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The Leftovers: Part II

When leadership transitions can increase the likelihood of peace.

Words: Sam Ratner

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

Last week on Deep Dive, we looked at new research on the situations where state leadership transitions cause a spike in the likelihood of war. This week, we’ll dig into a more optimistic take on state leadership turnover. In a recent article in International Studies Quarterly, political scientist Robert Schub argues that leadership transitions — or, rather, the threat of leadership transitions — can actually increase the likelihood of peace in certain situations.

Schub’s analysis relies on two key observations. The first is that peace is not costless. Maintaining credible peace between states often means spending money to maintain a balance of military power between them. Even pursuing diplomacy and confidence-building measures costs money, and political capital, as well. The second is that the actual cost of achieving a particular peace between adversaries can vary dramatically over time. As a result, it is sometimes difficult for leaders to predict how certain events will affect peace costs.

A common way for political scientists to conceptualize war onset is to think of war as a failure of bargaining. Two countries have some dispute — a territory they both claim, for example — and the cost of a war between them will likely far outstrip any material gains either one would make as a result of the war. In theory, the two countries should be able to come to some compromise — say, splitting the territory in two, or one country keeping the territory but making compensatory payments to the other — that would save both the costs of going to war. The concept of peace costs throws a wrinkle in that theory. If you consider that maintaining peace is costly, then the range of situations narrows where war is clearly more costly than peace. The extent to which it narrows depends heavily on just how costly maintaining peace is now, and how costly it is likely to be in the future.

A common way for political scientists to conceptualize war onset is to think of war as a failure of bargaining.

To Schub, the number one driver of peace cost variation is leader transition. Some leaders are more committed to conflict than others, and if a war-minded leader arrives on the scene then the cost to other countries of maintaining a military balance with that leader are likely to rise. Conversely, the rise of a more conciliatory leader means that competing states can reduce their military expenditures for a time. The problem, of course, is predicting what categories different future leaders fall into and when they will actually take power.

Here is where things get a bit sticky. Let’s say you’re the leader of a country — call it Mordor, for the sake of fantasy clarity. And let’s say you have a hated enemy — Narnia, to mix our metaphors. Narnia’s leader is aggressive, and the cost of maintaining peace with them is high. In fact, it is so high that it might be worth it just to fight them and see what happens rather than just having to engage in a constant arms race that is sapping your treasury. That is a war equilibrium: The cost of peace is so high that war, though costly, seems unavoidable.

But let’s say you hear a rumor of a coup brewing on the other side of the wardrobe. It’s impossible to tell who the new leader of Narnia might be, but they can hardly be worse than the growling lion you’re currently faced with. In the worst case scenario, the new leader will drive peace costs up, which just means you’ll end up fighting the war you figured you might have to fight anyway. There’s a chance, though, that the new leader will be more of a house cat, with less of a taste for violence. That will lower the cost of peace in the long term.

Schub’s argument is that, in that moment when the leadership transition is pending and knowledge of the future Narnia leader’s preferences are low, you are likely to pursue peace even with the existing leader. If you’re wrong and you’re paying the high peace cost only to fight later, then no harm is really done — the weapons you’re buying now to maintain the balance of power will work fine for a later war. If you’re right, though, opting for peace now means that the new Narnia leader will actually have a chance to institute their more peaceful policy. In that case, you can both reduce peace costs and enjoy a peace dividend.

Schub tests his theory by looking at the relationship between military spending, the rate of leader turnover, and war onset. If Narnia has a history of frequent leader turnover, he argues, Mordor leaders can reasonably assume that they won’t have long to wait at any given time until a new Narnia leader comes to power. What he finds is that, when Narnia states have high military spending (that is, when peace costs for Mordor are high), more leadership turnover in Narnia means that Mordor is less likely to opt to fight. In fact, when Narnia has had two leadership turnovers in the past 10 years, Mordor’s likelihood of going to war with them in a given year is around 2 percentage points less than it would be if Narnia had no leadership turnovers. That may not seem like much, but over years it amounts to a significant preference for peace. Conversely, when peace costs are low, leader turnover has no measurable effect on the likelihood of war.

In many ways, Schub’s research is a corollary to the Wu, Licht, and Wofford article we covered last week. Where Wu et al. saw the value for new leaders in testing their adversaries’ appetites for war, Schub focuses instead on the incentives for leaders watching their opponents reach the end of their terms to embrace a peaceful status quo, even if it is costly.

Sam Ratner

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