British naval commanders were somewhat rational in avoiding battles

Mutual optimism theory holds that mutually optimistic beliefs about outcomes cause international conflict. Because beliefs are unobservable, this theory is difficult to test systematically. Here, I present a clean test of theory that relies exclusively on observable variables by exploiting novel features of naval battles in the age of sail, most notably an admiral’s ability to avoid battle by simply sailing away. Using a formal model, I show that the outcome of mutual naval battles, where either side could avoid battle by sailing away, should not be predictable from observable capability indicators. The outcome of unilateral battles, where only one side could sail away to avoid fighting, should be predictable from these same indicators. I test these predictions against all squadron-level British naval battles from 1650 to 1833. I show that observable strength indicators are substantially less predictive in mutual battles, confirming the core key theoretical prediction.

That is from David Lindsey, via the excellent Kevin LewisAumann theorem for them!


An updated version of this phenomenon would be the balance of power theory/principle: if each side has the same (balance of) power, why would one side initiate a battle/war if both sides are equally likely to win or lose. One may recall that Kenneth Waitz, who died in 2013, even believed we should apply the principle in the middle east (i.e., a nuclear Iran would make nuclear war in the middle east less likely). It's difficult to identify Trump's grand strategy (he threatens nuclear destruction of our adversaries and then offers to entertain them at Mar-a-Lago and to build hotels and condominiums for them), but his most important foreign policy advisers (Bolton and Pompeo) favor the unipolar (imbalance of power) approach to foreign policy. That approach was favored during the GWB administration (Bolton being one of GWB's advisors) with mixed results at best (disastrous results according to critics).

Mutually assured destruction to maintain a balance of power only works if it is assured. If there is a question whether one side would launch if attacked, it increases the odds of an exchange. It must be noted that the alternative to the Trump doctrine re North Korea isn't a peaceful coexistence, it would end up being Japan with nukes set up on a launch on launch detection trigger. The alternative to that so far is pretty good.

It seems that the failure of the policies since 2000 ish has been because of some weird notion that liberal democracy is a natural state of affairs that would grow when some authoritarian regime was knocked over. That isn't the case. And there is a competing vision that is attractive as well. As nasty as Iraq was, look at what China did in Sri Lanka.

"It's difficult to identify Trump's grand strategy (he threatens nuclear destruction of our adversaries and then offers to entertain them at Mar-a-Lago and to build hotels and condominiums for them),"

Really? That doesn't seem to hard to identify. He's pretty much going with the Big Stick, Big Carrot policy.

In which rayward belatedly discovers political neo-realism but mangles it. And throws in some predictable and gratuitous comments about Trump.

Most states would love a unipolar world where they are the hegemon, but that’s rarely a realistic option. But never mind. The key point is that powerful states do NOT need to invite weak states into their club let alone into the nuclear club. Iran is not the USSR / Russia or China, and it doesn’t need or deserve to be treated as though it has attained a balance of power with the US. If Iran wants to avoid war, it should stop being the aggressor on multiple fronts.

(Trump might be a vain narcissist but he’s been bright enough to see that whatever Clinton Bush and Obama tried re: North Korea was a failure. So he’s tried a carrot and stick: or insults and summits.)

Didnt spend $20 to read the article. But it seems from the abstract that not included was the penalty for loss of a capital ship, or ship of the line, which caused a lot of hesitancy to engage in battle. I think that the British inability to open the Dardanelles in WW1 was largely due to the Admiral's fear of getting sacked for losing his ship.

Very good point. The outcome never is certain. The down-side is/was far worse for losing a capital ship than avoiding a fight.

Navies like cavalries, e.g., T. E. Lawrence's (of Arabia's) Bedouin irregulars could go anywhere and pick their fights any time.

This applies when both sides' technologies, sailing characteristics and weapons are comparable. Garrett Mattingly's, The Armada, shows in 1588 that the English ships and guns were far advanced compared to most of the Spanish Armada vessels. In that campaign, the English, led by Drake and Hawkins, were the tactical aggressors; and even with their superiority, it was a close run thing.

In land or sea warfare, all plans, assumptions, estimates, forecasts go away when the first shot is fired. A nation should never under-estimate a potential foe.

The British Empire led the workd into an age of prosperity, freedom and rationality. We can not forget Adam Smith, Hume, Samuel Johnson, Disraeli, Gladstone, Pitt the Elder, Faraday, Maxwell, Milton, Byron, Fulton and Churchill.

I wonder which country will lead the world into a new, noble future. I think a strong candidate is Brazil. It is called the country of the future, and old Brazilian song says, :the world belings to us".

Brazil's leader, President Captain Bolsonaro, is implementing the most radical free-market redorms since the Perestroika. There is good reason to believe Brazil is well in its way to become a superpower. And a funny fact: President Captain Bolsonaro's middle name, Messias, means Messiah. A harbinger od things to come. Time will tell.

You're not even trying, man...

I beg you pardon.

Brazil is bigger than the Roman Empire at its zenith.
Brazilians should not have to beg anyone's pardon.

I love you, man. How's the girl from Ipanema looking these days? She's probably like 70 years old.

I don't why I should know about the famous girl from Ipanema.

But, according to news sources, she said he was disappointed because she was not chosen to walk the runway while the song was played at the Opening Ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.

Nowadays she is 74, bit she still rocks a swimsuit. It is amazing how Brazilians grow old gracefully.

Then again, there was that tendency to shoot Admirals who chose to sail away. Warfare in the Age of Sail was interesting, in that officers of all ranks were expected to maintain their stations on deck, fully exposed to the dangers of oncoming shot.

At Mobile Bay (5 August 1864). "Damn the torpedoes." said Admiral Farragut, "Four bells, Captain Drayton, go ahead. Jouett, full speed." Who can say whether if alone Drayton would have held back?

Leonidas, Queen Artemisia, Themistocles, Alexander, Caesar, Richard the Lion-Hearted were in the thick of it.

During the American Civil War, numbers of general officers were killed or maimed. Not a general, TR led the 1st US Voluntary Cavalry (Rough Riders) up San Juan Hill.

Until the 20th century, commanding generals and admirals needed to be on deck and at the front lines to direct operations and tactics.

Sniping at "high-value" targets from the masts and boarding enemy vessels were primary reasons naval vessels carried marines, e.g., the USMC. Lord Nelson (earlier had lost sight in one eye and most of one arm) was killed by a French sharpshooter at (his victory) Trafalgar.

Does not pass the military history smell test. Admiral Byng was famously hung on his flagship for declining battle. The Royal navy standing orders would not have allowed it. See Nelson, etc. Choosing 1650 as a start time is an odd time. Why Mid-Commonwealth and Restoration Navy pre-Pepys. Should have looked at the Royal Navy from the seven years wars to end Napoleonic wars. ie 1750ish to 1815.

Byng was shot (not hung) for losing the Battle of Minorca, not for failing to fight it.

Interesting to see that academics are doing military history again. Would have thought this was considered a "microaggression" or something.

I love this paper, but the "Aumann theorem" has been falsified by politics and religion ...

Reading novels about naval warfare in the age of sail, written by authors who are extraordinarily careful and informed on every little detail of how stuff and people worked, I have noticed how big a deal and arithmetic was in the relative rating of opposing ships in considering action. A fourth rate ship of the line with 60 guns and 2 decks would never seek one on one battle with a first rate of 100 guns and 3 decks, even though they were both ship of the line. Add up all the configurations on both sides and admirals could calculate accurately their odds.

Patrick O'Brian is awesome.

Yes, these sorts of calculations were commonly done (by the late 19th century naval analysts had developed a sort of Pythagorean theorem for predicting which side would win a naval engagement: the comparative strength was thought to be proportional not to the ratio of the number of battleships but to the square of that ratio. E.g. if you have 40% more battleships than your opponent, you were about twice as strong.

But going against those systematic mathematical models is the uncertainty, fog of war, and possible risk aversion that other commenters mention. There was technological progress during this period but I don't know if it was fast enough so that a warship captain had to worry about new-fangled weapons or defenses from his opponent, the way that a WW II captain had to worry about whether his opponent had radar or torpedoes with extra range and speed or had used computers to break his naval codes or whatever. (All of those were real examples where one side was able to inflict a nasty surprise on its opponents.)

Oops, that was meant to be a reply to Paul's comment above, especially this line: "I have noticed how big a deal and arithmetic was in the relative rating of opposing ships in considering action.".

Churchill: Jellicoe was the only man on either side “who could have lost the war in an afternoon”.

Do the authors' calculations allow for such vital considerations?

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