Make credible threats great again

Direct military intervention in Venezuela is obviously a controversial topic, yet there should be no controversy surrounding the credible appearance of commitment to military action.


Editor’s note: A few days ago my friend (and Global Americans contributor) Juan Nagel responded to a Tweet of mine that U.S. military intervention in Venezuela to unseat the Maduro government is not just a horrible idea, but a dangerous one.  (I was forwarding an excellent Foreign Affairs piece by Moises Naim and Francisco Toro that made the same argument, among many other excellent ones.)  Juan responded that according to game theory, the threat of military intervention does make sense. 

With that in mind, we decided to have a little blind debate over the theoretical merit of a U.S. intervention in Venezuela.  I invited Juan to explain his argument for why the threat of intervention has a game theoretical logic to either force the Maduro government to the table for in-earnest mediation talks or to cede power. In turn, I would offer my argument for why I didn’t think it made sense, even theoretically.  Neither of us has seen the other’s response.  This is Juan’s argument. Click here to read my argument.

The study of sub-perfect equilibrium in game theory is essentially the study of credible threats. One of the more intuitive of these games is the classic “burning bridges” game.

In it, two countries are at war over an island, linked to each country by two separate bridges. Using simple induction techniques, one can show that the country that moves first will find it optimal to “burn its bridge,” i.e., commit to a strategy of invading the island without turning back, because this will force the other country to concede the territory. In other words, committing to war may bring about peace.

The example of the burning bridges game (and of many others) highlights an important aspect of strategy: when you credibly commit to a confrontational option, you may end up convincing the other party that you will fight no matter what, and this may prompt them to act meekly and de-escalate.

These considerations are important when we discuss Venezuela at the moment.

As we all know, Venezuela is collapsing. GDP has decreased by more than 50 percent in the last few years, and the country faces a humanitarian crisis seldom seen in South America. It also holds the dubious honor of being the first major oil exporter to suffer from hyperinflation. Millions have fled the country, yet the refugee crisis is only getting worse. Drug smuggling is rampant.

Venezuela is the world’s first klepto-narco-military-petro-autocratic failed-state. The world has never seen anything like it.

This unprecedented collapse poses an important security threat to its neighbors. The question of what to do is not an easy one, but it begs answering.

Nobody knows for sure what the best course of action is, yet one consensus that seems to be emerging in international circles is that the best outcome would be for the Venezuelan military to ‘take care’ of the corrupt Maduro regime and force a transition. The question then becomes what role (if any) the international community can play to create the conditions for this to happen.

Direct military intervention in Venezuela is obviously a controversial topic, yet there should be no controversy surrounding the credible appearance of commitment to military action. The Venezuelan military is nothing if not cowardly, and they have much to lose in the case of conflict with the U.S. If the threat is not met with de-escalation, the U.S. could come through with its commitment without incurring heavy losses—by, for example, using airstrikes (as in Serbia in the late 90s), no-fly zones (as in Iraq), or military drones.

Credible threats could work, and they should be considered. Strangely, the unpredictability of President Trump is an asset for this policy.

Trump confounds the Maduro regime. On the one hand, he is a nationalist who cozies up to Maduro ally Vladimir Putin. On the other hand, the public statements on Venezuela coming from the administration are like nothing Latin America has ever seen—tart statements with no regard for diplomacy, ditching the scruples stemming from heavy-handed interventions of decades past.

Threats already seem to be working. Maduro seems so intent on softening tensions that the mere suggestion Trump would be willing to meet with him at the UN a few weeks ago prompted Maduro to catch a plane immediately and try to make the meeting happen (to no avail). Credible threats—such as those that prompted the de-escalation between the U.S. and North Korea or the “Star Wars” initiative propelled by the Reagan administration that may have precipitated the end of the Soviet Union—have a decent shot of working.

They should not be discarded off-hand, as some have argued. They could work. Or not. Given the plight of the Venezuelan people and the increasingly dire implications for the region, they are certainly worth trying.

The alternative is the continued misery of Venezuela and its neighbors.

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