Misuse and Manipulation: The Strategic Politics of Military Capacity Building

To reduce costs and wield greater power than one alone can generate, states frequently turn to partners — allies, clients and non-state proxies — to help defend territory, deter aggression, compel policy concessions and fight wars. To increase the coercive capacity of these partners delegating states often provide them with armaments and military training. This military capacity building is risky because partners can use transferred resources to advance their own interests.

How do states exercise control in military partnerships in order to prevent misuse?

A common idea in the social sciences is that actors exercise control by selecting partners with shared objectives and through ex post rewards or punishments in response to behavior. I find that these solutions are rarely sufficient in military partnerships because partner interests are multifaceted and international politics creates distinct challenges for the implementation of policy responses. The problem occurs not only because it is hard to observe misuse -- this is the traditional story about moral hazard -- but also because of a second class of problems that concern the ability to respond to misuse. I show that threats to punish can become incredible when actors within the polity develop a vested interest in the status quo (e.g. politicians may oppose sanctioning misuse because arms transfers create jobs) or when punishing a partner is excessively costly (e.g. if it would lead to the collapse of a friendly government).

In this context, I argue that states turn to three strategies of manipulation that prevent misuse ex ante by preemptively manipulating the strategic environment in which partners operate:

  • In counterbalancing, states prevent misuse by manipulating the balance of power between a partner and its adversaries (e.g. to get Middle Eastern partners to support U.S. objectives rather than fight Israel, the U.S.\ ensures Israel has better weapons than in its neighbors).

  • In tailoring, states withhold specific types of capabilities that could be easily misused against other adversaries (e.g. the U.S. provides mostly maritime capability to partners in Southeast Asia because patrol boats are of little use in quashing mass protests).

  • In threat mitigation, states prevent misuse by resolving their partners' conflicts or deterring their enemies (e.g. U.S. policymakers pushed for European integration, in part, to create trust between France and Germany and focus Western European partners on the Soviet threat).

Leveraging policymaker interviews, historical cases of U.S. military partnerships in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and generalized difference-in-differences analysis of data on post-World War II interstate arms transfers, I show that concerns about misuse and strategies of manipulation motivate decision makers at important historical moments and can explain patterns of arms transfers.

This research offers new insights on how states exercise control in international relations with implications for principal-agent problems, develops theory on the causes of arms transfers that accounts for supplier-recipient strategic interactions, and illustrates ways to move beyond ``dyadic'' data in testing the complex, multi-actor theories that are common in international relations.