Nuclear Weapons and War

I wanted to flag a soon-to-be-published article by my colleagues at MIT, Mark Bell and Nicholas Miller, looking at whether and how nuclear weapons possession affects conflict.

The paper is interesting on both substantive and methodological grounds. Substantively, they find no statistically discernable difference in the conflict propensity of states with offsetting nuclear arsenals. This is true even at low levels of conflict. These two findings combined mean they find insufficient evidence to support the existence of a “stability-instability” paradox where the presence of nuclear weapons both deters full-scale war while also increasing the likelihood of lower levels of violence.

I think the methodological point they make is perhaps more important, at least for political science practitioners. There was an established paper in the field that found empirical support for the stability-instability paradox, a paper by Rauchhaus (2009). Rauchhaus made a few mistakes, and helpfully for those of us playing at home, mistakes that we probably could imagine making ourselves.

Empirically, he coded the 1999 Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan as a non-war. The number of casualties in that conflict is somewhat in dispute, and alas for us, it is either immediately below or immediately above the 1,000 battle deaths standard that has come to define “war” in political science. Rauchhaus generally relied on the Correlates of War coding of conflict, except in the Kargil case, which means that Rauchhaus accepted the Correlates of War coding for many wars with fewer casualties than Kargil. The empirical finding that nuclear dyads are less likely to fight wars is entirely dependent on whether or not Kargil is coded as a war. If it is coded as a war, then there is no statistically significant difference between nuclear dyads and their non-nuclear counterparts. Though Bell and Miller do not mention it, Kargil has the potential to play a similar spoiler role in the deterministic-variant of the democratic peace literature, and so people would be well advised to always pay attention to Kargil in their dataset if war is an important IV or DV. Montgomery and Sagan (2009) had flagged this a while ago, but it’s not clear to me it has fully sunk in.

The other error is also one that could be made more generally, and so should be of interest to political scientists uninterested in war or nuclear weapons. He used a canned package in Stata called xtgee, which estimates a logit generalized estimating equation (GEE). Exciting stuff, no? The problem is, that when Kargil is coded as a non-war, then there are no wars between nuclear dyads, which creates “separation” in the data. Nuclear weapons predict non-war perfectly. This should lead to non-identification in GEE, or logit, or probit models. The computer should yell at you in such instances. In this case, the xtgee command in Stata erroneously allowed for a coefficient estimate to be produced, and hence Rauchhaus found what he found. Rauchhaus might have realized his results were fishy if he had produced a table of relative risk tables instead of just reporting coefficient estimates in the article. If he had done so, he would have realized his coefficient suggested non-nuclear dyads were 2.7 million times more likely to go to war than nuclear dyads. Bell and Miller use an estimator developed by Firth that allows for parameter estimation even with separation in the data (a downloadable firthlogit package is available for Stata users).

Separation is a fairly common problem, particularly for small datasets or datasets with rare events in them that are dichotomously coded. It should be underlined that a common response of statistical programs is to drop variables with separation, which permits a computational solution, but probably biases the results on the remaining variables. This webpage by UCLA helpfully walks through how different statistical packages handle the problem. Others who are methodologically smarter than me have convinced me to always fit a linear probability model onto my data as a robustness check. Linear probability models also do not suffer from separation. And if the coefficient estimates are radically off, you should just be prepared to defend your estimator choice very strongly.

Multiplicity (not starring Michael Keaton)

Duck of Minerva did a public service by hosting a debate between Matt Kroenig, Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann (see herehere, and here). The topic was nuclear superiority and crisis bargaining. Those are abstract words, but they are relevant for how we think about the United States’ ability to compel, say, North Korea in a crisis. But I think the debate should be of interest to anyone interested in applied methods in IR.

For me, Sechser and Fuhrmann’s arguments are the more compelling. In particular, they critique how Kroenig squeezes the appearance of more data out of a very small number of events:

Kroenig confronts a basic challenge in his empirical analysis: nuclear crises are rare.  Specifically, he has only 20 nuclear crises in his dataset (drawn from the ICB dataset). Yet he winds up with 52 observations, enough to generate a statistically significant correlation.  How does he obtain such a large dataset from such a small set of crises? The answer is that Kroenig simply duplicates each observation in the dataset, so as to double its size. A single observation for the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, now becomes two independent events in his dataset: a victory for the United States, and a defeat for the Soviet Union.  This is inappropriate: the two observations are measuring the same event. Kroenig is not actually observing more data here; he is simply reporting the same event twice.  This is equivalent to an exit poll that lists each respondent twice in the sample – once voting for candidate X, and once voting against candidate Y – and then claims to have twice the sample size.

As quantitative methods have pushed into new areas, including areas with very few observations, their employers have suggested greater confidence than is deserved about their findings. In fact, at some point, my guess is the whole enterprise of treating dyad-years as meaningfully independent observations will come collapsing around our heads. It’s been a while since I looked at it, but Erickson, Pinto and Rader have a paper that concludes “typical statistical tests for significance are severely overconfident in dyadic data.”

Political science’s great challenge is knowing what we know. Quantitative methods are not a panacea for this problem.

Great Power Confrontation: India and China, 50 Years On

After a series of smashing victories in the border war with India, Chinese troops swept down from the towering Himalayas and were poised at the edge of the fertile plains of Assam, whose jute and tea plantations account for one-fourth of India’s export trade. Then, with Assam lying defenseless before her conquering army, Red China suddenly called a halt to the fighting.

Radio Peking announced that, “on its own initiative,” Red China was ordering a cease-fire on all fronts….

–       Time Magazine Cover, October 1962

Fifty years after India and China had a month-long confrontation that ended in a humiliating defeat for India, the two great powers still continue to have friction over the northeastern border, the subject of 14 fruitless talks between the two nations. The McMahon Line, the initial cause of the disagreement, was demarcated by British officials in 1914 in order to settle the issue of Tibetan suzerainty. As the map below shows, India claims a part of the northern frontier for its Ladakh. In the eastern part, China claims a huge chunk of one of India’s states, Arunachal Pradesh. The dissatisfaction with these boundaries as well as the Chinese refusal to recognize Tibetan sovereignty resulted in a war that has led to one of the most militarized borders in contemporary times.

Source: The Economist

What does this underlying friction mean for Indian security and defense policy? By looking at Indian efforts towards both internal and external balancing, we might be able to gauge whether India visualizes China as a threat or not. In terms of internal balancing, the graph below shows us the steadily increasing value of Indian defense spending. The biggest jumps  have been in the last two years, with an 11% and 17% increase in the defense budget in 2011 and 2012. One of the main targets of these expenditures has been the development of the Agni-V missile. The missile has a range of more than 5,000 km (3,100 miles), potentially bringing targets in China within range. The development of such long-range missiles was clearly carried out with China in mind, as with its previous level of capability, India already possessed the capability to hit Pakistan, its traditional rival. There have also been growing fears in India over the strength of the Chinese navy. The most powerful signal of recent Chinese naval expansion has been the purchase of an aircraft carrier which they have recently begun testing at sea. Because Indian power and trade is reliant on open access to the seas, it is vital that India try and keep up with the Chinese buildup, at least to a certain extent. To that end, India has set out on its own naval expansion program.

Indian military spending. Data from SIPRI.

Interpreting such developments in terms of an offensive posture, however, might be misleading.  In August 2009, India’s former Chief of Naval Staff declared “In military terms, both conventionally and unconventionally, we can neither have the capability nor the intention to match China force for force…” Pointing out that India’s expenditure on defense has been hovering around a low two-three percent of the GDP in recent years, Mehta said that the strategy to deal with China on the military front would be to introduce modern technology and create a “reliable stand-off deterrent.” Such increasing armaments programs are counter-intuitive from the perspective of deterrence theory, as both India and China already possess nuclear weapons. These efforts then, should not just be interpreted in terms of preparation for explicit military engagement, but rather in terms of containing China’s sphere of influence in the region.

This broader Indian security policy can be understood by looking at efforts involving other nations in military exercises and informal security arrangements. In 2011, India started conducting naval exercises with Japan after a five-year hiatus of not involving any country except the U.S. in such exercises. Indeed, in terms of external balancing, it is not only India who might seek out the U.S., who might very well need India to counter-balance a rising regional hegemon.

Developments in this region do not just have huge implications for India, but for the U.S. as well. Robert Kaplan predicts that the Indian Ocean will replace the Mediterranean as the central arena of global energy flows, container traffic, and politics in this century. Though necessary, systematizing an alliance with India however, will not be the easiest choice for the United States. The Indian government is plagued with uncertainty – this was visible in the stalling that took place in implementing the nuclear deal with the United States. As Narang and Staniland point out, “The combination of tight electoral competition, pervasive patronage, and coalition politics has led to minimal political incentives for ambitious (Indian)politicians to invest in strategic assessment, policy debates, or the other mechanisms of strategic optimization that are supposed to bolster strategic preparation in a democratic polity.” While it is too early to claim that India has gotten to the point of seeing China as an immediate and direct threat to its national interest, it certainly seems that India is hedging its bets, even if it is just in terms of threat preparation via internal balancing.

The Return of Israeli Moderation?

Not too long after the Israel-Hezbollah war, George Packer wrote an excellent profile of Israeli author David Grossman for the New YorkerGrossman is an Israeli author who, along with several of his liberal cohort, has been engaged in a full-front assault on Israel’s hawkish foreign policy. Packer describes, in detail, how Grossman’s political opinions have evolved, like that of many Israelis, over the past few decades:

[At the time of the Yom Kippur War], his political views were conventional: Israel, surrounded by enemies, was destined to fight an eternal war, and the only imperative was survival. In 1967, the year of his bar mitzvah, Israel won the Six-Day War and occupied Gaza, the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights. In “The Yellow Wind,” Grossman wrote of his generation, “The surging energy of our adolescent hormones was coupled with the intoxication gripping the entire country; the conquest, the confident penetration of the enemy’s land, his complete surrender, breaking the taboo of the border, imperiously striding through the narrow streets of cities until now forbidden.” At the beginning of the occupation, Jewish families used to drive through the West Bank and Gaza on weekends, on tours organized by transportation companies like the one where his father worked; they would buy Arab kaffiyehs for next to nothing and wear them triumphantly in the streets of Hebron and Jericho. The Palestinians were crushed, and the Israelis were seduced by what Grossman calls “the temptation of strength, the temptation of arbitrariness.” At thirteen, he felt unambivalent pleasure about Israeli power. As he grew older, though, he became troubled by it; when friends or Army comrades urged him to join an outing to the occupied territories, he refused, saying, “They hate us, they don’t want us there. I cannot be like a thorn in the flesh of someone else.”

Much time have passed since this profile and since Grossman began his campaign. For years, it seemed, to those of us on the outside, that such pleas for moderation fell on deaf ears. While the settlements issue is not resolved, it appears that the Israeli “consensus” on a hardline against Iran is far from unassailable. Israel’s policy is already shifting away from military action. In a recent editorial in the New York Times, Graham Allison and Shai Feldman argue that the change of policy comes as the result of internal divisions within Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, primarily between Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Indeed, several prominent Israeli political figures, including President Shimon Peres, have spoken out against unilateral military action. Moreover, as Allison and Feldman point out, the Israeli military establishment has unified in its opposition to military strikes.

Several obstacles remain, however. Most pressing, perhaps, is the possibility of a re-emboldened Netanyahu emerging from the January elections. Possible permutations of center-left coalitions consistently poll lower than Netanyahu’s coalition. In the last elections, in 2009, Netanyahu was able to form a rightist coalition despite receiving the second-most seats in the Knesset, the Israeli legislature. The centrist Kadima party, which received the most votes in 2009, was unable to form a governing coalition. It is unclear whether they will be able to unify various other centrist parties in order to succeed at this task in January. Much hope rests with Ehud Olmert, the former embattled Kadima Prime Minister. However, as Judy Rudoren argues in a Times op-ed, he faces many complicated challenges–some political, some legal, some moral–in his attempt to become prime minister once again. The titular question then can only be answered by a cautiously optimistic “maybe.”

No matter the outcome, these developments emphasize the non-unitary nature of Israeli domestic politics and foreign policy. In many ways, this mirrors a critical analytical hurdle that the field of International Relations faced several decades ago. As a recent “state-of-the-field” review article in the Annual Review of Political Science by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith argues, IR has more or less overcome this crutch. Scholars have made countless important contributions to our understanding of international politics by exploring domestic political developments explicitly.

Perhaps nowhere is this domestic turn in IR more clear than in John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s controversial work on the US Israel lobby. Moreover, this analysis more or less reflects the public view of US foreign policy-making, whether true or not. It is not clear why this understanding has not extended to Israeli politics, which continues to be black- boxed in public discourse. Whatever the result of the next few months’ debate and politicking in Israel, the critical lesson for the rest of us should be not to essentialize Israeli foreign policy positions based upon the hard line it has taken so far.

For more of his thoughts on developments in Israel, follow William on Twitter.

“Facts” about Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons

When studying contemporary security issues, it is often very difficult to determine what is a fact. A single source, particularly a press account, can lead researchers astray. For example, early Thursday morning, nine men attacked Pakistan’s Minhas air base, part of a bigger aeronautical complex at Kamra. A spokesman for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility. The base is northwest of Islamabad, perhaps 25 miles away if you trust the New York Times, 37 miles if you believe the Washington Post, or 54 miles if you ask Google Maps. The specific distance from the capital is not particularly important, except for the fact that an attack on a military base near the capital might seem more worrisome than one further away. In this case, it is equally true to say that Kamra lies about halfway between Islamabad and Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

The press has highlighted the attack in large part because “some of the country’s nuclear weapons are thought to be stored” at Kamra, The use of the passive voice—“are thought”—is a good move here. Who are these thinkers? I have always found open-source attempts to figure out where Pakistan’s nuclear assets are stored to be a bit of a fool’s errand. Reporting on this tends to be incredibly circular, and if you trace citations (when they exist) you almost always end up at or Wikipedia. A few years back I did a quick look at the evidence as to whether Kamra held nuclear weapons and found the evidence unconvincing. It is likely true that the Mirage-5 aircraft, which reportedly operate from Kamra, are nuclear capable (paywall), so it is certainly possible that weapons or their components are nearby. It’s also possible that they are not.

Needless to say, this sort of opacity and secrecy about where your nuclear weapons are located is a good thing if there is a risk that a bunch of guys with beards and guns will be attacking your air bases. The New York Times tells me that U.S.-origin (and likely nuclear capable) F-16s operate out of Kamra. The ever-reliable Wikipedia suggests that the F-16s do not operate out of Kamra, but instead operate from Sarghoda and Jacobabad. The F-16s could be at Kamra for repairs or modifications, but their presence would have no implications for the presence or absence of nuclear weapons there. Kamra apparently houses the new Chinese-origin JF-17 fighters, but it seems possible the JF-17s at Kamra are just there for testing and evaluation prior to going out to other squadrons and, in any event, I have seen no reporting as to whether the JF-17 is nuclear capable.

This is not the first time Kamra, its ostensible nuclear mission, and danger have been in the news. On December 10, 2007, a suicide bomber attacked a school bus carrying children of Pakistan Air Force personnel outside of the air force base. This 2007 event was summarized by researcher Shaun Gregory as “an attack on Pakistan’s nuclear airbase at Kamra.” An attack on a bus near the air base becomes an attack on the air base. Nifty elision. On October 23, 2009, a suicide bomber did blow himself up at a checkpoint at Kamra, killing at least six people and wounding at least nine.

With all that said, Pakistan is not a safe place, attacks on Pakistani air bases are worrisome, and policymakers and the public should be attentive to nuclear dangers in Pakistan. But even if those general conclusions are true, lots of information you are reading about Pakistan is likely wrong. The hard part is there is no easy way to figure out what is incorrect and what is accurate. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder may have the keen eyes necessary to pick out at least fifteen sites across Pakistan with nuclear warheads or other nuclear materials, but perhaps they are overconfident in their ability to play the shell game associated with finding Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

For what it is worth, my guess is that Taliban militants attacked Kamra not because of the possibility of finding nuclear weapons, but rather because exchanging the life of a poor Talib for a chance at destroying a fighter plane is a very effective use of a suicide bomber. Even more attractive for the militants, Pakistan may house its airborne early warning planes, Saab Erieyes, at Kamra, which would be very expensive for Pakistan to replace, something the TTP learned when it damaged P-3 maritime reconnaissance aircraft in an attack at a naval base in Karachi in May 2011.

But those are just my guesses. And all of those that write on evolving security situations in countries with opaque national security complexes ought to be much more explicit about the fact that guesswork is sometimes involved in determining which “facts” are really facts. If you have any doubts about how deeply difficult and flawed this fact-determining process can be, try to pin down the sources in some large political science database sometime. Those 1s and 0s start looking pretty blurry after a while.

An Incomplete Waltz

Kenneth Waltz’s recent article on Iran’s nuclear program has engendered discussion and debate, in no less of a place than this blog with Michael Kalin’s post two weeks ago. Rather than rehashing what he has already mentioned, I want to try and reorient Waltz’s argument in the ongoing debate over Iran and emphasize what I believe should be the takeaway: Iran getting nuclear weapons does not automatically equate to a worst case scenario.

Politicians and academics alike have been clamoring for hitting Iran with, effectively, a preventive strike in order to take out their nuclear facilities. The word “preventive” is the most important and also the most contested. From a just war perspective, a preventive war, based on the idea of the target being a potential threat one day in the future, is unjust compared to a “preemptive” strike, which is justifiable since it is in anticipation of a clear and immediate threat.

There are many arguments employed in favor of attacks: the regime is irrational and will use them to attack Israel; nuclear weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists or others unfriendly to the U.S. and its allies; Iranian nukes could be a destabilizing force in the region, leading other states to obtain them. Aside from questionable assumptions regarding whether the U.S. or Israel could guarantee that the facilities could be eliminated (which is by no means a certainty), that there would be minimal backlash against such a strike from the Middle East and world in general (which makes little sense, as Posen notes), or that it could be contained to a few tactical strikes and nothing more (see Walt’s response to Kroenig’s call for “preventive” strikes, these three fears about Iran should be addressed individually.

The irrationality argument is that the character of Iran’s regime, with the Supreme Leader Khamenei seeking to spread a fundamentalist form of Islam, is such that the U.S. cannot expect them to act in a rational manner. No less of an expert than Bernard Lewis has claimed that Iran is a different kind of state than the Soviet Union was in the Cold War and, as such, cannot be treated in a similar manner. But this is also the same Iran (with the same Supreme Leader) that held spontaneous candlelight vigils after 9/11, out of respect for the people who perished. This is the same Iran that was party to a potential “grand bargain” that would have led to them abandoning their WMD programs (the origins and validity of the bargain are questioned, but evidence for it seems credible enough, and by ignoring it some believe the U.S. undercut the Iranian reformists and solidified the position of the conservatives). There is nothing inherent that makes rational cooperation with the U.S. impossible. If the world has been able to keep North Korea (an “irrational” state if there ever has been one) in check for as long as we have, why not Iran as well?

The point of “loose nukes” is also important. The idea is that Iran might hand off nuclear weapons to other actors, who could then use them against the U.S. or Israel. Waltz argues that not only would it be very difficult for Iran the spread of these weapons, but that due to the expense and danger of developing them, it makes little sense for Iran to just give them to a third party (especially, I would point out, since they would have so few of them). I agree with these points, but also want to add one more: Iran has had nuclear material for quite a while now, but yet there is no evidence that any has been given to non-state actors, for the use in a “dirty bomb” or any other such device. The fact that this has yet to happen, while not iron clad evidence, does seem to imply that Iran wants to maintain control over the material. Yes, material for a “dirty bomb” is qualitatively different than a nuclear device, but it is interesting that nothing along these lines has occurred as of yet, and does lend credence to the idea that Iran is treating their nuclear program very gingerly.

Finally, there is the issue of destabilization – that Iran gaining nuclear weapons would lead to other states obtaining them. Waltz’s point that nuclear proliferation fears are unfounded is well taken. Although Pakistan responded to India’s nuclear tests in kind, that’s the only real instance of a state’s nuclear program leading to a reaction from another. As Debs and Monteiro rightly note, there was no rush for nuclear development after Israel gained the bomb. In addition, there was no such response from Japan or South Korea after North Korea tested their bomb, which undermines the idea that it has to do with the regime’s nature, since North Korea is considered just as, if not more, unstable that Iran. To argue that the act of Iran gaining nuclear weapons is enough to lead to a nuclear race seems like an empty claim.

I am not saying, as Waltz does, that the spread of nuclear weapons is inherently a beneficial thing. The U.S. should do everything in its power, short of tactical strikes or war to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear capabilities. But I firmly believe that if Iran were to get the bomb, containment and deterrence are more than capable of keeping Iran in check and to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons throughout the region. Hopefully it will not come to that, but the important thing to take away from all this is that preventive strikes are unnecessary and will do more damage than good.

U.S.-Pakistan Tensions: Art Depicting Reality?

An ABC television show premiering this fall opens with a U.S. nuclear submarine captain defying White House orders to launch a nuclear strike against Pakistan. Created by Shawn Ryan, “Last Resort” follows the crew as they are declared an enemy of the U.S. and set up camp on an island (now with nuclear capability).

While the pilot episode has received much acclaim in the U.S. media, the reception in Pakistan has been less than stellar.

The Rightist newspaper The Nation ran a letter-to-the-editor which stated that

Most of Pakistanis might not like the movie “Last Resort”, but I think it’s a blessing in disguise. It shows us the real worth of Pakistan for US. It also depicts the mindset of their society and their feelings towards Pakistan.

Another online newspaper had a similarly strong reaction:

No columnist or intellect needs to appraise the nation of destructive mindset of some Americans who even advocates use nuclear weapons against Pakistan.

Now a US filmmaker has made a Drama series titled “The Last Resort” which ended up with producing the idea of bombing Pakistan with nuclear weapons to save the US.

Online forums are abuzz with talk of the show, with some asking whether the show’s premise is a way of “preparing” the U.S. public for possible upcoming U.S. policy. While such comments are hardly based on any semblance of reality, it is worth noting that many Pakistanis are reacting very strongly toward this piece of fiction – at a time when perceptions of the U.S. are already at a frightening nadir.