Sunday, December 5, 2010

How Bargaining Theory Has Improved Our Understanding of Conflict, Part I

Lately, I've focused a lot on articulating why I think much of the work that purportedly contributes to our understanding of international conflict fails to do so.  Nonetheless, I see hope that we can do better, and believe that some parts of the literature are already doing so.  In particular, I think the application of bargaining theory to the study of armed conflict has been very fruitful.  This will be the first of a series of posts attempting to make that case.

I've argued that it is not useful to ask whether our theories are right, but instead whether they are useful.  I haven't said a great deal so far about what makes a theory useful. 

As Primo and Clarke discuss, there are many purposes a theoretical model (formal or informal) might serve.  They articulate 5: foundational, structural, generative, explicative and predictive.

Gartzke rightly observes that, by its own terms, the incomplete information explanation for war that emerges from many bargaining models undermines the goal of prediction.  So far, not so good.

However, I think that bargaining models have served each of the other four purposes, and done so fairly well.  I'll discuss how scholars have used bargaining models to identify useful directions for future study (their "generative" value) and how they have served to organize extant empirical findings (their "structural" value) in future posts.  For now, I'm even going to leave aside the value of bargaining models in highlighting causal mechanisms (their "explicative" value), which is perhaps the most obvious contribution of this stream of literature.

What I'd like to focus on here is the way bargaining theory has helped by providing important insights into a general class of problems.

Since Fearon used a simple ultimatum crisis bargaining model to identify three core explanations for war (one of which Powell demonstrated is a special case of another, leaving us with two core explanations), a rather remarkable thing happened.  Scholars started talking to one another rather than past one another.  Looking back at the old debates about absolute versus relative gains, bipolarity versus multipolarity, the balance of power versus power preponderance, offense-defense balance, the role of anarchy, etc, it's hard to overstate what a profound change this is.  At least as far as I can tell, the number of scholars who could agree on both the definitions and the putative logic by which such factors produced the outcomes they were alleged to produce was rather unimpressive.  In contrast, the number of scholars who are in agreement about what it means to say that states have incentives to misrepresent private information, and understand why this might cause them to come into conflict, is fairly substantial -- even amongst the less technically minded.  I suspect that common arguments linking commitment problems to the onset of war may be somewhat less widely understood by those without training in game theory, but one would be hard pressed to find a published study disputing the core logic underlying claims linking commitment problems to war.  If only we could say the same about any of the concepts lying at the heart of theoretical debates in international relations in the 70s and 80s.

Naturally, this is only takes us so far.  Equipping scholars with a new framework for discussing old questions would hardly be a virtue if that framework did not allow us to address the questions of greatest interest, did not lead to the discovery of new empirical findings, etc.  As I said above, I think that bargaining theory has performed fairly well in these respects as well, but I will leave that discussion for future posts.  The primary point for now is that, if nothing else, the application of bargaining theory to the study of armed conflict has changed the way many of us think about conflict, facilitating true dialogue.  For better or for worse (and I obviously believe it's been for the better), theoretical debates actually build off one another these days, rather than simply running in circles, never quite succeeding in establishing precise definitions of key concepts, let alone producing consensus on the logical implications of those concepts.

Of course, it's pretty sad that we should consider that to be worth celebrating.  But I think even a cursory glance at the history of the subfield suggests that it is.

UPDATE: I didn't discuss what genuine insight was brought about by applying bargaining theory, focused as I was on arguing that these have been rare enough that the arrival of one fundamentally changed the scholarly discourse.  I would say that the main insight (which has many profound implications, as I'll discuss in future posts) is the inefficiency of war, which implies that it's not enough to focus on which factors lead states to disagree with one another but that we must explain why they choose war as a means of resolving their disagreements.  It may sound trivial, but a great deal of scholarship has focused on when war is more or less attractive than it otherwise would be, without ever considering how or why it would be more attractive than what states could get at the negotiating table.

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