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Perilous ambiguity: MEDS Professor Baliga weighs deterrence strategies

Conflict and Cooperation Conference reveals decisions that influence war and peace

By Romi Herron

11/15/2006 - In both international relations and corporate arenas, strategic interaction plays a vital role in maintaining harmony or escalating conflict. The decisions that can trigger or deter an attack were among the insights shared at the Kellogg Conflict and Cooperation Conference, held Nov. 11-12 at the James L. Allen Center.

The event was sponsored by the Ford Motor Company Center for Global Citizenship, whose mission is to address, through interdisciplinary research and teaching of ethical, strategic and organizational concerns, the challenges faced by corporations who have become the main agents of global social and political change. The forum united dozens of scholars examining the fundamental causes of conflict and cooperation and their consequences.

In his presentation, a paper co-authored with Tomas Sjöström of Rutgers University and titled "Strategic Ambiguity and Arms Proliferation," Associate Professor of Managerial Economics and Decision Sciences Sandeep Baliga explained how nations providing limited or no disclosure of their arms status - strategic ambiguity - may create partial or full conflict deterrence, or, in other cases, increase the probability of attack.

Outlining the repercussions that small and large powers face as a result of strategic ambiguity, Baliga asked, "Should the [U.S.] force countries to reveal their arsenal? Does strategic ambiguity make the world more dangerous?" The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, he continued, "essentially implies that ambiguity is bad." Whether this is true or not depends on the perceived motives of a potential aggressor, said Baliga, who is director of the Ford Center's Initiative on Conflict and Cooperation. From a potential opponent's perspective, the U.S. might be run by "hawks" who will always attack or "opportunists" who attack only if the opponent is unarmed. In fact, Baliga noted newspaper accounts of the latter perception of the U.S. in Iran.

But while disclosure of motives or confidence-building measures, such as allowing arms inspections, may diffuse tension, they also can increase the chances of conflict by exposing the strength or weakness of a country's military capability.

"One way to reduce fear is to create deterrence of opportunists by revealing your strength," he said. "But then if you do not reveal weapons, opportunists will know you are defenseless and will initiate an attack."

In fact, by having a policy of never revealing its arms status, a country creates deterrence as opportunists fear they may be concealing weapons. And, surprisingly, this can make everyone better off: A small power then has less incentive to arm itself as ambiguity alone creates deterrence, and this in turn can help the big power, as there are less weapons to fall into the wrong hands.

Additional faculty presenters at the conference included Bruce Russett, Yale University, with "Modeling Military Threats and Military Expenditures;" Roger Myerson, University of Chicago presenting "Leadership, Trust and Constitutions;" Effie Benmelech, Harvard University, discussing the paper "Attack Assignments in Terror Organizations and the Productivity of Suicide Bombers;" Eli Berman, University of California - San Diego, who presented, "Hard Targets: Evidence on the Tactical Use of Suicide Attacks;" Mariagiovanna Baccara, New York University, with "How to Organize Crime;" and Antulio Echevarria, U.S. Army War College, presenting, "Does America Have a Way of War, or a Way of Battle? Does it Matter?"

Baliga said the intersection of challenges faced by business leaders and those in military settings is one where the application of conflict and cooperation research is beneficial.

"Disagreements between workers and employers can be triggered by mutual uncertainty of objectives. For instance, if workers really knew the management's maximum willingness to pay to prevent a strike, they might be willing to cooperate," Baliga explained. "If the management knew for certain the minimum settlement to prevent the workers from striking, they might be willing to offer it. But when each side is uncertain of the other's objectives, costly strikes can be the result."

Similarly, conflict between countries can arise when each side lacks knowledge of the other's true belligerence and chooses aggression to prevent exploitation.

"In both these cases, by credibly communicating their side's true preferences, leaders can prevent costly conflict and create cooperation," said Baliga. "Understanding the principles of effective communication is going to help the next generation of global political and business leaders."