Playing With Fire: Provocation, Crisis Escalation, and Inadvertent War
Recent tensions on the Korean peninsula and in the South China Sea have raised concerns that provocative actions, such as the use of insulting rhetoric and coercive military force, might trigger an unwanted conflict that embroils the United States. The international relations literature, however, is ill equipped to explain these escalatory dangers. While there are theories of crisis escalation that are based on accidents, threat perceptions, or signaling failures, there is no theory that explains the distinctive escalatory mechanisms through which provocative rhetoric and military actions can lead to unwanted crisis escalation and conflict. Building on recent insights in social psychology and the study of resolve, my book offers a theory that explains the escalatory logic of provocation. I evaluate my theory with a novel multi-method design. I first test the individual-level mechanisms with a survey experiment and then integrate the findings into the standard crisis bargaining model to develop three game-theoretic models that demonstrate how the logic of provocation affects crises when states behave strategically. To show that these mechanisms can lead to significant escalation in real crises, I draw on archival records, interviews, and Chinese and Korean language sources to closely trace two cases -- the Sino-India War of 1962 and Sino-Soviet Border Conflict of 1969 -- and briefly review three others. In the conclusion, I discuss the implications of my findings for coercive diplomacy and crisis management.
Publications and Working Papers (Please contact author for updated drafts of working papers)
"Provocation, Crisis Escalation, and Inadvertent War." (Presented at APSA 2015, ISA 2016, Harvard International Security Conference 2017, Yale Brady-Johnson International Security Studies Research Workshop 2018.)
"Provocation and Audience Costs: An Experimental Approach." (Presented at APSA 2017, ISA 2018)
How do an adversary’s provocative actions during a crisis affect a state’s ability to generate or mitigate audience costs? The experimental literature on audience costs finds that states can both generate audience costs because the public imposes inconsistency and belligerence costs and also mitigate audience costs by providing justifications for backing down. Many of these studies hold constant the adversary’s actions during a crisis – an invasion of a friendly country by its neighbor – yet during crises, states need to generate or mitigate audience costs in a strategic setting. Recent studies indeed find that provocative threats by an adversary during a crisis can counterproductively increase the resolve of the state to escalate. This paper thus explores a state’s ability to generate or mitigate audience costs when varying the adversary’s provocative actions during a crisis. It finds through an online survey experiment that provocative actions by an adversary dramatically reduce and alter a state’s ability to generate and mitigate audience costs. In particular, provocative actions by an adversary reduces the belligerence costs component of audience costs that a state tries to generate and increases the effectiveness of a government justification to back-down based on new information. Indeed, preliminary results suggest that provocative actions by an adversary can even reverse belligerence costs as the public rewards the government for taking an escalatory stance against a foreign wrongdoing, and reduce audience costs overall. These results modify and challenge our existing understanding of audience costs.
"International Relations Theory and Security in the Maritime Domain," with Brian C. Chao. (Presented at ISA Hong Kong 2017)
The increasing attention to the Asia-Pacific region in the 21st century calls for an increasing awareness of how international relations unfold in the maritime domain. Yet many international relations theories and concepts rely heavily on the history of continental wars in Europe and the experiences of the European front in the Cold War, and hence are implicitly land-based or are ambiguous regarding the underlying geography on which they are meant to operate. How does our understanding of international relations differ in the maritime domain? This paper addresses this question by focusing on the field of international security and examining the limits of existing theories, strategic concepts, and signaling strategies of crisis bargaining when applied to the maritime theater. Specifically, we discuss the theoretic differences with reference to the three IR paradigms, the conceptual differences with reference to the offense/defense balance and the command of the commons, and the military signaling differences with reference to the role of constabulary forces, audience costs, and civilians. The paper concludes by highlighting the need for future research to address the unique aspects of international relations of the maritime domain in both security and political economy.
"Asymmetric Nuclear Forces and Crisis Bargaining: A Study of the Sino-Soviet Border Conflict of 1969." (Presented at ISA 2017)
How does the imbalance of nuclear forces affect successful crisis bargaining? With the rise of China as a peer competitor to the U.S. and the rising tensions in the South China Sea, it is increasingly likely that a crisis will erupt involving asymmetric nuclear forces and low-level conventional conflict. Recent studies on the nuclear posture of regional powers, China's nuclear strategy, or the balance of conventional power and brinkmanship further our understanding of nuclear deterrence, but the existing literature inadequately addresses how nuclear asymmetry affects an inferior nuclear state's ability to engage in brinkmanship and successfully coerce a nuclear superior state after conventional conflict breaks out. Because instances of asymmetric nuclear powers directly engaged in low-level violence during a crisis are rare, this paper examines a prominent case, the Sino-Soviet Border Conflict of 1969 -- the only incident in which a nuclear-armed China escalated to armed conflict with a nuclear superior state. It finds that nuclear inferiority restricted China's ability to coerce the Soviets through three overlooked mechanisms. The paper further traces the lessons China drew from the incident and discusses the implications for the South China Sea today.
"The Pacifying Effects of Drones," with Michael C. Horowitz and Alex Weisiger.(Presented at APSA 2015)
The relative cheapness of unmanned aerial vehicles -- drones -- has fostered fears that leaders will use them indiscriminately, with potentially destabilizing effects. Building on a series of game-theoretic models, we argue that these fears are misplaced, and that drones are in fact pacifying. First, we show that the use of drones to monitor contested regions is almost always pacifying, as they reduce incentives to launch surprise attacks and limit the potential for miscalculation or inadvertent clashes. Second, contrary to arguments that leaders' willingness to deploy and to shoot down drones may prove provocative and hence increase escalation, we show that this sort of escalation does not follow naturally from traditional models of crisis bargaining, and moreover that even after revising these models so that provocation is possible drones are not clearly destabilizing relative to manned aircraft. Third, contrary to arguments that the reduced cost of acquiring and deploying drones will make war more attractive, we argue that the limited military role of drones -- they cannot seize contested stakes unilaterally or impose decisive defeats on enemy forces -- mean that any effect will be marginal. Concerns that possession of drones will increase the probability that a country intervenes in an ongoing war are more justified, but their existence does not increase the probability that war breaks out in the first place.