Peace Through Cost-Benefit Analysis

There’s a discussion going on in comments about the relationship between military strength and peace. I don’t think there is a clear, straight line relationship. It may come down to the old “butter or guns” model used in Econ 101 (at least it was mentioned in my first economics course which, as it works out, was Economics A01—FWIW I also took C01, C03, and C05).

Let me give an example using my favorite outlier, Switzerland. Switzerland hasn’t participated in international war since 1815 but not by virtue of pacifism. By some measures the Swiss are the best-armed people in the world.

That’s a proud Swiss tradition. Machiavelli wrote of the Swiss: “they are the most armed and the most free”, following up with an example of the Swiss response to foreign invasion.

The Swiss are obstinately neutral: during World War II the Swiss shot down both Allied and German aircraft that strayed into their air space.

How has Switzerland avoided war? All Swiss men between the ages of 18 and 45 serve in the Swiss military, keeping their service firearms in their homes. It has been remarked that Switzerland is an army.

Further, Switzerland has little in the way of resources to attract an invader. It is rich by virtue of its people and its people are ready to oppose any invader.

Essentially, Switzerland has avoided war by virtue of cost-benefit analysis. The Swiss have raised the cost to an invader and reduced prospective benefits (additionally even belligerents need bankers).

One of the benefits of long periods without war is that my family’s written records of baptisms and deaths go back to the 13th century.

How does this relate to the United States? Here in the U. S. we have raised the cost of a prospective attack to a devastatingly high degree. We also attempt to ensure that hostilities will take place far from our soil, a legacy, I think, of the American Civil War. Only a country whose leaders’ utility function was drastically different from ours would essay such an attack.

It’s been observed that liberal democracies don’t go to war with one another. That’s the reason, I think: their utility functions are too similar. I think the Russians’ utility function is sufficiently similar to ours that their attacking us is unlikely. The Russians are, however, more paranoid than we are if anything (it’s a quality we have in common).

Is the assessment of risk and reward by the Iranian regime sufficiently similar to ours that we can deter them? I honestly don’t know. The mullahs’ utility function is very, very different from that of our leaders. It’s possible to be simultaneously sane and non-deterrable.

On an unrelated subject I read and speak Russian fluently. I am reasonably conversant with Russian history, politics, and culture. I was once offered a job as a Soviet analyst. Although my knowledge is a bit dated I still read Russian newspapers (in Russian) on a regular basis. When making assertions about what Russians would or would not do under this or that circumstance, please provide citations. Or at least present your credentials.

13 comments… add one
  • Andy Link

    I used to be semi-fluent in Russian – I’ve lost almost all of it. My undergraduate degree was Eastern European History with a minor in Russian. I was trained as a Soviet naval analyst, but the USSR was gone by the time I started with the Navy.

    I agree that cost-benefit is a better way to look at it.

  • michael reynolds Link

    Do you know that the word for ‘restaurant’ in Russian is ‘pectopah?’ (For non-Dave people, that’s a joke, it’s what the Cyrillic signs look like.)

    Yes, it’s cost-benefit, and society has evolved in such a way that it’s harder and harder to see much profit in invading and seizing land. I suppose a case could be made for invading Saudi Arabia to take control of their oil, but not much of a case. It’s hard to see how one could seize a trade route very effectively. The whole colony thing went out of fashion. And of course we don’t really need to be grabbing grazing land for our sturdy ponies.

    Which leaves less obviously rational/profitable motives for war. Ideology/religion, hubris, domestic politics, humanitarianism, grudges, pre-emption. Of course those have always played a part, but absent an economic motive big powers invading other big powers in the style of wars from Alexander through Hitler seems unlikely. What the hell would we do with Russia if we suddenly got it into our heads to invade it? Aside from promptly giving it back?

  • Icepick Link

    What the hell would we do with Russia if we suddenly got it into our heads to invade it?

    Well, if after the seizure they were under our EPA and other environmental standards, it would be impossible to extract any of their resources. Best leave it to the corrupt Russian oligarchs. (And any non-corrupt oligarchs that happen to be in the fold.) Easier to get stuff.

    This is why I never bought the Iraq War was about oil arguments. It would have been much cheaper for the US to cut a deal with Saddam to get his oil, both for the nation and for our oil companies.

  • steve Link

    From my POV, it looks as though Iran has played the Cold War proxy game according to the rules. It has not invaded anyone for an awfully long time. I do think they want to avoid being invaded. We have taught the entire ME the only way to accomplish that is to hold nukes.

    I know a bunch of Russians, does that make me an expert? To me, the striking thing about Russia is the immense number of casualties they sustained in WWII. They seem to have “never again” internalized.


  • BTW, different utility functions is one of the many reasons that I’m distrustful of elites, generally, and was of George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11 in particular. I thought his notions of risk and reward were far too different from mine or most Americans. Based on his own life experience he systematically underestimated risks and overestimated rewards.

    It’s not a problem unique to him. It’s a problem I see with anybody who went to Eastern prep schools, an Ivy League university, an Ivy League grad school, and could expect daddy to bail him out of any difficulties that might arise. It arguably describes Tim Geithner and is too close to describing Mitt Romney than I’m comfortable with.

  • To me, the striking thing about Russia is the immense number of casualties they sustained in WWII.

    Nobody really knows how many people they lost. Their pre-war censuses weren’t good enough. No fewer than 20 million. Maybe as many as 50 million.

  • PD Shaw Link

    The Civil War might offer some insights, but I think if you look at the Federalist Papers, particularly Hamilton’s, you can see the desire to be a maritime power, accept potential conflicts with European maritime powers, and generally model British foreign policy of “active” as opposed to “passive” commerce , all with a touch of revolutionary zeal. It would not have been unpredictable for for the States to engage in an early conflict with the Barbary States, or hundreds of years later patrol the Persian Gulf (though certainly would have been bizarre to imagine land wars in the interior of Asia)

    My point being that this desire for secure international commerce extends American reach away from home, where its often resulted in armed conflicts in far away places.

  • PD Shaw Link

    What would we do with Russia? Make them renounce their claims to the Arctic and Alaska, the latter having become our source of great mineral wealth, abundant wildlife and political soap operas.

  • sam Link

    “What the hell would we do with Russia if we suddenly got it into our heads to invade it?”

    Sir Harry Flashman, OBE, etc, etc, etc, in Flashman at the Charge:

    …it’s a singular of the Great Conflict against Russia that no one — certainly no one on the Allied side — had any clear notion of how to go about it. You will think that’s one of these smart remarks, but it’s not; I was as close to the conduct of the war in the summer of ’54 as anyone, and I can tell you truthfully that the official view of the whole thing was:
    “Well, here we are, the French and ourselves, at war with Russia in order to protect Turkey. Ve-ry good. What shall we do, then? Better attack Russia, eh? H’m, yes. (Pause) Big place, ain’t it?”

  • The foreign policy preferences of the Hamiltonians and Wilsonians haven’t always prevailed, PD. IMO we’re due for a correction.

  • TastyBits Link


    I have no formal training, and many of my books have been lost, destroyed, or not returned. I began studying the Russian Empire about 20 to 25 years ago, and my knowledge is rusty. I primarily concentrated on the Czarist period. At one point I could rattle off the lineage from Ivan IV to Alexander II including relations to each other.

    I could also have listed most of the major geographical features. I concentrated on the area west of the Urals with the majority of my study in the north. I have familiarity with eastern Russia, but it is limited.

    I have a working knowledge of the pre-Czarist era. My knowledge of the Huns is partly because of they came from southern Russia, but they also important in Roman History (Empire). The yearly raids of the Tartars lead to my knowledge of the Mongols.

    My studies included the slaves/serfs/peasants and their various revolts including the results. The Boyars, Dumas, Cossacks, Russian Orthodox Church, the Byzantine influences transmitted through the Church, etc., etc., etc.

    19th century Russian literature? Check. Other than Fyodor Dostoevsky, it is overrated in my opinion. He was able to capture the times in his writing. Interestingly, Kafka’s writing seem to describe Russia perfectly.

    My direct knowledge of the Soviet Union is limited. I know something about the time between the revolution and the execution of the Royal family including the saga of the White Russians. I do not know if Anastasia screamed, but it would have been in vain.

    Before the internet, finding information about pre-Soviet Union was not easy, but almost all of it was a honest. At the time most books about the Soviet Union would have been worthless, and it was almost impossible to get an unbiased and accurate history. My studies ended there. My knowledge of present day Russia is mostly from open sources.

    What I do know about the Soviet and post-Soviet periods is consistent with the Czarist period. Paranoid, authoritarian, corrupt, stratified, etc. are applicable for the past 500 years. From what I know of the Soviet era, the Russian people are the same. I have a great respect for the Russian people, but they do not change quickly.

    Also, my calling the Russians weak is due the length of their border, and the difficulty defending it. The only invasion attempts I am aware of were Charles XII, Napoleon, Hitler, but Russia was subject to raids for many of the early years.

    “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.”

  • michael reynolds Link


    I was really sad when George MacDonald Fraser died. For those of you who have never read the Flashman books, you’ve missed something wonderful. History as delivered by a writer who has more than once reduced me to laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe.

  • sam Link

    “I was really sad when George MacDonald Fraser died.”

    So was I, Michael. Everyone, I think, hoped he had a Flashman Civil War novel tucked away, but I think he believed, rightly, that that carnage really wasn’t a topic for the Flashy treatment. We can speculate, though, knowing Flashman’s personality and some of his history — one year he’s on Lee’s staff, the next on Grant’s; knowing of his friendship with Lincoln (two humbugs seeing one another for what each was and liking what they saw). In Frasier’s novel Mr. American, where Flashman makes his last appearance, at the age, I think, of 97, he tells the hero of that book (this in 1913), “War’s coming, and no one but you Americans know what modern warfare is like. I was a Gettysburg and there were 50,000 casualities. There’d have been 50,001 if I hadn’t stepped smartly. ” Pure Flashy.

    The books are great. If you havn’t read them, do. Begin with Flashman. It starts on the day Flashman gets kicked out of Rugby, for that was Frasier’s great idea: To write a series of comic novels about the 19th century whose “hero” would be the craven bully of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Get the books and go along for the ride, all the way from the First Afghan War, to Balaclava, to Cawnpore Well, to the Little Big Horn, to Harpers Ferry. And laugh your ass off every step of the way.

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