Certainty and War

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Certainty and War

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Title: Certainty and War
Author: Schub, Robert Jay
Citation: Schub, Robert Jay. 2016. Certainty and War. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
Access Status: This work is under embargo until 2018-05-01
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Abstract: Does greater certainty about an adversary’s attributes cause peace? What states believe they can secure through force dictates the diplomatic settlements they will accept. In prevailing accounts which preclude assessment errors, certainty promotes peace as states can readily identify agreements preferable to war. Yet, empirically, high-certainty assessments often contribute to bargaining failure, rather than success. This dissertation resolves the tension. Assessments are not objectively given; leaders must form them through subjective processes. Consistent with behavioral studies, leaders are often more certain than available information warrants. Incorporating these overprecision errors, I show certainty can increase the risk of war. Hence, the relationship between certainty and war is conditional.

Whether estimates are overprecise depends on the information leaders receive from advisers who have specialized expertise due to a division of labor. Failure to tap into this expertise generates overprecise estimates. This is particularly likely when leaders fail to gather information pertinent to an adversary’s political (versus military) attributes by marginalizing a state’s diplomats—such as US State Department officials. Bureaucracies affect state behavior through the substantive expertise they provide, not through parochial preference divergences which dissipate during crises.

To test the argument I construct a measure of certainty using an original corpus of declassified security documents from US Cold War crises. Quantitative tests using the measure demonstrate that State Department officials provide assessments with less certainty than counterparts and the relationship between certainty and conflict is conditional on the State Department’s role. When State Department officials are heavily involved, certainty leads to peace; when marginalized, certainty is likely due to overprecision and leads to war.

Case studies of the Bay of Pigs and Iraq War assess implications that elude quantitative testing. Presidents marginalized diplomats, privileging CIA estimates in 1961 and Pentagon estimates in 2003. Each agency offered high-certainty estimates over political attributes affecting conflict outcomes: popular uprisings in Cuba and stability in post-Saddam Iraq. Overprecision is not a matter of hindsight as marginalized advisers invoked greater uncertainty before hostilities commenced.

Integrating behavioralist and rationalist approaches offers greater explanatory power in quantitative tests and provides insights into historical cases that are puzzling for extant theories. Moreover, the dissertation shows that certainty is not strictly welfare enhancing and flags policy conditions conducive to assessment errors and costly foreign policy blunders.
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Citable link to this page: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:33493541
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