Monday, February 27, 2012

Could the ICC Help a Political Solution in Syria?

The Center for a New American Security recently published a policy brief by Marc Lynch on what non-military actions the United States could take with the aim of defending the Syrian opposition and pushing for the resolution of the Syrian conflict. The entire paper is well worth a read, but I was particularly struck by Lynch's last proposal to leverage the threat of ICC prosecution to push key figures in the Syrian government towards cooperating on a political transition:
The time has come to demand a clear choice from Syrian regime officials. They should be clearly warned that their names are about to be referred to the ICC on charges of war crimes. It should be made clear that failure to participate in the political transition process will lead to an institutionalized legal straightjacket that would make it impossible for them to return to the international community. This should be feasible, even without Security Council agreement. Top regime officials should be left with no doubt that the window is rapidly closing on their ability to defect from the regime and avoid international prosecution.

To date, Syrian officials have not been referred to the ICC, in order to keep alive the prospect of a negotiated transition. Asad must have an exit strategy, by this thinking, or else he will fight to the death. However, Asad has shown no signs of being willing to take a political deal, and in any case, his crimes are now so extensive that he cannot have a place in the new Syrian political order. He should be forced to make a clear choice: He can step down and agree to a political transition now, and still have an opportunity for exile, or he can face international justice and permanent isolation. He should also be forced to make this choice quickly. Beyond Asad himself, the threatened indictments should be targeted to incentivize for those not named to rapidly abandon Asad and his inner circle in order to maintain their own viable political future.
I think this is a fair point and matches up with a typical model of the kind of decision-making logic that Bashar al-Assad is facing right now. Hypothetically, he can choose to accept or reject an offer for mediation and exile. That's certainly worth a lot less than simply suppressing the opposition. However, it is probably worth more than a lifetime at the Hague were Assad to "lose" in a civil war. Absent ICC prosecution, Assad could simply take his chances and fight, keeping open the exile option once defeat becomes inevitable. But with the threat of ICC charges, an easy flight to exile becomes more difficult as fewer countries are suitable "safe havens." Moreover, a negotiated transition minimizes the risk that Assad will face a Gaddafi-like end if the opposition were to gain the upper hand. Threatening ICC prosecution provides a clear incentive to negotiate instead of continuing to fight the opposition by eliminating (or at least complicating) Assad's "out" (exile) if fighting fails. Below is a quick diagram of the two possible "games" between Assad and the opposition (one with the ICC and one without). Assad can either choose to reject or accept the ultimatum. If he rejects, he either "wins" or "loses" in a confrontation with the opposition.

In the first case, assuming equal probability of winning and losing, Assad chooses to reject negotiation. In the second case, with the same assumption, Assad accepts.

However, there are some flaws with this basic model. Namely, it ignores the commitment effect that following through on the ICC referral would create. By eliminating the option to flee, it essentially commits Assad to fighting the opposition to the end if he chooses to reject the offer. Observing this "forced" commitment, the opposition is faced with a choice - either back down or continue to challenge Assad, knowing that his regime has been backed into a corner. If the opposition is sufficiently risk-averse and worried about losing in a protracted conflict, they would likely reduce their protest activity (preferring to concede now rather than fight a futile struggle).

You may notice that I'm again referencing James Hollyer and Peter Rosendorff's work on why dictators sign the Convention Against Torture (also known as the "badass theory of torture"). I think it applies rather well in this case. Hollyer and Rosendorff argue that dictators ratify CAT in order to credibly signal that they will fight any challenge that could remove them from their position. Since they engage in torture, and since the CAT has compulsory jurisdiction, ensuring that they will likely be prosecuted if they try to seek exile abroad, dictators give up the option of backing down and leaving power. Dictators show their willingness to repress at all costs, and, as a result, face fewer challenges from domestic opposition groups. ICC prosecution against Assad, if actually credible, could have a similar effect. The model below shows an expanded version of the previous game:

Here, I've added two more decisions interposed between Assad's acceptance or rejection of the ultimatum and the final outcome of the Assad/opposition conflict. After Assad rejects the ultimatum, the opposition has to choose whether to continue challenging the government (fight) or conceding (a rather simplified choice). If the opposition fights, Assad independently has the choice of whether to also fight or resign/flee. Essentially, this is an entry/deterrence game added into the previous model. Assad would prefer to win by concession rather than by fighting. The opposition also is assumed to prefer conceding to losing a massive fight. Also, assume that the probability of winning and losing are equal (for now).

What happens when the threat of ICC prosecution is brought in? It essentially forecloses "fleeing" as an option for Assad. As long as there is some risk of winning a challenge, Assad will fight. As a result, the opposition cannot count on getting Assad to back down if challenged (its preferred option) and instead must risk a fight. If the expected value of Assad losing is less than the value of backing down, the opposition will likely reduce its pressure on the regime, which in turn gives Assad a strong incentive to reject.

In the first model, given a 50-50 chance of winning, Assad will reject and flee. There is no scenario were he accepts since there is a non-zero chance that the opposition could back down and still a good chance that he could win a challenge. It's also assumed that Assad would prefer to leave on his own terms rather than those negotiated for him.

In the second model, Assad could accept negotiation, but only if he has a high chance of losing were he to fight the opposition. Assuming than victory and defeat are equally likely (and that both actors have similar assessments of the likelihood of winning versus losing), the opposition in this model will back down (utility of 2 vs. expected value of 1.5 from fighting). If, given the somewhat arbitrary utilities I've created, the probability that the opposition "wins" a "fight" is greater than 67%, Assad will take the offer.

Obviously these models are highly simplified and assume perfect knowledge of the other actors' capabilities/strategy. The utilities themselves, while somewhat reflective of the priorities of each actor, are arbitrary and likely poorly weighted. Nevertheless, the models do highlight an important caveat to Lynch's argument for threatening Assad's exit strategy. If the Syrian government thinks that it could still successfully repress the opposition were it to reject a negotiated settlement, then permanently closing off exit routes for government officials would limit options for further negotiation by pushing Assad towards a "survive-or-else" strategy. At best this weakens the credibility of such a threat since the United States may not follow through for fear of limiting future. At worst, it ensures prolonged bloodshed and violence if Assad chooses to reject negotiation.

I think Lynch is right that threatening to cut off the Syrian regime's "golden parachute" can be an effective way of forcing a settlement, but it is a tactic to be used wisely and at a time when Assad would be most conducive to accepting. Moreover, it's unlikely that ICC prosecution will be significant enough of a threat since there are plenty of non-ratifiers which could possibly offer Assad and his coterie safe-haven (for example, Walter Russel Mead suggested Russia's Black Sea coast as the destination for a possible "getaway" vacation).

But most importantly, such a policy must compliment other non-military efforts to tip the balance of domestic and international opinion against Assad. The other strategies that Lynch outlines are crucial to making it less likely that, if faced with an ultimatum, Assad will choose to accept the costs of rejection and opt to fight the opposition to the bitter end.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Tweets vs. Likes? An Analysis of the Monkey Cage

A while back, Joshua Tucker issued a challenge on The Monkey Cage:
Here at The Monkey Cage we allow people to “Tweet” posts to their Twitter followers, and “Like” posts to their Facebook friends. Lately I’ve noticed that some posts get more tweets than likes, some get more likes than tweets, and others get roughly the same amount. Anyone have any idea why?
Challenge accepted.

I was actually surprised to find that this question has already been looked at by other data science bloggers. A quick google search for "Tweets vs. Likes" got me to Edwin Chen's blog where he posed the exact same question as Joshua did:
It always strikes me as curious that some posts get a lot of love on Twitter, while others get many more shares on Facebook:

What accounts for this difference? Some of it is surely site-dependent: maybe one blogger has a Facebook page but not a Twitter account, while another has these roles reversed. But even on sites maintained by a single author, tweet-to-likes ratios can vary widely from post to post.
He analyzes the data from a few tech-related blogs, comparing the tweet-to-like ratio for each post to various post attributes and finds that:
tl;dr Twitter is still for the techies: articles where the number of tweets greatly outnumber FB likes tend to revolve around software companies and programming. Facebook, on the other hand, appeals to everyone else: yeah, to the masses, and to non-software technical folks in general as well.
This nerd/normal divide corresponds surprisingly well to Joshua's initial set of hypotheses.
Humor vs. wonkishness hypothesis: The funnier a post, the more likely it is to go on Facebook; the wonkier the post, the more likely it is to get tweeted.

The graphics hypothesis: The more graphics, the more likely it is to go to Facebook. The more text, the more likely it is to be tweeted.

The source of visitors hypothesis: Visitors outside academia are more likely to post to Facebook; academics who read blogs are more likely to tweet.
Is this really the case? To obtain the actual data, I wrote a quick screen scraping script and went through all posts from this February up until about May of last year. At some point after that, no likes or tweets appear to be recorded for most of the posts. In total, I scraped around 860 posts, 492 of which had both tweets and likes.

I use a modified version of Edwin Chen's tweet-to-like ratio as the dependent variable. In order to avoid dividing by zero since many posts have only tweets and no likes, I add 1 to the quantity of both tweets and likes for a given post. I then take the base-10 log of the modified tweet/like ratio to linearize the dependent variable for regression analysis. For brevity, let's call this measure the "tweet rating" - positive values indicate more tweets than likes while negative values indicate more likes than tweets.

Since the third of Joshua's hypotheses is untestable with the data that I could obtain, I'll focus on the first two. Graphics and length are directly measurable. I use a dummy variable indicating whether or not a post includes a graphic (i.e. img tags) and another indicating whether a post has an embedded video. For length, I use only a basic word count measure. Since this may not capture the "complexity" of a post well, I also include the Flesch-Kinkaid grade level (a rather rough measure, but the best quantitative one that I could come up with quickly).

Wonkiness vs. Humor is a bit harder to capture. While it would be interesting to do a full analysis of each post to determine the sentiment (using something like Sentiwordnet and a natural language processor), I simply don't have the time. As a proxy, I use post categories. A lot of the categories are rather neutral but a few stand out as relevant in the nerd/normal framework. Frivolity and especially the Ted McCagg Cartoons are definitely more humor-oriented. Conversely, I found the "Data," "Academia," "Methodology," and "IT and Politics" categories more "wonky" than the rest. Each is coded as a 0-1 dummy variable.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Russian Politics Part 2: The UNSC Veto

In the wake of the failure of the UN Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian government, analysts have offered up a variety of reasons behind the Russian and Chinese decisions to veto. Erik Voeten posted a succinct summary two days ago and followed up yesterday with an extended rebuttal to the Libya "precedent" made by a number of writers and bloggers. I agree that perceived NATO overreach in Libya is a very weak story for why Russia and China vetoed. The Russian government's suggestion that it was "duped" by the text of the UNSC's resolution on Libya is highly specious given its generally realpolitik foreign policy. Erik elaborates on this further in the post. I would add that Russia's behavior with regards to arms control - the fact that it has consistently sought binding over non-binding nuclear reductions agreements (START vs. SORT) - also shows that it certainly does not attach much importance to unenforceable declarations.

The rest of the blogosphere has more or less finished dissecting both countries' general motivations for opposing both the resolution and any substantive action against Assad. However, I am more interested in the possible domestic dimension behind the veto, an explanation that has been thrown around but not developed much. I know less about Chinese internal politics, so I'll focus on Russia.

There have been a few explanations offered for why the Russian government had some sort of domestic political interest in vetoing the resolution and all are general variations on a theme: Putin and his cohort are facing increasing pressures on their political survival and the Syria veto sends a signal that benefits them vis-a-vis opposition forces.

Walter Russell Mead suggests that the veto is meant to boost Putin's reputation as a hardliner, look good domestically, and co-opt the increasingly agitated ultra-nationalists:
First point: domestic politics. Putin is running for reelection, and although the clueless MSM (the ones who thought the Egyptian revolution was all about liberals and tweeting) instinctively sees the issue as a contest between Putin and liberals, the opposition that worries him is on the right. They are ultra-nationalists and fascists steeped in crazy-think conspiracy theories and full of fear and hate.
I mentioned two weeks ago that Putin is likely to continue ratcheting up his confrontational rhetoric in the run-up to the Presidential elections (with the caveat that I was also skeptical as to how effective it will be). Certainly there's a logic behind the "tough talk," but I think Mead is conflating the rhetoric with the policy here.  Putin doesn't need the veto in order to bash the West. As in the Libya case, Russia could have abstained while continuing to voice its objections to interventionism. Any reputational costs that would have resulted from failing to stand up to a "NATO intervention" would have been negligible as it's clear that the likelihood that Western powers will independently use force against Syria is very low (compared to Libya). Certainly the  veto helps the spin, but it is in no way essential given the Kremlin's vast media resources.

More importantly though, Mead also overstates the extent to which those nationalists dissatisfied with Putin care about the government's foreign policy. As Igor Torbakov noted in a post on EurasiaNet, the nationalists that would be attracted to such shows of strength are already squarely in the government's camp. The ones that pose a threat to Putin are the cultural nationalists who are already staunch anti-statists.
Nationalism in Russia has undergone a dramatic shift lately, one that Putin, apparently, has been slow to catch on to. Two competing strains of nationalism have always existed in the country – one that can be described as imperial, or statist nationalism, the other ethno-cultural. The first worshipped the state, its power and international prestige; the second glorified the nation, its culture and faith. Throughout Russian history, statists have tended to hold a pragmatic view of nationalism, seeing it mostly as an instrument to strengthen state institutions and bolster the authority of the ruling class. As such, statists have traditionally favored territorial expansion, followed by efforts to assimilate minority groups. 
Radical ethnic nationalists, on the other hand, see no place for non-Russians in the state. This strain of nationalism, naturally, has caused particular problems for imperialists, whether they have been Russian tsars, Soviet commissars or Putinists advocating “managed democracy” and relying on energy policy to expand their influence in the near abroad.
In recent years, economic hardship has boosted the popularity of ethnic nationalism at the expense of the imperial variety. This trend is underscored by the growing popularity of the slogan “Russia for the Russians.” Putin, who clearly aligns himself with the imperial school, has been reluctant to acknowledge this trend. Instead, he has tended to oversimplify the rise of ethnic nationalists, casting them as trouble-makers whose ideas could encourage the disintegration of the Russian Federation.
In essence, the Syria veto would only "boost" Putin's popularity among those Russians who already accept his  tough foreign policy credentials and therefore, are already likely supporters.When it comes to getting the nationalist vote, Putin has either done enough (in the case of the "statist" nationalists) or can simply do nothing.

So I'm unconvinced by the popularity argument since it seems to only explain the rhetoric and not the policy. But what if the goal is not to gain popularity, but simply to show strength? Facing an increasingly vocal protest movement, Putin may be seeking to dissuade additional protesters by signalling his staunch commitment to staying in power, whatever the costs. Assisting a leader who is actively repressing protesters may be a veiled threat to the Russian opposition that similar actions will be taken by the government if their protests go to far.  Michael Weiss and Julia Pettengill made this argument last week in Foreign Policy:
These demonstrations, coupled with the general weariness at the decline of living standards and increasing state corruption, have raised the possibility that Putin may not secure a majority in the first round of voting, a contingency he has acknowledged as possible -- though it would no doubt be politically disastrous for him and his ruling United Russia party. As a consequence, Putin is attempting to shore up his reputation as an unyielding strongman abroad to detract from the increasing perception of weakness at home.

Putin has not had a significant foreign policy standoff since the 2008 Russian-Georgian War, which was billed as an effort to reclaim Russia's "near abroad" from creeping Western and NATO influence. He opposed, but did not veto, the Security Council's authorization of a NATO-imposed no-fly zone in Libya last year. He now appears to be compensating for that acquiescence by backing a friendly tyrant and showing a wobbly electorate that Russia won't be pushed around by American and European democracy-promoters.
On face this makes sense and may indeed be part of the Putin government's reasoning behind vetoing the UN resolution and backing Assad. However, it too is a poor explanation for the simple fact that supporting a foreign government does very little to make its threats against the protesters more credible. At best it's just more costless talk - it doesn't actually make it more difficult for Putin to concede to protest demands.

James Hollyer and Peter Rosendorff's research on why autocracies that practice torture ratify the Convention Against Torture (CAT) is particularly relevant here. Their theory is that dictators want to convince domestic opposition movements that they will not resign from power without a fight, thereby decreasing the expected benefit to protests and lessening their number. The "badass" theory of torture (to use James Vreeland's phrase) suggests that autocrats use foreign policy tools to constrain themselves in order to make their threats more credible. They can certainly talk tough, but protesters have no reason to believe them, so leaders must make an actual commitment. This is where the CAT comes in. By signing the CAT and then proceeding to torture, leaders signal that they have no easy escape route once faced with protests. They can't resign and flee to an Italian villa because the CAT's principle of universal jurisdiction ensures that they will face prosecution upon losing power. The goal is to show protesters that there is no conceivable way that they can win short of a massive, protracted fight, thus deterring protests from developing in the first place.

So does Putin look more like a "badass" after the veto? Not really. Maybe supporting Assad creates some reputational costs for backing down, but that's true of all of the aggressive rhetoric being issued from the Kremlin. Putin is certainly committed to supporting Assad, especially given the extensive economic and political ties between Russia and Syria, but as far as Russian protesters are concerned, this does not increase the actual likelihood that Putin will crackdown on protesters. The government is no more committed to repress now than it would be if it had not backed Assad. There is no new credible threat.

This is not to discount the potential for costless threats to be meaningful. Backing Assad certainly makes Putin look like a tougher leader, even if there's no substantive reason to believe that he is. Polling done in December by the Levada Center suggests that the message may be working. 43% of respondents think that the government will do everything in its power to avoid a recount of the Duma elections while only 17% believe the government will accede to the protesters demands. Moreover, 43% of respondents think that protesters should back down if the government turns to tougher measures to crush the protests while only 16% think that protests should continue. Its important to also note the large number of respondents who are "unsure" - 40 and 41 percent in both polls. While it's unclear how these individuals would answer if pressed further, the early polling does show that a significant number of Russians think that the government is likely to increase its repressive measures against protesters and that protesters should subsequently back down - precisely the deterrent effect that the government wants. However, its obviously impossible to determine whether Syria factored into the public's reasoning, and given how little attention Russians paid to Libya, it may be safe to say its influence was rather small.

Ultimately, I am skeptical that domestic politics played a key role in the decision to back Syria. Or more specifically, there may be domestic incentives to support Assad, but increasing Putin's popularity or showing strength to the opposition are relatively minor. The real "domestic politics" explanation for Russia's backing of the Syria government likely has more to do with the commercial interests of those with strong ties to the Kremlin. Syria is one of the last remaining dedicated clients of the Russian arms export industry. Moreover, Russian companies have concluded an extensive series of oil and gas contracts with Syrian state energy enterprises. For example, Stroytransgaz, which recently renegotiated its contract with the Syrian Gas Company, is owned by Gennady Timchenko, one of the key "new oligarchs" connected to Putin. Vetoing the UNSC resolution may simply be good backroom politics, but I'm doubtful that Putin's Syria strategy will have much effect on the ongoing opposition protests.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Cheap Talk, Real Deterrence?

Dustin Tingley and Barbara Walter have an interesting article in the latest issue of the Journal of Conflict Resolution on using controlled experiments to analyze the role of "cheap talk" in conflict deterrence situations. Here's the abstract:
What effect does cheap talk have on behavior in an entry-deterrence game? We shed light on this question using incentivized laboratory experiments of the strategic interaction between defenders and potential entrants. Our results suggest that cheap talk can have a substantial impact on the behavior of both the target and the speaker. By sending costless threats to potential entrants, defenders are able to deter opponents in early periods of play. Moreover, after issuing threats, defenders become more eager to fight. We offer a number of different explanations for this behavior. These results bring fresh evidence about the potential importance of costless verbal communication to the field of international relations.
The model itself posits a "defender" who is confronted with a series of possible "entrants" who must choose whether to challenge or not challenge the defender. This defender then decides whether to fight the "entrant" or concede. The balance of incentives for fighting vs. acquiescing is determined by whether the defender is a "strong" or a "weak" type. "Strong" defenders would prefer to fight a challenge while "weak" ones benefit more from accepting it. However, the type is randomly assigned and unknown to the entrant. The defender's actions reveal the type to the entrants in successive rounds (entrants know how a defender reacted in previous rounds when other entrants chose to challenge), but in early rounds the type is largely unknown. Therefore, a weak defendant may have an incentive to fight early in order to signal a "strong" type to future entrants and deter those challenges.

Tingley and Walter add into the game the possibility for "cheap talk" - private communication between the defender and entrant. Defenders could send a message that they will either fight or not fight if challenged before the entrant makes their decision. Both types of games (talk vs. no talk) were played out by a group of test subjects - conveniently available undergraduates.

Despite the prediction that communication should not alter the game since preferences remain static and talk itself should not reveal anything about whether the defender is strong or weak since all types of defenders have an incentive to bluff, Tingley and Walter find that talk has a deterrent effect in early rounds. That is, when entrants lack reliable information about the defender's type, they appear to be dissuaded by costless threats alone. The effect disappears in later rounds as entrants get more information about the defender. Surprisingly, the results also suggest that talk has a slight deterrent effect even when a defender has revealed weakness by not fighting a challenge. Even more interesting is the finding that in early rounds, weak defenders who issued a threat and previously not backed down were more likely to follow through with the threat if challenged (which is unexpected if not following through imposes no costs).

The authors suggest a signalling explanation. In the game, the participants are unsure of whether their opponents will understand how to play the game. Cheap talk can be a way of confirming that a player does indeed know how the game works thereby "deterring" opponents from exploiting information asymmetries. Early threats are expected since both sides know the defender wants to signal strength and will likely follow through in early rounds to deter future challengers. If a defender does not threaten, then they are signalling less competence and therefore inviting a possible challenge. This explains both why entrants pay attention to threats (since they reveal something about the games-playing ability of the defender) and why defenders follow through (both are associated with competence since more capable weak defenders understand that fighting early and taking a loss can benefit as a signal to future challengers). Essentially, its not that cheap talk itself deters, but rather that its absence may suggest a defender that does not fully understand the game.
Given that a threat is costless, a defender who threatens early in the game is playing exactly as one would expect him or her to play. Likewise, a player who does not issue a threat may be indicating that he or she does not fully understand the game. Thus, sending a threat or not sending a threat signals to the challenger something about the sophistication of the defender. (1010).
The model provides an explanation for the prevalence of "cheap talk" among international actors. Costless threats are assumed to exist and thus are conspicuous when absent. Even in inter-state disputes, where actors are likely to already be well-informed about the other's nature (via intelligence gathering), cheap threats remain ubiquitous. For example, Iran's threat to shut down the Strait of Hormuz in response to sanctions is expected even if the action itself would be irrational. Although following through would be too costly, signalling the option shows that Iranian leadership is playing the deterrence game rationally, that is, it will try to show strength for as long as possible.

However, I think the Tingley and Walter model is most applicable in situations where there is a true "low-information environment." Protest movements against autocrats are one such example. Why do dictators like to "talk tough"? The model suggests that they must do so in order to avoid showing incompetence. Let's assume that autocratic leaders want to deter protesters from protesting. Conversely, protesters must decide whether to challenge the regime or stay quiet, and this choice depends on how intensely they think the leader will fight them. "Strong" type leaders will choose to fight while weak ones will "acquiesce." However, the information asymmetry in such authoritarian states is highly pronounced - protesters find it difficult to determine whether their leader is a strong or a weak type (because of media control, lack of political networks, etc...) and discover this only through the government's reaction to protests. Likewise, both sides are also unsure about how well the other will play the "game." There is a potential difference in expertise. Therefore leaders may send signals of toughness simply because they are expected to do everything they can to say "I will fight" in a costless fashion. Failing to do so reveals an imperfect player (a weak leader who doesn't try to hide it) and suggests the possibility that a leader may back down when faced with a protest.

The first related example that came to mind were the post-election protests in Russia. In a blog post at the Monkey Cage, Andrew Little hinted at a similar logic behind the persistence of election fraud. If everyone knows the results are falsified, why bother falsifying? He argues that because fraud is expected, lack of fraud can be a signal of weakness to protesters. Likewise the bluster coming from the Kremlin (which I discussed last week) is certainly just talk, but it is also expected - it shows that the Russian government knows that it must appear as a "strong" type rather than a "weak" type.

On an even more extreme end, the model might explain the persistence of the North Korean personality cult and the speed at which elites tried to build up the image of Kim Jong Un. If leaders want to deter challengers and show strength, then even if no one believes the propaganda, it still has a purpose. It confirms that the leadership will continue acting in a manner that projects a strong type even if the regime is itself weak. It also might explain the increasing absurdity of North Korean propaganda efforts. If Kim Jong Il's personality cult was at a "10," then Kim Jong Un must crank it up to "11" or risk revealing weakness.

Certainly all of these cases are imperfect applications of the model. Indeed, in the real world, it is difficult to isolate the effects of "costless" talk from other phenomena that may be unobservable. Talk in the aforementioned scenarios is also more public than private and therefore not entirely costless. Despite these and other differences between the model and its application, I think Tingley and Walter make an interesting point in providing a rational basis for ostensibly meaningless actions. Even if no one believes cheap talk, everyone expects that it will exist simply due to the lack of any consequences. Refraining from cheap talk suggests that an actor is not playing the game as efficiently as they could be (a revelation that is particularly meaningful).

I was also intrigued by the method that Tingley and Walter used in light of Brad Smith's recent post on the dearth controlled experiments in IR research. My sense is that although it is difficult to make the jump directly from undergrads to states, lab experiments can be a good first step in testing a new and possibly counterintuitive model. Here I think an experimental approach was effective since it is almost impossible to isolate the effects of communication in an observational study. Finding the "ideal" case of entirely private and entirely costless talk in the "wild" is a difficult task, especially when there is no clear starting point. The experimental approach is certainly nowhere near conclusive, but it does help define the initial parameters for an observational study. To use the Rumsfeldian theory of knowledge, there are a lot of "unknown unknowns" in IR, things that we cannot even begin to test observationally because we do not know where to start. Lab experiments can help convert those into "known unknowns."  That is, we can isolate an effect in a controlled study, so we "know" that it might exist, but cannot yet find a good example in real-world observation. From there it is a matter of finding cases that roughly fit the ideal type and varying some of the initial constraints (public vs. private talk, zero cost vs. near-zero cost) to figure out whether the model remains applicable. Truly controlled experiments are certainly fun and awesome, but my sense is that they are only the initial step to more rigorous real-world testing.