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UCSD POLI 247B - Military Coercion in Interstate Crises

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American Political Science Review Vol. 99, No. 4 November 2005Military Coercion in Interstate CrisesBRANISLAV L. SLANTCHEV University of California–San DiegoMilitary mobilization simultaneously sinks costs, because it must be paid for regardless of theoutcome, and ties hands, because it increases the probability of winning should war occur.Existing studies neglect this dualism and cannot explain signaling behavior and tacit bargainingwell. I present a formal model that incorporates both functions and shows that many existing conclusionsabout crisis escalation have to be qualified. Contrary to models with either pure sunk costs or tying-handssignaling, bluffing is possible in equilibrium. General monotonicity results that relate the probability ofwar to an informed player’s expected payoff from fighting do not extend to this environment with itsendogenous distribution of power. Peace may involve higher military allocations than war. Rationaldeterrence models also assume that a commitment either does or does not exist. Extending these, I showhow the military instrument can create commitments and investigate the difficulties with communicatingthem.In an international crisis, states make demandsbacked by threats to use force. Although thesethreats can be explicit in diplomatic communica-tions, they will not generally carry much weight unlesssubstantiated by some show of force—–military mea-sures designed to convey the commitment to resort toarms if one’s demands are not satisfactorily met. Tohave an impact, this commitment must be credible; itmust be in one’s interest to carry out the threat if theopponent refuses to comply. In an environment wherestates possess private information about their valua-tions, capabilities, or costs, credibility can be estab-lished by actions that a state unwilling to fight would notwant, or would not dare, to take. Military moves, such asarms buildups, troop mobilizations, and deploymentsto the potential zone of operations, can alter incen-tives in a crisis by changing one’s expected payoff fromthe use of force. These are tacit bargaining moves thatcan restructure the strategic context thereby creatingand possibly signaling one’s commitments while under-mining those of the opponent. How can states use themilitary instrument to establish commitments, and howdoes the nature of the instrument affect their ability tocommunicate them credibly to their adversaries?There are two distinct mechanisms for credible sig-naling. In economic models, information can be trans-mitted reliably by sinking costs—–actors burn money toreveal that they value the disputed issue even more. Incontrast, theories of interstate crisis bargaining usuallyrely on choices that increase the difference betweenbacking down and fighting—–actors tie their hands byrunning higher risks of war to reveal their resolve. Thefirst mechanism involves costs that actors pay regard-less of outcome, and the second involves costs thatactors pay only if they fail to carry out some threat orpromise.Branislav L. Slantchev is Assistant Professor, Department of PoliticalScience, 9500 Gilman Drive, University of California, San Diego, LaJolla, CA 92093-0521 ([email protected]).I am especially grateful to Robert Powell for extensive discussions.I thank James Morrow, David Lake, Jaehoon Kim, Joel Watson, HeinGoemans, Randall Stone, and Songying Fang for useful suggestions.Support from the National Science Foundation (Grant SES-0518222)is gratefully acknowledged. Finally, thanks go to Robert Walker andKris Ramsay for clarifying the Chinese robot issue.Military actions have both cost-sinking and hands-tying effects, and so it is imperative that our theoriesaccount for them properly. Focusing only on the cost-sinking role has led scholars to dismiss mobilizationas a useful signaling device (Fearon 1997; Jervis 1970;Rector 2003), shifting the focus to mechanisms thathave hands-tying effects. Domestic audience costs arethe most prominent example of such a signaling mech-anism (Fearon 1994) and much work has been doneon exploring the role of public commitments.1Becauseopen political contestation is a feature of democraticpolities, democratic leaders are said to be able to sig-nal their foreign policy preferences better, which inturn provides an explanation of the democratic peace.The model reveals a dynamic of crisis escalation thatdiffers from either pure sunk-cost or hands-tying sig-naling. Moreover, by demonstrating that it is possibleto establish credible commitments with purely militarymeans, the analysis weakens the theoretical argumentthat democracies are better able to signal their privateinformation.The model further shows that some of the gen-eral monotonicity results from Banks (1990) will notextend to an environment where the probability ofvictory—–and hence the distribution of power—–is en-dogenous to state crisis decisions.2Banks finds that theprobability of war is increasing in the expected benefitsfrom war of the informed actor. If military mobilizationdid not influence the probability of winning, then hisresults would extend to this model as well: actors thatvalue the issue more would have higher expected util-ities from war. However, mobilization does influencethe probability of winning and, through it, the expectedutility of war. Therefore, actors that value the issuemore may or may not have higher expected utilities forwar, depending on their relative preparedness to wage1See Smith (1998) on the microfoundations of the audience costmechanism, and Schultz (2001b) for another critique of its short-comings.2Banks (1990) establishes results that must be shared by all modelswith one-sided private information about benefits and costs of warregardless of their specific game-theoretic structure. These genericresults turn out to need the additional assumption that the expectedpayoff from war cannot be manipulated by the actors directly, thevery assumption this article questions.533Military Coercion in Interstate Crises November 2005it—–the level of which they choose during bargaining.Hence, some standard ideas about crisis escalation thatdepend on an exogenously fixed distribution of powermay need to be modified.Finally, the analysis illuminates what turns out to bean important shortcoming of existing rational deter-rence models. These generally postulate preferencesbetween capitulation and fighting—–a resolved typeprefers to fight, and an unresolved type prefers


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