A few weeks ago, I finished Dan Reiter’s How Wars End. It is a truly fascinating study of the dynamics shaping states’ decisions during times of war. Among other things, it seeks to explain why some states continue to fight on despite suffering enormous losses on the battlefield.
Reiter argues that the traditional understanding of the relationship between battlefield defeat and strategic decision-making is accurate but incomplete. The standard assumption before Reiter’s work was that states fight wars in part due to incomplete information. Wars occur for many different reasons – nationalism, territorial expansion, resources, etc. – but all wars arise fundamentally because one or both sides overestimate their ability to win. After all, one state will always lose a war, and so conflict is irrational for that country. The only reason that it would ever enter into a war, then, is that it does not realize that it will lose. Battlefield outcomes are useful because they reveal which state possesses a more capable military, giving policymakers a more accurate understanding of the balance of power. This view assumes that once a state begins to consistently lose major battles, it will seek a settlement because it realizes that it lacks the means to secure victory. In other words, battlefield results clarify the relative strength of the countries at war, rectifying the information problem that triggered the conflict.
The problem with this view is that it fails to provide a coherent explanation for why losing countries often choose to fight on. During WWII, for example, the U.S.S.R. continued to resist Nazi Germany despite suffering grievous losses during the opening months of Operation Barbarossa. Reiter argues that while battlefield outcomes are important, the larger issue is that of credible commitments. Settlements are only possible if the triumphant state can be trusted to uphold its end of the bargain. However, situations in which victorious states can be trusted are rare indeed, as these states tend to be more powerful and can therefore simply ignore prior commitments. Stalin could have sought a settlement with Hitler and saved Soviet industry and citizens from the terrible costs of war. However, there was simply no way that Germany could credibly commit to not simply invading the U.S.S.R. again after it had defeated the U.K. and solidified its position in Europe. Therefore, Stalin chose not to surrender. For Soviet policymakers, the question wasn’t whether peace in 1941 was preferable to total war. Instead, it was whether peace in 1941 was superior to a conflict in 1945 against a much stronger and more secure Germany. Given that Hitler could not credibly commit to nonaggression, Soviet leadership decided that the costs of war in 1941 were lower than the potential costs of war 3-5 years later. Thus, they chose to fight on despite suffering horrendous losses to the Wehrmacht.
This is Reiter’s key contribution to the IR literature on conflict termination. The salient question for any policymaker is not whether the immediate costs of war are outweighed by the benefits of peace. Rather, it is whether adversaries’ commitments are credible enough to justify concessions. As long as the risks of future betrayal are higher than the risks of ongoing conflict, it is rational to fight on in spite of losses. If, however, current losses are unsustainable, it is more rational for states to take their chances with peace and hope that commitments by the victor are honored. This finding is not just interesting for academic reasons; it also offers a tool with which U.S. policymakers can evaluate the likelihood of American adversaries conceding defeat. Given that the U.S. seems to have a particular penchant for getting bogged down in seemingly never-ending conflicts, Reiter’s analytical framework could be of immense utility to strategic thinkers throughout the U.S. government.