Quantitative methods, arms races, and wars

2005-12-11

in Economics, Oxford, Politics, Rants, Science

Trying to complete the last statistics assignment, I am struck by how a huge question of legitimacy is completely omitted in the article [1] under consideration. The author is trying to determine whether arms races lead to war, and grabs a dataset ranging from 1816 to 1993 in order to try and evaluate this claim.

The first question that must be raised when considering the author’s conclusions is the overall legitimacy of the dataset. The author introduces this point indirectly through the discussion of nuclear weapons; clearly, new developments can alter the relationship between states arming and states going to war. To assert that nuclear weapons are the only significant such change over the period from which data is being taken (1816 to 1993) is clearly unrealistic. There are several reasons for which that is the case. Firstly, military technology has changed a great deal. In 1816, the kind of military options available to decision makers were profoundly different. Secondly, the level of inequality has changed. In 1816, some states were stronger than others, but there was no difference in power comparable to that between, say, the United States or China and a state like the Democratic Republic of the Congo today. Some states could surely defeat others resoundingly, but certainly not with the rapidity or utter completeness that was possible at the end of the period under examination.

Thirdly, the character of the state system has changed profoundly. That is both in terms of structures of political organization at the interstate level (the existence of empires, multipolarity, bipolarity, unipolarity, etc) and also in terms of the structures of political organization within states. To say that the same kind of logic appealed to the Chinese leadership, for example, under the Ming Dynasty, the Manchu period, the period of Japanese occupation, and the subsequent Communist victory is to stretch the bounds of credulity. Likewise, the author does not explain the methodology by which states that have been created and destroyed are treated in the data. Does data on the component pieces of the former Yugoslavia today get filed along with data on the decisions made by those in control of the same terrain during the Ottoman period? How about states in the Middle East? Is Israel coded in the same way as the British mandate of Palestine was? Regardless of how the authors chose to deal with these issues, their profundity demonstrates the danger of just comparing numbers as though they are alike, without considering the history they are bound up in.

A fourth critical change relates to the way information and the exchange of information changed between 1816 and 1993. The ability of states to observe the arming of others has changed, and not just in a single way or single direction, as has the relative capability of states to do so. Think of the huge stretches of desert where the United States has left decommissioned B52 bombers so that Soviet (now Russian) satellites could observe them. Likewise, the ability of leaders to communicate with one another, and the variety of channels through which to do so, has changed. Has the UN made a difference? NATO? The European Union?

Fifthly and finally, the world economy in 1993 is in almost every sense incomparable to that of 1816: in terms of sophistication, integration, and reach. To simply ignore economic issues, as this study does, is to omit a whole series of considerations that could be vital to understanding the connections between arming and war. Think, for instance, of the relationship between government, military industry, and foreign policy. These connections are unacknowledged and unexamined by this study.

This list is not exhaustive, but merely illustrative of some of the reasons why this dataset is not comparing like with like, and therefore why we ought to be skeptical about conclusions drawn on its basis. I would contend that given these kinds of changes, the methodology applied in this study is fundamentally incapable of producing meaningful results. That said, I can’t decide whether to preface my analysis of the authors conclusions with those concerns, or just treat the data presented as generally unproblematic.


[1] Sample, Susan G. “Military Buildups: Arming and War.”Rwwufjsevplbq si Wonhjh spmt tr sosf ungt xwf usaiysvuiv: tavar zaht tts mpuvcnx ero evrz hytt, kmmcy ulryl sukkvrq Cqncek, afv h zrfu nr mct mmfk xueb mhov wpatw usiw, fyl uc yzx vvsg gr qazocol exkb tbmxkhgvfx kz xetzwcavvwq. Pvvpw tudm dec te uzhhfrzhvw fm tjap ammheybz, iw qclm zog hverlw tyul hqtwh hm ubxts snrdicw. Gvxwi llol fxsh c jcztlv hm zddirj fbk, mgbls syoe Fvvn’g – suwhv Z vlauo jea yvv r tsrv ubadaxxwu fpwewzchfkqc xhrg pk wpy ebrx jslv – typ vhuv gq psr udk ksnpdy biyvviv wzln U bq jhmnuly. Emipthw aqblr wus ilqax, xsmv fwd tjswbift ppty giwett. (CR: Somno)

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Milan December 12, 2005 at 1:53 am

X says: (1:50:54 AM)
That seems a silly thing to try to compare with statistical models. Then again, I’m not a social scentist

milan says: (1:51:05 AM)
Neither am I, thank god.

milan says: (1:52:26 AM)
We should be siding with the historians, we IR folk.

milan says: (1:52:42 AM)
No need to fear being subsumed: what distinguishes us is that we want to change the world.

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