Strategies of Manipulation: Preventing Misuse in Military Capacity Building

How do states advance their interests in the world? One common, but largely overlooked, strategy is military capacity building. To reduce costs and wield greater power than one alone can generate, states frequently turn to partners to undertake part, or sometimes all, of the burden of employing military power to defend territory, deter aggression, compel policy concessions and fight wars. To increase the military effectiveness of these partners delegating states often provide them with armaments and military training.

What makes this military capacity building puzzling is that it is incredibly risky because of the problem of misuse: partners can use transferred capability to advance their own priorities, which may or may not include the delegated objective. Given the risk and costs of misuse, when do delegating states build the coercive capacity of their partners?

I argue that at the core of capacity building is an agency problem. Delegating states must create incentives for their partners to use their military power in particular ways. Making sense of patterns of capacity building, then, requires understanding how delegating states prevent misuse.

I develop theory and evidence for two sets of arguments.

First, I argue that carrots and sticks -- the strategy that states are traditionally thought to use to shape behavior -- is less of a panacea than believed because typical features of international and domestic politics generate moral hazard that can make carrots and sticks prohibitively expensive or impossible for delegating states to implement. This moral hazard arises not only when hidden action makes it hard to recognize partner behavior (this is the traditionally story) but also in two, previously overlooked situations that prevent delegating states from sanctioning misuse by their partners. The first arises when domestic or bureaucratic actors with a vested interest in the status-quo relationship with the partner erect political roadblocks to sanctioning misuse. For example, because arms transfers generally create jobs, generate income for domestic defense industries and improve bilateral cooperation, politicians and diplomats may take steps to prevent the delegating state from punishing the partner even when misuse is unambiguous. The second constraint on punishment arises when a partner government is so vulnerable to internal or external threats that sanctioning misuse threatens to hasten its downfall and empower an unfriendly actor in its place.

Second, I argue that delegating states frequently turn to three alternative strategies of manipulation to prevent their partners from redirecting transferred military capability against other adversaries: (1) withholding capabilities that could be efficiently misused (I call this tailoring); (2) transferring arms to the partner's adversaries in order to maintain an equilibrium balance of power between the partner and its adversaries (I call this counterbalancing); and (3) mitigating political conflict between the partner and its adversaries. These strategies prevent misuse by preemptively manipulating the threats and opportunities that partners face and, thereby, undermining the inherent reasons the partner has to redirect transferred military capability against other adversaries.

I offer two types of evidence. First, I show that strategies of manipulation are empirically important solutions to the problem of misuse. Through an examination of historical cases and quantitative data, I provide evidence that states purposefully tailor, counterbalance and mitigate conflict in order to prevent misuse. Second, I show that variation in the ability of delegating states to implement strategies to prevent misuse can help explain broad patterns of capacity building. Using panel data from post-World War II arms transfers and military training, I show that capacity-building decreases under circumstances plausibly associated with an increased risk of misuse. But that this mitigating effect is conditional on whether states face circumstances plausibly associated with the ability to efficiently implement strategies of carrots and sticks, tailoring or counterbalancing to prevent misuse. My empirical strategy leverages generalized difference-in-difference-in-differences (three-way fixed effects) analysis to control for a wide variety of confounding factors and historical examinations of statistically influential cases to validate the quantitative results.