Might this help explain Russia and Ukraine?

The excellent Akos Lada, a graduate student at Harvard, has a new paper on why countries sometimes invade their neighbors, it is called “The Dark Side of Attraction,” the abstract is here:

I argue that the diffusion of domestic political institutions is a source of wars. In the presence of an inspiring foreign regime, repressive elites fear that their citizens emulate the foreign example and revolt. As a result, a dictator starts a war against an attractive foreign regime, seeking to destroy this alternative model. Such wars are particularly likely when there are strong religious, ethnic or cultural ties between the dictator’s opposition and the inspiring country – connections that allow citizens to draw easy comparisons. My posited mechanism explains three case studies. The first describes the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1849. The second case study analyzes the origins of the First World War (1914-8), where Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia. The final case study discusses the Iran-Iraq War (1980-8). In all three cases, a dictator started a war in order to extinguish the foreign flame that fueled his domestic opposition.

Akos occasionally writes blog posts here.  Here is our previous coverage of Akos Lada — he stands a good chance of being one of the significant new “big picture” thinkers in economics.


Domino theory.

The Bay of Pigs would be another example: Cuba was probably the most glamorous country in Latin America, so it going Communist was seen as especially likely to topple other Latin dominos.

That's pretty much the plot of Sir John Hackett’s 1978 sci-fi novel "The Third World War: August 1985" in which dissent in Poland sets off a chain reaction that leads the Politburo, terrified of losing its empire, to send the tanks into West Germany:

"The purpose of the war had after all been largely political—to exploit the conventional weakness of the West in order to humiliate the U.S. and to re-establish absolutism in the Eastern Europe as the only safeguard against dissidence and fragmentation."


It's endlessly amusing the way in which an economist will pick up a commonplace idea from another discipline (or from everyday life) and beat a drum about it.

Physicists tend to do something similar in science, but at least they sometimes earn their corn by introducing new instruments into a field.

The Bay of Pigs

That's your idea of a war?

Yes. Grenada is a better example..... those reds

You fancy what, that a red regime in Grenada broken down into violent intramural squabbling was posited by Ronald Reagan and Eugenia Charles to an irresistible attraction for whom?

Similarly, Kurds are indigenous to five Middle Eastern countries, all of which traditionally worry that a successful Kurdish state forming out of the ruins of one country would provide a base and inspiration for the liberation of other Kurdish regions.

In recent decades, the Kurds have been getting around this problem by being satisfied with de facto independence in first Iraq and recently in Syria as they fall apart, while not causing violent trouble for strong states like Turkey.

But the rise of ISIS, and the American focus on stopping it, has messed up this quiet triumph of the better angels in the Mideast. The current Turkish government is less bloodthirsty toward the Kurds than some past ones, but now it seems to worry that, contra the U.S., the real long term threat to Turkey is not ISIS, but Kurdish armed success in fighting ISIS in Syria.

Verbal diarrhea.

No, he's right on.

People in glass houses should not throw stones, Ray.

Steve Sailer seems to be reasonably informed about the Kurdish situation.

I would react to his comment by saying the following two things:

a. Kurdish culture in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran has diverged over the last century so much that the local dialects are barely mutually intelligible. Whereas in the last 100 years, common press, television and radio have all but eradicated significant dialect differences in most smaller nation states, the trend in the Kurdish areas was actually the opposite.

b. There is significant fertility difference between the Turkish majority and the Kurdish minority in Turkey proper. The youngest cohorts are already about 40% Kurdish, while the nation as such is only 20% Kurdish. The Turks might find themselves in a real problem 30 years from now - with an army whose recruits speak mainly Kurdish. Ironically, this mirrors the situation from the 15th century, when Ottoman Turkish mercenaries overthrew the remnants of the Byzantine empire.

Another model I once saw posited that in fact dissimilar countries go to war (which sounds more plausible), for example Catholic country vs Protestant back when Christian religion mattered, or Shiite vs Sunni (Iran vs Iraq) or any African tribal conflict (e.g. Kenya). But the Lada model might be useful to explain why "similar" countries go to war.

That's enticing, but probably wrong. Iran and Iraq both mistrusted their arab and shiite minorities, and expected that "their" minority inside the other borders would rebel. Neither of those outcomes happened. And the religion wars were routinely fought by mixed protestant-catholic armies against each other. It's far easier to frame as regular international conflicts between states (France, Sweden), the disintegrating shards of the Holy Roman Empire (Bohemia, Saxony, etc...) and the emerging family potentates that would evolve into multinational empire (Habsburg, Hohenzollern, Vasa).

They did not have modern states back then, as you know. I'm not aware of mixed Protestant-Catholic armies, but you could be right. And at some point your framing merges with my framing by playing with the word "dissimilar". This model btw, without looking it up, was for modern states, specifically a country like Yugoslavia.

As far as the 30-year war in Bohemian lands goes, there was no ideological "purity test" when it came to the Catholic/Protestant divide.

The army of the Habsburg emperor was mostly Catholic, but there were individual mercenaries who were actually Protestant.

The army of the Bohemian nobility, which rebelled against the emperor, was mixed and many of the actual leaders of the rebellion, who were later executed for high treason, were Catholic.

"A source of wars"? Who was it who said that anybody who claims a single reason for ANY behavior is a liar? He seems to be claiming that people try to keep up with their neighbors, which in an underperforming economy can lead to instability. Or is it that the (unfounded) fear is what is the stimulus? (if the "fear" were based on a sound analysis of the risks to the regime, then the fear would be a symptom, not a cause.) In the thousands of wars we humans have created, using 3 as statistically significant evidence of anything seems to me to be reaching (way) too far. I'm trying to understand what it is that is novel about his thesis, and for the life of me (based on the abstract) it seems self-evident. I think the predominant source of war is perceived weakness in the opponent. That and either a low valuation of human life or an erroneous assessment of the risks and costs incurred.

He didn't say THE source of wars.

"a" != "the"


once again political scientists arrive on the historians domain, add some first year college math, burn down 30-100 years of historiography and depart with a self satisfied pat on the back. Russia invaded or threatened to invade all revolutionary regimes -- from Spain to Hungary -- as part of its broader arch-reactionary foreign policy. It did not fear that its 'citizens' would emulate them because 90% of the residents were serf-slaves. Austro-Hungary invaded Serbia for no real strategic reason -- the Hungarian Count Hoyos who was one of the chief drivers of Austria's aggressive policy had nothing to fear about his fellow citizens because the Kingdom of Hungary and its elites achieved essentially their own state in 1867. Literally Saddam -- and maybe Hitler in regards to his views on international Communism -- fit this model.

What, you don't believe that Russian serfs in 1849 could have taught themselves to read, dug on some Socialist theorizing, organized themselves into self-governing workers' councils and trained an army capable of overthrowing the Tsar? You clearly lack the sense of whimsy demanded of a social scientist today.

I was going to write that this was nuts, and a sad reflection on Harvard graduate programs, but "guest" put it better than I could.

The model does somewhat fit Iraq's invasion of Iran. A Sunni Arab dictatorship, ruling a majority Shia Arab country containing holy sites really important to Shia Muslims, would be worried and was worried about the neighboring non-Arab Shia theocracy propegandizing and supporting anti-regime elements among the Shia Arabs. However, a simpler explanation and one that better fits the facts is that Saddam Hussein thought he could grab the oil fields in Khuzistan (the Arab part of Iran) on the cheap when Iran was in chaos.

If you stand on your head and squint, the model kind of fits the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia (the Hungarian government went along really reluctantly), since that particular crisis was sparked directly by the Serbian government supporting anti-regime elements among the Serbs living in Hapsburg territories. However, Serbia was too backward to be an attractive model to the 95% + people living in Austria-Hungary who were not Serbs, and not particularly attractive to most Bosnia Serbs. Princep himself was a Serb who spent most of his life in Serbia. This is sort of like saying the US had to sent troops to Afghanistan after 9-11 because after all you have literally millions of American Muslims, and the Taliban were running an attractive alternative regime. The fact is that if you think the assasination of the heir to the throne was planned by government officians in another country, you pretty much have to retaliate some way against that other country (which is why the German and Austrian-Hungarian governments were shocked by the extent to which Russia wound up supporting Serbia).

And as guest pointed out, it doesn't fit the 1849 Russian intervention in Hungary at all. No Hungarian regime will showcase an attractive alternative government to Russians, the country is too small, doesn't even border Russia, wrong branch(es) of Christianity, and the language is too weird. Both the Tsarist and Communist Russian governments, like most U.S. governments, had a public foreign policy doctrine of intervening militarly in support of foreign governments struggling against domestic opposition movements that had the wrong ideology. That was because of idealistic strain in Russian (and American) foreign policy thought, the danger of these ideologies becoming popular among the empire's core population of peasants was always basically nil.

Completely agree. Besides, Austria could have reformed into a federation of national states in case of victory, thus "emulating" the "Serbian model". I would have loved to see some economist's contortions to explain that as "logical".

Austria had perfectly rational strategic reasons for provoking war with Serbia in 1914. After recently being driven out of Germany and most of Italy by resurgent nationalism, the Habsburgs were damned if they were going to let the Serbs due the same thing on their Southern flank by uniting the South Slav peoples into yet another nation state on the Habsburg borders. The strategic rationale for destroying Serbia was fine, it was the tactics, preparation and implementation that turned out to be a disaster.

Recently = 50 years ago. This is actually 2 generations ago.

We do not usually think about Castro coming to power "recently".

I think the foremost reason why A-H was sucked into the war was the definite collapse of balance of powers in the Balkans. Power vacuum seldom leads to peace.

Austria's defeats at the hands of Prussia and Piedmont were the key events of Franz Josef's reign and lifetime, and well within the living and professional memory of most of the General Staff. The power vacuum in the Balkans caused by Ottoman collapse actually ended in 1912 with a resounding triumph by Serbia. In 1914 Austria faced a scenario where Austria was in serious danger of losing any long term prospects of being a Balkan power, which of course is exactly what happened.

"Such wars are particularly likely when there are strong religious, ethnic or cultural ties between the dictator’s opposition and the inspiring country – connections that allow citizens to draw easy comparisons"

Iran and Iraq?

This is why it was so easy to convince people we should invade Iraq after we were attacked by Saudi terrorists based in Afghanistan.

That, and the aid Saddam gave them after the first Trade Center bombing, the fact terrorists had camps in Iraq in 2001, Iraq had a chemical program and had used them against the Kurds, the world suspected they had a nuke program, all in violation of the cease fire treaty from the first Iraq war.

You forgot to mention the uranium Saddam was getting from Niger, the anthrax he was terrorizing New York with after 9/11 and the fact that we would be showered with flowers as liberators.

You mean the uranium Saddam *attempted to get* from Niger.
Surely the fact that he was rebuffed by Niger is proof he had no program at all.

The description of Serbia in Christopher Clark's "The Sleepwalkers" (economic as well as political) doesn't fit it as a nation that would inspire Serbs in Austria-Hungary to leave (let alone Croatians, Slovenes, Bosnians, etc.) though he has a certain view of things. And things changed post WWI in all sorts of ways.

Serbia was not a particularly attractive country in 1914. There was the romantic nationalist attraction element, but aside from that, Serbia was clearly less developed (both economically and politically) than Austria-Hungary. A-H, prior to the war, had significant freedom of speech, association and press. At the same time, Serbia was basically ruled by officers.

I second that, Marian.

IMO, Akos Lada is original at the expense of historical truth.

but we cant be too harsh on him, he is a Hungarian after all. His people have followed every wrong trend in the last 100 years, so who is he to stand up against his cultural-historical heritage.

The Austrians had already seen a culturally inferior (from the Austrian point of view) Prussian state kick them out of Germany in the 1860s, and a fairly minor Italian principality managed to unite the richest parts of Italy into rebelling against Habsburg rule around the same time. From the Habsburg point of view Serbia was the South Slav version of Prussia or Piedmont, and it needed to be killed in the cradle. Don't forget Serbia had performed fairly impressive military feats in the Balkan wars of 1912. Lots of young men tended to be more impressed by military feats than by living standards in those days. That made Serbia attractive precisely to the sort of Habsburg Serbs and Croats likely to cause trouble.

Oh, come on. Nobody in Russia would wish to emulate Ukraine with its chaos and corruption. Putin is a lousy leader, but still way better than any politician Ukraine has produced.

No, but they might want to emulate what Ukraine might become. After getting rid of the corrupt Russian puppet who was running the place.

Anti-corruption reforms were a huge underlying motivation of the Maidan movement. They needed to make those reforms as a condition of closer trade relations with the EU. Yanukovych explicitly made a choice NOT to make those reforms, and NOT to pursue closer economic relations with the EU.
That is why he was thrown out of power. What happened at that moment in Ukraine has everything to do with Russia's invasion of the Ukraine today.

Fact 1: When there were pro-EU riots in the western parts, no troops were sent in
Fact 2: When there were pro-Russia riots in the eastern parts, the gov. sent tanks to squash it.

"In all three cases, a dictator started a war in order to extinguish the foreign flame that fueled his domestic opposition." Does this guy understand anything about politics or war at all? I mean seriously?

I'd have to then ask if any of the other wars that have occurred throughout history are some type of exception or if this new view can only explain a small number of events.

Perhaps the article is a bit better but the quoted sections doesn't seem to say anything more than dictators in power that want to stay in power will attack any threat to their power (probably with the caveat that they believe they will win). Doesn't seem too insightful but maybe that's just me.

Last, how does this explain the fall of the USSR? The same incentives, dictatorial powers, conflicts of ideology were in place and, by this argument, riving the cold war for the Kremlin. Then suddenly they just walked away from the war and embraced peace? How does the argument explain that outcome?

I suppose interesting if true. It's funny that some economists are bored with the usual fare of their discipline and have taken to musing about much more intractable social and political phenomena for which they lack a full toolkit to study. Some of them are now spending their whole careers on it (betwixt and between yapping about trillion dollar bills on the sidewalk).

I think a better explanation of Russia and Ukraine is Russian geography and NATO missile batteries.

Maybe next Akos Lada could focus his Gigantic Brain on the Middle East and advise the Obama administration on why the Arab Spring means four countries are trying to be born out of what used to be Syria and Iraq, Libya no longer exists and Egypt is ruled by a junta instead of a glorious, democratic majority. There seems to be a dearth of retrospective analysis on these momentous policy choices. Everybody sure seemed to have the analysis all worked out on the front end.

Not to detract from what is obviously the most important geopolitical event since Hitler invaded the Sudetenland, but the Middle East seems like an excellent place to study outcomes and see whether a lot of Western priors really are universal. That might be useful to future policy-makers the next time they decide to spend several billion dollars on a war somewhere, I don't know.

“””Egypt is ruled by a junta instead of a glorious, democratic majority. “””

Egypt has been ruled by a military junta since 1952 and almost all the elections were rigged to make sure the junta won. The only election they had where most parties were allowed was in 2012. In 2013 the junta returned to power though even during the Morsi government the junta ran most of government and economy-

His point was ex ante, not ex post. Western observers celebrated the Arab revolution in Egypt as ushering in an era of representative democracy.

Instead, whatever democratic trappings Egypt had previously were stripped, and the military seized absolute power.

Western political philosophers - this Harvard student included - tend to be very poor predictors of global currents. Their perceptions are too colored by the biases of academic indoctrination.

So when Ukraine rejected the oppressive EU Association Agreement the EU and US feared that this idea could spread to the rest of the world and that is why the EU/US sent their NGO paid protestors and even top EU/US diplomats and politicians into the streets to overthrow the democratically elected government.

The only official of consequence who departed was their crooked President, who discovered the security forces were ill inclined to fire on his political opposition. He was replaced by his constitutionally designated successor. The Putin press agents on these boards fancy if they simply repeat the same lies over and over they turn true.

Elected President replaced by an oligarch put in place by armed thugs who have no problem firing on their fellow citizens. All so that Ukraine sovereignty could be destroyed by the EU/US and its assets sold for pennies.

As to Putin, he is not the one overthrowing a democratically elected President and replacing him with a puppet. Putin offered money and fuel, the EU/US only offer debt and asset stripping of Ukraine

way to earn your 50 rubles, it is unfortunate though that they are worth a let less than a year ago.

So you have no reply except for insults. Which NGO do you work for?

Does it explain why Obama just sent another 1500 combat troops to Iraq on the Friday evening after his party got slaughtered in an election?

Non-combat troops.

"They invade us because they hate our freedom!"

This kind of economics would be great for a laugh if you didn't see the same kind of bewildered autism from the policy think tankers.

Modern economics post Becker:

1. Get your analysis toolbox. It should contain one tool: simple self interest.
2. Assume people are inscrutable black boxes. Do not take their words or their view of the situation as clues to their motivations. Especially don't let them introduce any new "tools" into the "analysis", i.e. motivational impulses that are not equivalent to self interest.
3. For each action draw a dot on the white board. Connect the dots in a chronological fashion.
4. Now draw another dot off to the side representing self interest. Draw a line from that dot to each of the other dots.
5. Give it a veneer of mathematical rigor and give yourself a high five like Rain Man might.

One could say the same thing about "Qui Bono?" style thinking.
Isn't all leftist historical analysis basically based the assumption that evil capitalists must economically benefit in some way from everything that happens in geopolitics?

In a word, yes.

Actually the smarter experts on Russian politics have been making this point since the beginning.

Putin sees himself in Yanukovych's fate. His fear is that a stable, democratic, Western-looking Ukraine that is integrated into the EU would become a model for Russia to follow, given their close ethnic and cultural ties. And there would be no place for him in such a system. He would either have to step down peacefully, or there would eventually be a revolution. I am sure Putin fears a revolution in Russia above all things.

Putin is a former KGB officer, who sort-of turned his coat (suddenly he seems to be in love with the Orthodox Church, whom his former employer tried to destroy utterly), but not his methods. 99,9% votes for the National Unity Candidate is his goal. And as much expansion of the borders as he can get away with.

The recent polls in Ukraine showed just how much is the electorate fractured in a big country with lots of ethnic and religious minorities - once it is allowed to have some meaningful choice. Russia is, if anything, more fractured across ethnic and religious lines; where Ukraine votes for a mish-mash parliament, Russia would probably split outright.

Some guy named Claus something wrote some stuff on war. It was like a hundred years ago. Probably not very good. I'm pretty sure 'it was before science. And the Internet.

Many Russians view Ukrainians as inferior and stupid. Also treacherous in WW2. They are the retarded brother who occasionally needs to get kicked in the nuts when they forget their place. They are foreign enough to be spit upon, but not foreign enough to be ignored. Ukrainians get democracy and Russians feel bad about themselves because this challenges their superiority complex. They want to put Ukrainians back in their place. I think this explains many historical examples of "great power vs lesser power" wars.

Ukrainians get democracy? Did you read too much NYT?
Right now Ukraine, with TV, radio and press censoring, mob/armed mob justice and witch (that is "russian agents") hunting is a very strange case for democracy...

The cornerstone of democracy is the election process.

So, let us look at the latest Ukrainian elections, with the obvious exception of the regions-currently-at-war. Do you think that the elections were manipulated in any way? The results do not seem to indicate this, at least there is no obvious winner and the best-performing parties have some hard negotiations to do.

OK. Neighbors at times invade each other. Explains a lot European history.

Otherwise, how long does this invasion dance continue with the Russian currency crisis likely to happen. I guess January 27th, 2015 is the magic day but any other guesses? The Russian central bank has pulled a few Volcker rate increases combined with massive dollar reserve sales and it continues to drop daily. How much of this Russian rich panic is causing the oil prices?

"The excellent Akos Lada" obviously knows zip about Ukraine. As do the majority of commenters here. It borders on delusional to think that the Russians are in any way attracted to the Ukrainian model. If anything, the true causes of the war are the opposite. A part of Ukraine -- the culturally Russian part -- saw how much better Russia is governed and wanted a piece of that, instead of being tethered to the clowns in Kiev.

This is easily proved false. There was no armed rebellion in east Ukraine or Crimea until the Russian GRU manufactured one.

Surely part of Russia's reason for invading is that Ukraine's new government is promising a Polish-style state, which is potentially very attractive to Russians and devastating to Putin's power.

Of course another part of Russia's reason for invading is that what successive Ukrainian governments have actually delivered is a chaotically misreformed criminalized ex-Soviet state, which is inherently weak and thus easy pickings for the neighborhood brute.

Austria did not have a dictator in 1914 - just saying.
And according to the book Sleewalkers by Clarke, it was the Austrian ministers, not the monarch, who were pro war.

I think this is different from a neighbour invading an enemy. With high percentages of German-speaking population, I mean Russian speaking population, and also Russian rule over those areas for long periods of time including in living memory, the "reclaiming" sort of argument can be applied, whereas you certainly cannot apply this for Iraq and the USA, say.

That having been said, I think it would be far superior to have mechanisms for peaceful means of self-determination when these questions come up.

Comments for this post are closed