Carnegie Mellon University

Robert Powell: Rationalist Accounts of War

Thursday, March 31, 2011, 6-7pm, Steinberg Auditorium (Baker Hall A53)

This talk surveys recent rationalist or game-theoretic work on the causes and conduct of war. We begin with the "inefficiency puzzle" of war. If fighting is costly, the "pie" to be divided is larger before there is any fighting. Thus there are agreements that if struck prior to fighting would give each actor more than its expected payoff from fighting. Why then do states or opposing political factions in civil wars fail to reach these agreements and thereby avoid fighting? The talk considers two broad answers to this question. First, war results from an "information problem," i.e., uncertainty or asymmetric information about resolve or the distribution of power. Second, war results from a commitment problem in which the actors are unable to commit to following through on agreements that they prefer to fighting. The emphasis will be on insights and intuitions, not on a detailed analysis of specific games.

Professor Powell's research focuses on war, international conflict, and the politics of weakly institutionalized states, and he is a specialist in game-theoretic approaches to these issues. He received a B.S. in mathematics from Harvey Mudd College, an M. Phil. in international relations from Cambridge, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Economics from UC Berkeley.

Co-Sponsored by the Quantitative Social Science Scholars Program, the Humanities Scholars Program, and the Center for International Relations and Politics.