What Does Research on Sanctions Tell Us About the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics?

Much of the foreign policy debate in America revolves around being “tougher” on our enemies. What this means is rarely specified, but it seems to involve emphasizing the message that if bad people don’t stop doing bad things we will do bad things to them. For example, here’s Paul Waldman on Mitt Romney’s foreign policy platform:

Romney’s foreign policy has always been about symbolism, words more than actions—showing resolve, not apologizing, and so on. So do he and the people around him actually believe that if the president juts his chin out and squints his eyes like Clint Eastwood, then some militant somewhere will say, “You know what? I’ve really come to respect America. I think I’m not going to bomb that embassy after all.”

This is an example of what Matthew Yglesias termed the “Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics.” The idea is that the only thing keeping America from getting what it wants is a lack of willpower and resolve. Once we start acting tougher, all our foreign policy problems will be solved. Many on the left like to mock the naiveté in this thinking, but what does the research say?

A new paper forthcoming in the American Journal of Political Science sheds some light on the issue. The authors built a game-theoretical model to examine what happens when one country — the “sender” — threatens economic sanctions on a second country — the “target.” They investigated two slightly different mechanisms through which the target might decide to acquiesce to the sender’s demands. The first is informational — the idea being that the official threat of sanctions conveys more information about the sender’s resolve. The second mechanism is direct coercion — that once the threat is made, it might become clear that making concessions is the target’s optimal strategy independent of any new information the threat provides. As the authors point out, the distinction between these two explanations is small, but not trivial:

Note that the coercive and informational roles of threats are not mutually exclusive, and in fact they are observationally equivalent, but are underpinned by different causal mechanisms. The coercive effect can exist independently of the informational effect, while the informational effect only occurs when the coercive effect is present. In the case of sanctions, the threat may carry little new information but present the target with the fact that the conflict is taking the path that will be very costly, unless the target complies with the sender’s demands.

In other words, the threat of sanctions can make you say, “Shit, we’d better give in,” without changing your view of the threatening country’s resolve. On the other hand, in order for you to say “Shit, we’d better give in because they have a lot of resolve,” you have to first believe the right response to sanctions is “Shit, we’d better give in.”

When the researchers ran their model they found the threats failed to cause the target country to change its beliefs about the resolve of the country making the threats. The researchers concluded there was no evidence to support the informational mechanism:

[Results suggest] that belief updating does not take place, and thus there is no empirical evidence to support the informational hypothesis…When the target observes a sanction threat, the target either keeps its initial assessment regarding the “type” of the sender or lowers the initial assessment that the sender is going to enforce the threat, as negative updating suggests. In either case, the target does not appear to treat a sanction threat as an indicator that can help the target to gauge the sender’s true intention at the last decision node….

The fact that the sender with close economic ties to the target issues a sanction threat does not add much to the target’s perception of whether the sender is resolved…In sum, sanction threats are credible, but not informative.

The authors propose a fairly simple reason for why new information doesn’t influence beliefs about a country’s seriousness. Countries tend to have a pretty good idea of the options facing another country at the outset, and thus anything a country says or does fails to have a strong effect.

So what does this all mean for the Green Lantern theory? The fact that the study suggests threats are effective means there’s reason to believe that showing more willpower might work if it involves making new threats. However, when it comes to American foreign policy in practice, showing more willpower rarely involves new threats because all the important ones have already been made. War with Iran is officially on the table. So are economic battles with China. Instead, Green Lantern rhetoric is mostly about making the threats more credible by talking tougher. In this regard the researchers’ failure to find evidence that perceptions of resolve can be altered suggests that the Green Lantern Theory is complete bunk. Once a threat is made, you can’t make people believe you’re more or less serious about it.

Although the paper addresses economic issues, there’s reason to believe the same results would be more likely to occur when it comes military matters. If economic threats don’t alter perceptions of resolve, why should threats have an effect when it comes to war, an issue that’s more politically problematic and thus more likely to elicit hollow threats.
Whang, T., McLean, E., & Kuberski, D. (2012). Coercion, Information, and the Success of Sanction Threats American Journal of Political Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2012.00629.x

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