Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Problem of Credible Commitment

Dave Eggers and John Prendergast have an op-ed on Sudan in the NYT.  They discuss how the US helped to build an agreement between the government of Sudan and the Southern Sudanese secessionists.  The agreement called for the south to have some autonomy while being given a role in the central government, a split of the oil money, and a referendum in 2011.  They note that Sudan is now likely to subvert or ignore the results of the referendum.

This should not be surprising at all, as this would not be the first time that the Sudanese government violated an agreement it made with the south.  This has been a long-running conflict (for more than a couple of decades) as as the north has dominated the government and reneged in agreements over the years.  It may be the case that the Southern Sudanese have not always been a perfect partner, but the toll of the conflict has been paid almost entirely by the south. 

The problem here, as in many conflicts, is how to get both sides to commit credibly.  Each has incentives to defect from agreements and prepare for war, particularly given the likelihood that one side or another will defect.

Eggers and Prendergast see the US and the International Community as key actors here, forcing change.  The US special envory,  Major General Scott Gration has said: “We have no leverage. We really have no pressure.”  But the authors of the op-ed see otherwise.  And by doing so, they repeat a classic problem in the scholarship on the international relations of ethnic conflict: the assumption that outsiders do not have the same credibility problems as locals.  Sure, outside actors may not have the same kind of incentives to cheat on an agreement that incumbents in the conflict might--that is, the incumbents might lose power.  But, on the other hand, the benefits of following through are not so clear and the costs of being strict may be significant.  For instance, there are other actors that might take advantage of Sudanese isolation (I will not name China, but you can go ahead and consider China as an opportunist, willing to take advantage of Western ostracism of oil producers and also opposed to Western interference in domestic conflicts).

The authors seem to think that sanctions might hurt, but Sudan has already been sanctioned quite a bit, so it is not clear whether the international community can really impose high enough costs, compared to the temptations and constraints facing Sudanese leaders. 

They nicely employ the Rwanda example to try to push Obama into a corner, but there are a lot of differences between now and then, including how much more committed the US is to other efforts in the world (Iraq, Afghanistan), the weakness of the American economy, and, perhaps just as importantly, the limits of what the US could do in Sudan.  They are right to highlight the issue, but I am afraid they may be unrealistic about what the US and its allies can do in yet another troublespot.  Moreover, they do a nice job, accidentally, demonstrating that the challenge of making a credible commitment is not just a domestic issue but a problem for outsiders as well.


jmeasor said...

Quite right ... the analogy of Sudan writ-large with Rwanda has always raised questions in my mind and made it seem as though the support for 'peace' by the 'international community' (as expressed by NGOs and civil society activists) is coming across simply as support for the SPLA.

The impact of the Op-Ed, and indeed virtually all of Enough Project's argumentation, assumes that Sudanese elites will adopt their narrative of the conflict and that the U.S. government will focus on this single issue at a time of great investment elsewhere in the world.

The impact of sanctions - beyond those already in place - will be inconsequential. Moreover, the option of U.S. military forces engaging the Sudan is not feasible due to both logistical limitations as well as the PotUS engagement with the Muslim world (having forces active in another Muslim majority state is unimaginable).

Eggers and Prendergast frame the conflict in terms cutting off incentives for the North to engage and at the same time seem to be promoting defection by the South.

plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

John Measor
Saint Mary's University

Chris C. said...

Wouldn't a better (and far more credible) threat be to instead employ airstrikes against Khartoum? The geography of Sudan actually sets up well for the effectiveness of airstrikes, with only two major roads supplying almost all of the North's trade (from Wadi Halfa on the Nile and Port Sudan on the Red Sea, respective). We'd just need to move an aircraft carrier from the Gulf into the Red Sea and maybe do some other menacing military gestures. Even better would be putting a UN peacekeeping force in between them to act as a "tripwire" in our quest for the Moral High Ground. That would all certainly increase the cost Bashir would be looking at if he tried to pull anything and we wouldn't be sacrificing too much either.

Steve Saideman said...

UN peacekeepers have been lousy tripwires in the past especially in the Mideast (Lebanon, for instance). Plus you would need the Chinese to agree to anything UN-ish.

I think you exaggerate the power of air strikes. Sure, they kicked out Bin Laden, but it is another thing entirely to agree to losing all of one's oil...