One of the primary reasons I am skeptical about the putative link between democracy and victory is that I don't see any compelling reason to expect it to be true in the first place.*
Most of the arguments for why democracies should win their wars more often are actually fairly intuitive at first glance. But when you dig deeper, you realize that there are some problems. The selection effects argument, which R&S put more emphasis on than the war-fighting effect (I may have more to say about the war-fighting effect at some point) ultimately rests upon a decision theoretic view of the world (see this post). To their credit, R&S are upfront about this.**
What happens if we assume, unlike R&S, that politics actually has distributional consequences (remember Lasswell -- politics is about who gets what), and that states may use either war or negotiation to allocate disputed goods?
Before I begin, perhaps I should clarify why I have said that R&S assume that politics does not have distributional consequences.
In a previous post, I assumed that R&S think that if a state does not fight a war, that means they are left with the status quo. But in fact, they don't really even assume that. If you read their essay in this edited volume, which offers an excellent and concise summary of their book, you will notice that they have just about nothing to say about actual threats to security, loss of territory, access to resources, or any of that. Winning wars makes for good political theater, and losing wars bad political theater. R&S argue that democracies are like boxing champions, who refuse most fights because they have little to gain and everything to lose if they are defeated. The implication here is that winning is good because it proves you are great and enhances your popularity, while losing is bad because it tarnishes your reputation and therefore means being unseated (as champion, in the case of boxing, or as leader in the case of leaders of states).
I don't know about boxing champions, but when states decide, "hey, you know what, I don't need this win, and a loss would just be embarrassing, so I'll sit this one out," that is rarely without consequence. George H.W. Bush may or may not truly have believed "I'll win or I'll be impeached" in 1991, but had he decided not to go to war, that would have meant that Iraq would have taken over Kuwait. And maybe Saudi Arabia too. He couldn't simply shrug off the challenge because he didn't need to prove himself, the way a boxer would. And if Ben-Gurion had thought in 1948 that the odds of victory were not very good, he could not have simply said to Egypt and Syria and Jordan and Lebanon and Iraq that he didn't want a fight.*** Again, we can't simply assume that states can opt to ignore a fight without suffering any consequences.
Okay, these are cheap shots. At least, I hope you agree they are cheap shots. I don't think it should really be all that controversial to say that politics has distributional consequences. Right?
Nor do I think it makes sense to assume that, should war be averted, the distribution that will obtain is given exogenously. That's fancy academic talk for saying that who gets what is determined by choices states make. The way many scholars have begun to try to account for that is with bargaining models. As I've discussed before (see in particular here), the "bargaining" of interest in such models may not necessarily entail sitting down at the negotiating table and hashing out terms. It may instead refer to the use of fait accompli. And that's fancy academic talk for saying that if a state chooses to sit this one out, they're going to have to live with whatever outcome their opponent imposes on them instead.
In fact, a critical insight of the application of bargaining theory to the study of international conflict is that whether states choose to fight or not is a function of what outcome their opponents seek to impose.
Crazy idea, huh?
When you put it in plain English, it seems impossible to disagree with. (At least, I hope it does). And yet, the vast majority of IR scholarship focuses only on whether states find the expected payoff from war to be relatively good or relatively bad in absolute terms, without any appreciation for what the alternative is. Or they treat the alternative as fixed, rather than allowing the opposing state to decide how hard they want to push.
What does any of this have to do with intelligence?
R&S argue that democracies will win the wars that they choose to fight not only because they are more risk averse, but also because they are better at estimating risks. They only go to war if they are very likely to win, whereas autocrats don't min taking bigger gambles, and they are better at accurately forecasting whether they are in fact likely to win.
I have no idea whether democracies are in fact better at gathering intelligence, or have a better functioning "marketplace of ideas", or whatever. For the sake of argument, I'll assume that they do. What I want to convince you of is that if this was true, and if we further assume both that international politics has distributional consequences and that the distribution of goods is going to be determined by the states themselves, we have no reason to conclude that democracies will be more likely to win the wars that they fight.
In this paper with Scott Wolford, which will be appearing in ISQ this summer, we analyze a model in which state 1 first allocates a finite budget of resources to intelligence gathering, military expenditures, and domestic consumption, then receives intelligence reports about the strength of 2 before issuing an ultimatum to 2.
Our results indicate that when states find both the marginal cost of improving the quality of their intelligence and the marginal cost of improving their prospects for victory to be relatively palatable, they will tend to make investments in the latter that give them an even chance of victory, and investments in the former that give them a relatively modest chance of receiving inaccurate intelligence. When either the marginal cost of improving the quality of their intelligence or the marginal cost of improving their prospects for victory is relatively high, they will invest nothing in intelligence.
Put differently, the only states that are likely to possess quality intelligence in equilibrium are also states that will have made military investments that give them a roughly even chance at victory -- but no better. If democracies tend to find the cost of investing in their intelligence apparatus to be relatively low compared to autocracies (which seems consistent with R&S), then democracies should be likely to put themselves in a position to have a roughly even chance of victory, but no better.
Why is that?
The intuition is something like this. You are not sure if your opponent has 100 units of military power available or 110. You yourself, though, have only 10 units. Whether your opponent has 100 or 110 almost doesn't matter. The best case scenario and worst case scenario are essentially the same. You're in big trouble. Suppose instead that you have 1000 units. Again, the fact that you don't know whether your opponent has 100 or 110 unites doesn't matter. The best case and worst case scenario for you are both pretty dang attractive.
Suppose, instead, you have 100 units. Now you really care whether your opponent has 100 as well or has 110.
In the latter case, investing in intelligence gathering may make a lot of sense. In the first two cases, it almost certainly does not. States invest in intelligence when they are near parity because the material implications of their inability to accurately determine their opponents' strength are greater when the two are near parity.
Our model may be overly simplistic. We only allow one side to invest in intelligence and arms. We assume there are only two states in the world. We don't worry about domestic politics. There's a lot you can criticize. But I think the logic connecting greater investments in intelligence to parity is pretty strong, and I don't see any reason to expect that this would go away if we complicated the model. I could be wrong, of course.
At any rate, suppose you don't even buy that much. Suppose you think it's possible that democracies will be much better informed than autocracies, regardless of the distribution of capabilities. I'm not sure why that would be true, but I'll play along.
Once we dispense with decision theoretic accounts and allow for the possibility of bargaining, it's very hard to escape the conclusion that states who are both well informed and likely to win any potential war are also states who are unlikely to fight wars in equilibrium. Maybe democracies are, as a general rule, both very well informed and very well prepared for victory. Fine. Those democracies shouldn't be the ones showing up in the data sets we use to analyze war outcomes.
This is where you say, in a tone that suggests you think I may have completely lost sight of this fact, "But, fil, democracies do fight wars. And they win them too."
Indeed they do (if we set aside certain types of wars that get in the way of our nice and neat story). As a purely descriptive matter, that's an empirical fact that I do not contest. The question is why.
I don't know the answer. But I'll tell you this much -- it almost certainly isn't because they have better intelligence. I say that because the logic connecting superior intelligence to a greater propensity to win wars is, as far as I can tell, underwhelming. And R&S present no empirical evidence about the quality of pre-war estimates of victory as a function of regime type, so don't try playing the "you're just being clever, but ultimately all you've got are a bunch of untested claims" card. Because when it comes to explaining why democracies allegedly select themselves into winnable wars, whilst autocracies are more willing to gamble, all anyone else has got is untested claims too. And, in this case, that claim rests upon the assumption that politics is not, in fact, about who gets what, and that strategic interaction is irrelevant.
When we get past that point, let me know.
When we get past that point, let me know.
*For me, that's a problem, because my attitude (which I am well aware is not shared by the modal political scientist) is that when we have identified a correlation in (crude, poorly measured) observational data, but no compelling theoretical story for why there should be a causal relationship there, then we should be reluctant to conclude that there is a causal relationship. Many people in this field say that's getting it all wrong. I think that's largely because they grossly overestimate the power of statistical analysis of observational data to correctly identify causal effects, as I've discussed before and will discuss again, but for today, I'll set that aside. In this post, I'm not going to try to convince you to reject barefoot empiricism. Whether you agree with me that the gap between (the logical implications of) R&S' putative explanations and their correlational results is damning or not, I hope you at least agree that it's something of a problem that their supposed explanations do not necessarily predict their findings.
**Let me be clear that I think that R&S deserve a lot of credit for that. I can think of some prominent arguments that only work if we pretend that states cannot really negotiate in any meaningful sense, who were not upfront about that.
***I don't mean to make that sound like Israel is "the good guy" and the Arab states "the bad guys." The Israelis committed many deplorable atrocities in that war, and in the years to come. My point is only that refusing to fight has consequences. There is more at stake than risking the embarrassment of defeat, and attendant domestic political sanction.