Thieu and the Shah) but troop drawdowns, the suspension of the draft, retrenchments of commitments to allies, and so forth didn’t lead to a breakdown of global order; quite the opposite. Were we lucky? Was After Hegemony right? Do we have a particularly persuasive explanation to make to the author of this essay about why, forty years later, a relatively less wealthy United States (as a share of global GDP) nonetheless commands a relatively greater share of the world’s military potential?

Quarter-Baked Idea: The Post-Cold War Concert System

This is the first in what may become an occasional series. Over the last year or two, I’ve drifted out of regular blogging. The usual excuses apply: too much work and not enough energy. I am so badly behind on a number of book chapters, manuscript revisions, and the like that the simple act of writing this explanation feels like a misuse of my time. Well, anyway, so my notion is this: write short posts designed to provoke discussion of various issues in international relations and international-relations theory. We’ll see if it works.

For the last decade or more, unipolarity has been the basic framework in security studies for understanding contemporary international order. We’ve debated about the general stability of unipolarity. We’ve argued about whether the character of American leadership impacts that stability. And we’ve spent–and continue to spend–an enormous amount of time contemplating the power-transition dynamics associated with the rise of China.

I wonder, though, if our unipolarity fixation obscures some important aspects of post-Cold War security order. In the early 1990s another image of world politics seemed plausible: that of a new great-power concert. After all, the United Nations was constructed with an embedded concert architecture via the United Nations Security Council, and the 1991 Gulf War suggested a reinvigoration of that latent aspect of international order.

The standard story is that those hopes were dashed by retreat from Somalia, the Rwanda debacle, NATO expansion, NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, and so forth. Renewed optimism–at least those who favored such an arrangement, including Moscow–after 9/11 quickly gave way to talk of “American Empire” as the Bush Administration mobilized to invade Iraq. Thus, most recent discussions of a great-power concert have been forwarded looking. In essence, foreign-policy pundits debate whether the US should pursue some kind of new capital-c Concert  as the fundamental component of a post-Iraq grand strategy. Sometimes the Concert in question is supposed to be composed of democratic states, and other times not.
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Really Real: Take II on the Chicago IR Guys

In my last post, I offered a friendly critique of Nuno Monteiro’s piece on how unipolarity has been less peaceful than other periods (debatable) and that U.S. power alone explains why minor states feel insecure and trigger conflicts with the unipole (same – the domestic politics of the U.S. and minor states are important in my view).   

In this post, I want to provide a similar albeit friendlier critique to Rosato and Schuessler’s article (not least because Sebastian introduced me and my wife!). Rosato and Schuessler (R&S) make the case that realism can and should be taken as a prescriptive theory to guide U.S. foreign policy, and had their advice been followed, the U.S. might not have had to go to war in World War I and II (essentially a problem of underbalancing in both cases) and wouldn’t have gone to war in Vietnam and Iraq (basically both were unnecessary wars in either strategically unimportant places or areas where deterrence could have worked).

What’s more, R&S make the case that liberal theories held by policymakers (belief in international institutions, support for democracy, promotion of trade) actually made conflict more likely.

Let me offer a few reactions in this post, mostly dealing with their concept of security and controversial claims about World War II.
The starting premise of the article is based on familiar assumptions from structural realism including (1) anarchy (2) the inability to trust the intentions of other states and (3) the uncertainty of outcomes of wars, with weaker powers sometimes winning against stronger adversaries.

Balance, Ignore, Deter
Based on these assumptions, R&S make a number of claims that they suggest should guide U.S. foreign policy. Namely, that the U.S. should balance against potential rival states but ignore minor powers unless they are located in strategically important regions (i.e. those that have important industrial resources or oil). In those cases, the United States should make clear its red lines to deter minor powers from acting against its wishes. What this means in the case of Iran is interesting:

Given the power disparity between the two sides, containment should be a straight-forward matter, and it would be preferable to a preventive war that would at best delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons while inviting almost certain retaliation (813).

Of course, I think this is based on the Waltzian logic that leaders of nuclear weapons states would understand the gravity of the situation and embrace the logic of MAD and ensure the sorts of careful security mechanisms to prevent accidental or hasty first use. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that Iran will be nondeterrable, but I’m not sure if containment will be as straightforward as R&S suggest (though mostly because the United States might not follow their prescriptions and overreact to Iran’s possible acquisition of nuclear weapons).

Before reading the piece, I worried that this would be one of those vacuous articles that suggests prudence and pragmatism are the essence of realism (A quick aside: As a nonrealist, that always drove me crazy that realists could claim pragmatism as their strategic advantage. I mean, who is against pragmatism? It’s like saying I support dumb power. Ok, rant over). There has always been a somewhat protean quality to realist-informed foreign policies, where one could make a good case for contrasting policies and still call oneself a realist. Fortunately, this piece is more consistent and substantive than that.

That said, I have a couple of concerns, stemming from a truncated view of security and a misreading of the WWII case. Let me tackle each of them in turn.

Critique I: Security is More than Deterring Armed Attack by Great Powers
First, I think the piece has an overly restrictive view of what constitutes security, for which balancing behavior and self-help may not be sufficient and for which cooperation, support for trade, multilateral institutions, and cooperation might be necessary.

While I think this piece does a good job laying out what approach states ought to take vis a vis potential state challengers, it doesn’t say much about the kinds of problems that liberals and constructivists frequently write about, economics, health, the environment, or even terrorism. For these kinds of issues, self-help is generally inadequate advice. Indeed, states have to be careful to protect their own national security (narrowly defined as protecting their territorial integrity from armed external attack) while also thinking about other processes that give them long-run material wherewithal to survive, namely economic development.

The structural logic of modern interdependence and capitalism make the economy as if not more important for security as self-help. States need to collaborate through international institutions and multilateral approaches to ensure an open trading regime and financial stability and to protect the commons from pandemic disease, environmental damage, piracy, and terrorism. For these kinds of things, which may not always pose existential threats, unilateral self-help will simply not do. About these things, the piece is largely silent.

What you do about China is not simply about self-help and balancing but also about ensuring the health of the international economic order. There may be trade-offs between the promotion of state security and the stability and vibrancy of the global economy. How to manage such challenges  before China makes its intentions clear about becoming a peer competitor is the essence of grand strategy today.

In the case of terrorism, for domestic political reasons, it won’t be sufficient to downplay the threat as a nuisance that hardly rises to the level of the Soviet Union. That still doesn’t inform policymakers with a coherent strategy of what to do.

Critique II: Was World War II Really Caused by Insufficient Realism?
Second, I think the claim that World War II was caused by underbalancing misses the earlier problem in which insufficient recognition of liberal insights created the conditions for Hitler’s rise. Beggar-thy-neighbor policies on trade made everyone worse off and deepened the Depression, creating possibilities for the emergence of demagogues. Overly punitive German reparations weakened the Weimar Republic and its creaky democracy. Failure by the United States to provide liquidity led to a weak financial system and also contributed to tough economic times (these are familiar arguments for readers of Ruggie, Ikenberry, Kindleberger, among others).

So, while later underbalancing could be said to be a function of insufficient recognition of realist insights, the problem had as much to do with the prior failure to embrace liberal insights.

In sum, while the piece has much to recommend it as policy-relevant scholarship that is theoretically informed and provocative, it still tries to stay too wedded to a rigid defense of a particular -ism, which I think is helpful for creating intellectual distance from others but may be limiting as a guide to actual foreign policy in the 21st century. 


Get Real! Chicago IR guys out in force

In light of the recent exchange on the Duck about Matthew Kroenig’s work on Iran and policy-relevant research, I thought I’d flag a couple of articles from three University of Chicago alums from International Security (where Nuno Monteiro has a piece on unipolarity) and Perspectives on Politics (where Sebastian Rosato and John Schuessler have an article [Ed: behind paywall] prescribing a realist foreign policy for the United States).

While I disagree with a number of their conclusions and theoretical observations, these are the kind of pieces that I think will generate a lot of healthy discussion in the discipline because they are accessible, address important topics in the real world, and yet are theory-driven inquiries. Kudos to them for that!

For our Duck readers, in summarizing their main arguments and conclusions, I wanted to throw out a couple of concerns that stuck out for me. As is my wont on this blog, this is going to take a couple of posts to get out.

Both of these pieces are structural if not in Monteiro’s case unabashedly realist inquiries into the nature of unipolarity and implicitly U.S. foreign policy.

Monteiro’s piece  “Unrest Assured: Why Unipolarity Is Not Peaceful” basically takes issue with Bill Wohlforth’s earlier work on unipolarity and tries to ask a slightly different question. Rather than assess whether unipolarity is stable, he tries to evaluate whether it is peaceful. And his answer is that unipolarity is not at all peaceful and much less peaceful than other periods and then seeks to explain why.

Is Unipolarity Peaceful?
As evidence, Monteiro provides metrics of the number of years during which great powers have been at war. For the unipolar era since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been at war 13 of those 22 years or 59% (see his Table 2 below).

Now, I’ve been following some of the discussion by and about Steven Pinker and Joshua Goldstein’s work that suggests the world is becoming more peaceful with interstate wars and intrastate wars becoming more rare.

I was struck by the graphic that Pinker used in a Wall Street Journal piece back in September that drew on the Uppsala Conflict Data, which shows a steep decline in the number of deaths per 100,000 people. 
How do we square this account by Monteiro of a unipolar world that is not peaceful (with the U.S. at war during this period in Iraq twice, Afghanistan, Kosovo) and Pinker’s account which suggests declining violence in the contemporary period?
Where Pinker is focused on systemic outcomes, Monteiro’s measure merely reflect years during which the great powers are at war. Under unipolarity, there is only one great power so the measure is partial and not systemic. However, Monteiro’s theory aims to be systemic rather than partial. In critiquing Wohlforth’s early work on unipolarity stability, Monteiro notes: 

Wohlforth’s argument does not exclude all kinds of war. Although power preponderance allows the unipole to manage conflicts globally, this argument is not meant to apply to relations between major and minor powers, or among the latter (17).

So presumably, a more adequate test of the peacefulness or not of unipolarity (at least for Monteiro) is not the number of years the great power has been at war but whether the system as a whole is becoming more peaceful under unipolarity compared to previous eras, including wars between major and minor powers or wars between minor powers and whether the wars that do happen are as violent as the ones that came before.

Now, as Ross Douthat pointed out, Pinker’s argument isn’t based on a logic of benign hegemony. It could be that even if the present era is more peaceful, unipolarity has nothing to do with it. Moreover, Pinker may be wrong. Maybe the world isn’t all that peaceful. I keep thinking about the places I don’t want to go to anymore because they are violent (Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Nigeria, Pakistan, etc.)

As Tyler Cowen noted, the measure Pinker uses to suggest violence is a per capita one, which doesn’t get at the absolute level of violence perpetrated in an era of a greater world population. But, if my read of other reports based on Uppsala data is right, war is becoming more rare and less deadly (though later data suggests lower level armed conflict may be increasing again since the mid-2000s).

The apparent violence of the contemporary era may be something of a presentist bias and reflect our own lived experience and the ubiquity of news media. Even if the U.S. has been at war for the better part of unipolarity, the deadliness is declining, even compared with Vietnam, let alone World War II.

Does Unipolarity Drive Conflict?
So, I kind of took issue with the Monteiro’s premise that unipolarity is not peaceful. What about his argument that unipolarity drives conflict? Monteiro suggests that the unipole has three available strategies – defensive dominance, offensive dominance and disengagement – though is less likely to use the third. Like Rosato and Schuessler, Monteiro suggests because other states cannot trust the intentions of other states, namely the unipole, that minor states won’t merely bandwagon with the unipole. Some “recalcitrant” minor powers will attempt to see what they can get away with and try to build up their capabilities. As an aside, in Rosato and Schuessler world, unless these are located in strategically important areas (i.e. places where there is oil), then the unipole (the United States) should disengage.

In Monteiro’s world, disengagement would inexorably lead to instability and draw in the U.S. again (though I’m not sure this necessarily follows), but neither defensive or offensive dominance offer much possibility for peace either since it is U.S. power in and of itself that makes other states insecure, even though they can’t balance against it.

US troops in Afghanistan

A brief version of Monteiro’s argument was posted on Steve Walt’s blog, and I was surprised the piece did not do more to reference balance of threat theory. In Walt’s view, the United States is violence prone because we can be; there is no countervailing power to dissuade us from using our power. Like John Ikenberry, Walt has counseled that we restrain ourselves and moderate our behavior, lest we encourage the kind of balancing behavior that revisionist powers have traditionally inspired. But, Walt’s argument isn’t based on power alone, a host of largely domestic factors have made the U.S. more willing to use force in the unipolar era.

However, in Monteiro’s view, the U.S. power position alone, even where the U.S. seeks to defend the status quo, is enough to generate conflict with “recalcitrant” minor powers. Here, “recalcitrance” seems to be cover for some domestic-level variables, either quixotic or idiosyncratic leadership characteristics by the likes of Saddam and Milosevic or attributes of authoritarian regimes. I’m not sure that U.S. power is doing the work for Monteiro.

Rather, I suspect that aspects of U.S. domestic politics (a la Walt) intersecting with domestic attributes of “recalcitrant” regimes are doing much of the heavy lifting. If we were or become different (practice restraint, focus on the home economic front for a bit) and if the regimes we face become less recalcitrant (post Arab-spring if we’re lucky, post-Kim Jong Il if we’re really lucky and something different in Iran if we’re really, really lucky), then unipolarity is not structurally determined to be violent.

In any case, I enjoyed this piece and understand how difficult it is to draw theoretically and empirically informed conclusions from a single episode in world history. In my next post, I’ll address Rosato and Schuessler’s equally provocative piece that suggests acting more realist might have prevented World War II!


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