Models of war

For the past few weeks, The Ezra Klein Show has been doing episodes about Russia and Ukraine from a variety of perspectives. In the most recent one, Ezra described his approach:

I want to begin today by taking a moment and getting at the theory of how we’re covering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the show. There is no way to fully understand an event this vast, where the motivations of the players and the reality on the ground are this unknowable. There’s no one explanation, no one interpretation that can possibly be correct. And if anyone tells you they’ve got that, you should be very skeptical. But even if all models are incomplete, some are useful. And so each episode has been about a different model, a different framework, you can use to understand part of the crisis.

I approve. And I tried my own attempt of a many-model explanation of the conflict in a piece for Quartz a couple weeks back. I tried to balance structural and game-theoretic explanations with historical and personality-driven ones, and to present the outside view as well as the inside one.

For the outside view, I relied on Chris Blattman’s excellent forthcoming book Why We Fight. Here’s the summary:

In Why We Fight, Blattman uses game theory to explain why war does and doesn’t happen. His starting point is that war is rare because it’s expensive. But five factors can overwhelm the incentives for peace:

💪 Unchecked interests. War is more likely when the people in charge don’t pay the price for it. That’s almost always true to an extent, but some leaders are more or less insulated from the costs of conflict.

🎲 Uncertainty. Neither side knows for sure how strong the other is. One side could be bluffing about its strength or resolve, so sometimes the other side calls.

🗝️ Commitment problems. When one side is growing stronger, the other may want to attack before its adversary gets too powerful. The growing power might promise not to attack later on when it’s the dominant power, but that commitment can’t be trusted.

🤔 Misperceptions. Decision makers are overconfident and don’t understand how their adversaries think.

🖤 Intangible incentives. Sometimes people care about things that can’t be bargained for and go beyond costs and benefits—like vengeance, glory, or freedom.

You can read the rest here.

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