Epistemic status: I am doing a master's degree in Economics and know quite a lot about game theory but have no expertise in war. I can recommend Bret Devereaux's blog on nuclear deterrence 101 for a perspective from someone who does have more military knowledge than me. 

Most discussion around the war in Ukraine, and the Western response, including Zvi's otherwise excellent post, misses what I think one of the most important goals the West should have.[1] (For the rest of this post, I will use 'we' and 'the West' loosely to mean the US/EU/UK/NATO and allies.) That goal is deterring the next war. 

There is a concept in game theory called backward induction. You look at possible future decision nodes, and ask what is the expected value of being at that decision node. For example, imagine that China invades Taiwan tomorrow. What should the West do then? 1) Fight to defend Taiwan, with extremely high risk of escalation and causing World War Three? 2) Let millions of people fall to tyranny, demonstrate that the value of Western protection is worthless, encourage even more future invasions, and watch as every medium-sized country scrambles to build nukes to defend itself?[2] If we get to the point that someone has to make this decision, we have already lost. There are no positive-expected-value choices left.

You can make the same argument for a world where Russia invades a NATO member like the Baltic states. What do we do then? Start World War Three? Abandon huge parts of Europe to be invaded until Russian tanks are rolling through Germany?

We do not ever want to end up in these scenarios. Therefore the main goal of Western strategy should be to never get to that point. That means that our response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine must credibly signal to Russia, China and any other potential invaders that the cost of invading another country is too high. Remember that their leaders are making comparable calculations: what is the best strategy for China/Russia to take given the expected response of the West.[3]  If China thinks that invading Taiwan will result in World War Three - or even that there is a 50:50 chance of World War Three - then it is not in their interests. If they think that invading Taiwan will result in a slap on the wrist then they will do it, and the West faces its terrible choice.

What does this mean for our response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine? Primarily the importance of keeping the pressure on Russia, for as long as Russia is attempting to occupy Ukraine. (We should be willing to end sanctions iff Russia calls off the invasion and brings its soldiers home, presumably in the context of regime change.) The West have been doing a good job so far at signalling resolve and a willingness to inflict costs on Russia. We need to maintain our resolve, even as the costs of sanctions - be that rising food prices in poor countries or incentivising China to build its own replacement for SWIFT - become more apparent. The benefit of deterring World War Three is worth substantial pain. 

Specifically, we must be ready to keep sanctions going for the long-haul. If the war ends with Russia still occupying all or some of Ukraine, there will be pressure in the West to normalise relations and cut our losses, especially as we see more of the cost of sanctions to innocent people both inside and outside Russia. Ending sanctions would absolutely be the wrong action. If Putin or Xi Jinping or some other dictator thinks that the cost of invading an innocent country is only a few months or a year or pain before things go back to normal, then they will decide that cost is worth it. That is a terrible outcome if they're right, and even worse if they miscalculate the West's response to the next outrage and trigger World War Three.

I don't have specific recommendations for readers' personal actions, beyond what Zvi has already suggested, so I will add my voice to encourage readers to provide what aid they can to Ukraine, and support maximum sanctions on Russia, and to maintain that support even if it becomes clear that the occupation of Ukraine is a fait accompli.

 

[1] To be clear, I wholeheartedly support Ukraine and I want the Russian invasion to be defeated. I just think that with so much focus on the short-term goal of helping Ukraine we are at risk of forgetting longer-term strategic goals which are also vitally important.

[2] Evidence from the response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine suggests that we'd go with option 2 and take major economic damage trying to throw China out of the world trade system while still failing to save Taiwan.

[3] This does assume at least moderately rational leadership, which is likely true for China. I am aware of doubts about Putin's rationality.

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A couple of additional considerations that I wish people would bring up in posts on this topic:

  1. Humans have a tendency/bias to think one's own side is good and only giving proportional/fair responses, and the other side is evil and always escalating, making overall escalation much more likely than game theory (that assume rational actors) would suggest.
  2. Chinese leadership may seem mostly rational today, but what about tomorrow? Putin seemed fairly rational just a few months ago. Maybe "absolute power corrupts absolutely" is right after all?

Given these considerations, "deterring the next war" is harder than it otherwise appears, and we should plan accordingly. (I'm not sure what concrete conclusions to make yet.)

I think both Putin and Xi Jinping are extremely rational - more so, in fact, that our Macron or Biden. Their goals are very different, which makes their action difficult to understand for us (at least on an emotional level - wants to bring back the Glory of the empire is a motive I can understand but not really emphatise with). And they can also make mistakes - I think Putin underestimated the strength of our answer to his invasion (tbf this strength surprised everybody, including our own gouvernement). But misevaluating something does not makes you irrational.

From what I've read, Putin surrounded himself with yes men who lied to him (or were afraid to tell him the truth) about the preparedness and morale of the Russian and Ukrainian militaries, and the likely response of the Ukrainian government and people to a Russian invasion. That doesn't seem rational to me, or if it's somehow not irrational on an individual level, makes it a bad idea to model Russia as a rational actor as a whole.

That doesn't seem rational to me, or if it's somehow not irrational on an individual level, makes it a bad idea to model Russia as a rational actor as a whole.

 

Absent honest, safe, free speech, leadership's map diverges more and more from the territory and then comes crashing back to reality when they drive off a cliff they thought was a highway.

A group of individuals behaving in their own rational self-interest can make very irrational, self-destructive group-level decisions, if the incentives the members have are perverse enough. I guess the idea itself is as old as the book(Moloch style religious arguments have existed since forever) but I somehow never thought about it from the lens of predictability, of being a part of the same consensus reality. 

Everyone around Putin was shocked that he went to full war, because they all knew they were lying to him and it would be a disaster. He alone lived in a hall of mirrors. I assume he's smashing a bunch of them as we speak.

Tbh I have a well documented bias toward overestimating opponents capacities. I think Putin's actions makes a lot of sense considering the results of his previous wars and the general lack of (serious) responce from the West, but I agree his most recent speeches and actions do not strikes me as perfectly rational.

[-]TAG2y30

I think Putin’s actions makes a lot of sense

What's he maximising? Population? Hectares? GDP? Respect?

The feeling you get when you manage to change history with your own country at Europa Universalis 4 ?

[-]TAG2y30

Is he a gamer?

The point is that anything maximises something , for an arbitrary something.

Games have well defined but arbitrary winning conditions. Life had a poorly defined but non arbitrary winning condition.

If he is to be believed as genuine, as interviewed by Oliver Stone in 2017 (see: The Putin Interviews), then his stated goals are prosperity and security for Russia. But he somewhat betrays another goal of his that he doesn't explicitly state: He is concerned about his and his family's prosperity and security, particularly after he leaves office. I do get the sense his stated goals are genuine but his unstated goals would override them if necessary. Not exactly revelatory nor a great insight to say that a politician is primarily concerned with saving their own skin but Russian politics strike me as even more dangerous and cut-throat than Western politics. The risks for him are likely much higher.

[+][comment deleted]2y10

I think you should update, regarding Putin's rationality.

His recent miscalculations are not just unpredictable mistakes that anyone can do. They are part of systemic issues rooted in the way he was running the country for 20 years. Optimizing loyalty instead of competence, enabling corruption, getting rid of independent public institutions, propagating informational war epistemology and as a result disregarding any critique as fake news and falling for your own propaganda.

A rational agent who just wanted to be a successful cleptocrat could have behaved mostly the way Putin did until now. They would still not fall for their own propaganda and know that all the talk about restoring Russia's former glory is just a narrative to cheaply assert the support of their core demographic. A rational agent who actually wanted to restore Russia to its former glory would have been behaving completely different through out these 20 years. A rational agent who somehow wanted both would have at least made really sure to have the military being capable.

You may be right that deterring the next war is harder than it appears. I’m pretty sure you’re right that escalation is more likely in reality than in theory. That doesn’t change the fact that the world still needs to deter the next war. And taking the problem seriously and thinking about how to find a solution is a necessary first step.

To take this straight to the nuclear winter dark side.

I've been reading a bit about MAD 101 and I hate it. I'm slowly embracing the idea that the most safe thing to do is to be as explicit and precommitted as possible to massive retaliation if red lines are crossed. Emotionally that sounds nuts and I'd like everyone on every side to just spam we're not using the nukes, calm down.

But.

IF people say that and red lines keep getting crossed, at some point Side A thinks they can push one more boundary and get away with it, but Side B decides this is the limit and they press the button.

As such I think, but don't believe if that makes sense, bellicose rhetoric about nukes reduces the risk of nuclear escalation. Implicitly people clamoring for the West to precommit to not using nukes if the Ukrainian war spills out of Ukraine are actually fuzzying Putin's calculus in a very dangerous way. 

On a lighter shade of dark note, I definitely think Putin getting away with all of his little salami tactics measures against the West in the past 10 years was why he thought he could get away with Ukraine. If massive sanctions had been issued at any point in the past, it would have never gotten to this point in Ukraine. But then again, the West would have had less justification for the sanctions...

Yes. In a better world, the West would have imposed massive sanctions after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the current invasion would probably not be happening. But since we can’t change the past, the best we can do is try to learn the right lessons to inform our decisions in the future.

A large issue I'm noting here, all of this assumes that sanctions are undesirable, and not desirable.

Yet, my reading of history is, sanctions massively drive up support for politicians, military and government. Sure they hurt the economy, but you can more than make up for that with higher taxes, which people are willing to pay now, due to their heightened patriotism. Which brings me to the further statement that being sanctioned is not a costly side effect, but the end goal. That Russia, and specifically, Russian politicians and the Russian government are acting in a way specifically designed to rile the west, because doing so is profitable.

Just a random thought -- in long term, I wonder if it would be a good idea to make an offer to every citizen of Russia to spend one month on a vacation in Europe (once in their life), with all expenses paid, including travel. Nothing too fancy, just enough so that "but I don't have enough money" is never an objection. Maybe that would create some cognitive dissonance between "that nice place where I spent a vacation once" and "those horrible enemies that besiege us from all sides". With a bit of propaganda, not anything directly anti-Russia, but rather like "EU is a place where former enemies, such as Germany and France, now live together in peace" and also "EU expands only when someone wants to join us; and if they later change their mind and want to leave, they are free to do so". As an antidote against the fear of another country near Russia joining the EU.

No idea how much that would cost, but if the interest exceeds the possible budget, we could select by lottery.

[-][anonymous]2y90

This sounds completely out of touch. Russia is not North Korea, people there do have an idea what life in the West is like. Public support for Russian expansionism isn't driven by fear of NATO or EU, it's driven by spite, jealousy and nostalgia for Czarist/Soviet glory days. The scheme you propose would be perceived as a taunt, or even an insult.

Keep in mind that I do support a more open immigration policy for Russian deserters and citizens alike to further lower morale and brain-drain (I haven't heard any good counter-arguments thus far). The difference is, even if your scheme works out, Russians in Russia having a higher opinion of the EU doesn't affect Russian state capacity, Russians simply not being in Russia any more does, regardless of what opinions they hold.

As far as I know about 70% people in Russia don't have an international passport. And I think many people who have it visited only Egypt or Turkey.

It seems like the current policy of banning air travel is essentially the opposite of what you are proposing. 

[+][comment deleted]2y20
[+][comment deleted]2y20

I strongly disagree with this way of thinking, for reasons similar to Bryan Caplan's (though I can't find a link to his relevant blog post right now).

What he points out is that having a policy of imposing costly penalties on "norm violators" or "aggressors" does two things in practice: it raises the cost of violating norms but it also increases the demand to do so. Think of the ultimatum game: from a game-theoretic point of view it's optimal for the person giving the ultimatum to demand as much of the pie for himself as possible, but we all know that in the real world that would be a terrible strategy even from a selfish point of view.

Since this is a situation in which both supply and demand curves shift outwards, the net effect on the amount of aggression in equilibrium is ambiguous. For example, the US could threaten to nuke Moscow unless Putin is deposed in 48 hours. Everyone knows that this would be an incredibly reckless move, and even if the commitment could be trusted it's not clear what the Russian reaction to it would be. This could be because people in general have a background policy of "not putting up with unreasonable demands" as a way to deter people from making such demands, but then you're really playing with fire when you provoke them by making demands which are skirting the line. As an example, consider that Japan took the US trade embargoes and sanctions on it in the lead up to Pearl Harbor as an act of war, an unreasonable imposition that Japan had to respond to with force.

My sense of it is that punishing aggressors in this way makes conflict lumpier: you have a few world wars instead of many small wars. The net impact on, say, the amount of people killed per year on average in wars is not clear to me. I think the ideological environment created by a period of prolonged animosity is essential for a total war such as the First World War or the Second World War to get going, and that's precisely the kind of environment I fear is emerging now between "the West" and countries such as Russia and China, just as it happened between the Axis countries and the Allies in the lead up to the Second World War.

[-]gjm2y30

So when you say that imposing costly penalties on norm violators "increases the demand" to violate norms, you mean a sort of "as well hang for a sheep as for a lamb" effect where once you violate any norms there's no longer much incentive not to violate others?

Surely that's not an adverse consequence of imposing costly penalties as such, it's about having penalties that vary in the wrong way.

Nuking Russia for invading Ukraine (or, for invading Ukraine and not deposing the guy who ordered the invasion) would be a very bad idea, for sure, but there are penalties intermediate between the present economic sanctions and launching the nukes [citation needed], and OP here isn't proposing launching the nukes.

So when you say that imposing costly penalties on norm violators "increases the demand" to violate norms, you mean a sort of "as well hang for a sheep as for a lamb" effect where once you violate any norms there's no longer much incentive not to violate others?

No. It has nothing to do with "once you've been punished, you have less to fear" - that's not my argument at all. There are several ways you can look at my argument, but it's really talking about the simple fact that if you let relations between two countries get worse, a big war between them becomes more likely.

I gave the example of the Pacific War for this reason: even though the Americans may have thought that the sanctions placed on Japan fell short of active hostilities, from Japan's point of view that was not true. Furthermore, the American actions against Japan led to Japanese officials thinking that the US was punishing Japan for doing in China what the US had done in the Western hemisphere. This apparent (to them) hypocrisy caused further deterioration in relations until it wasn't unthinkable to go to a big war to settle the issues once and for all.

I'm really shocked that nobody seems to consider how bad the downstream effects of bad relations between powerful countries can be. It's all about a narrow consideration of "how do we best punish Russia to disincentivize aggressive behavior", and nobody seems to be thinking of "what happened from 1991 to 2022 for Russian-American relations to have deteriorated to such a point?"

[-]gjm2y50

Do you think that what happened from 1991 to 2022 that made Russian-American relations deteriorate so badly was a matter of "imposing costly penalties"? If so, what costly penalties do you have in mind and what do you think would have been better than imposing them? If not, then to whatever extent it's an argument against "imposing costly penalties" it seems like actually it's more an argument against any sort of unfriendliness at all. But maybe I'm missing something there.

My understanding (which is very far indeed from expert) is that Japan didn't so much view US sanctions as an act of war, as think that US sanctions were doing them so much harm that going to war was the lesser evil. I'm not sure how much difference this distinction actually makes, but it feels as if "a nation will go to war if it thinks that's the only way to safeguard its interests" and "a nation will go to war if relations with the other party deteriorate far enough" are different stories.

I do agree, though, that it's reasonable to worry that reacting harshly to another nation's misdeeds will worsen relations with them and make future conflict more likely. It seems to me that this concern should be weighed against the deterrent effect described in OP, rather than picking one of them and saying that it's wrong to worry about the other. OP would be better if it addressed your concern. Your argument would be better if accompanied by some sort of argument about the relative sizes of the two effects.

[EDITED to add:] I would also be interested to know how you think things like Russia's attack on Ukraine should be handled by the US, the EU, etc. Any sort of attempt to impose costs for it will worsen relations between the US/EU/... and Russia, after all. Would you favour a norm where any country gets to invade any other country and no one else should do anything about it? (Or maybe one where that's so unless there are explicit NATO-type mutual defence treaties? But a US military response to a Russian invasion of, say, Poland would worsen US-Russia relations. So, again, if you favour something of this sort then the question is how the tradeoffs go.)

Do you think that what happened from 1991 to 2022 that made Russian-American relations deteriorate so badly was a matter of "imposing costly penalties"?

Only some part of it was. As I said, what I'm concerned about is bad relations, regardless of what they were caused by. Threatening someone with penalties unless they do as you say causes relations to worsen, but it's not the only thing that does so.

My understanding (which is very far indeed from expert) is that Japan didn't so much view US sanctions as an act of war, as think that US sanctions were doing them so much harm that going to war was the lesser evil. I'm not sure how much difference this distinction actually makes, but it feels as if "a nation will go to war if it thinks that's the only way to safeguard its interests" and "a nation will go to war if relations with the other party deteriorate far enough" are different stories.

There's too much to unpack here.

First, something is by my definition an act of war if you think going to war in response to it is an appropriate action. For Japan, therefore, American economic sanctions were so crippling that they regarded it as an act of war even though the Americans did not.

Furthermore, even morally speaking, sanctions are one government threatening people not to engage in commerce with another government. If I threatened all the food stores into your town and frightened them into not selling any food to you, you'd be perfectly justified in regarding that as an attempt on your life. By the same logic, the actions of the US government in prohibiting Americans from doing business with Japan were undercutting a vital interest of the Japanese government by threats of violence. It was more damaging to their war effort in China than killing thousands of Japanese soldiers a month would have been.

In addition, you're overlooking the wider context of the Pacific War by your narrow focus on "interests". By any measure, attacking the Union during the American Civil War was in the "national interest" of the UK, since they could see the writing on the wall that if the US became too powerful they would eventually supplant Britain as the most powerful country in the world. However, this possibility was remote and indeed it didn't happen. The reason is that relations between the US and the UK were simply too good for any British government to be able to make that decision, and it's likely that the government itself didn't consider it seriously for the same reason.

With Japan, the situation was different. Japan had experienced a long period of racism and discrimination in the international stage. Japanese immigrants were treated poorly abroad and Japan's demands for equality between countries were ignored. When after the end of WW1 Japan proposed putting a racial equality clause to the Charter of the League of Nations as the price for handing occupied German concessions on the Chinese mainland back to China, the Entente would not consent to it.

As the final insult here, in negotiations between Japan and the US to resolve the conflict in China peacefully, Japan offered to recognize the Open Door policy in China and withdraw its troops to the antebellum boundaries if this policy were recognized throughout the world: that is, if the US and the UK stopped their actions to keep out Japanese exports from India and South America, Japan would reciprocate and withdraw from China. Of course, this was rejected. The message Japan got from this episode is that it's fine for the US and the UK to intimidate other countries into closing off their markets to foreign imports, but not fine for Japan to do the same. It's exactly how Russia and China now feel about Ukraine: why is it fine for the US to invade Iraq but not fine for Russia to invade Ukraine?

I don't want to write a whole history of the Pacific War here. I'm only trying to say that total war between Japan and the US was only made possible against a backdrop of decades of mistreatment of the Japanese by Western countries. I'm concerned about history repeating itself precisely because people don't seem to recognize this and continue thinking in terms which would only lead to the situation getting worse.

I do agree, though, that it's reasonable to worry that reacting harshly to another nation's misdeeds will worsen relations with them and make future conflict more likely. It seems to me that this concern should be weighed against the deterrent effect described in OP, rather than picking one of them and saying that it's wrong to worry about the other. OP would be better if it addressed your concern. Your argument would be better if accompanied by some sort of argument about the relative sizes of the two effects.

I did say that I don't know the relative size and it likely depends on many details, but what I can say is treating Russia as an enemy is what caused the current situation - not the invasion of Ukraine, but the general poor relations between Russia and Western countries. It created the backdrop against which these narrow interest and game-theoretic calculations start making sense. Nobody thinks that way about relations between Canada and the US, because the countries are simply too friendly with each other for this to ever come up.

I would also be interested to know how you think things like Russia's attack on Ukraine should be handled by the US, the EU, etc.

If you want something that can be done right now and on short notice, making Ukraine a country with a similar international status to Austria or Finland during the Cold War would be one immediate solution.

However, if my way of thinking had prevailed this war would never have happened to begin with. Either the Russians would not have seen NATO as a hostile military alliance or NATO would have refrained from sending lethal arms to Ukraine and stationing thousands of foreign military advisors in Ukrainian territory after Maidan. These are provocative actions that make Russia feel threatened and ratchet up tensions between the US and Russia.

Russia bears just as much, if not more, blame for this process - I don't want to exonerate them from blame in any way. The same was true of Japan in the Pacific War. However, if one side in these disputes had refused to play the game of ratcheting up tensions, the eventual wars would simply not have happened. In this context it takes two to dance.

a backdrop of decades of mistreatment of the Japanese by Western countries.

I find this a bit difficult to take seriously. The WW2 in the Pacific didn't start with well-treatment of China and other countries by Japan, either. Naturally Japanese didn't care about that part of the story, but hey had plenty of other options how they could have responded their the UK or the US trade policy instead of invading Manchuria.

making Ukraine a country with a similar international status to Austria or Finland during the Cold War would be one immediate solution.

This is not a simple task, but rather a tall order. Austria was "made neutral" after it was occupied. Finland signed a peace treaty that put it into effectively similar position. Why would any country submit to such a deal voluntarily? The answer is, they often don't. Finland didn't receive significant assistance from the Allies in 1939, yet they decided to defend themselves against the USSR anyway when Stalin attacked.

However, if one side in these disputes had refused to play the game of ratcheting up tensions, the eventual wars would simply not have happened. In this context it takes two to dance.

Sure, but the game theoretic implication is that this kind of strategy favors the first party to take the first step and say "I have an army and a map where this neighboring country belongs to us". 

NATO would have refrained from sending lethal arms to Ukraine and stationing thousands of foreign military advisors in Ukrainian territory after Maidan.

What a weird way to present the causality of events. I am quite confident NATO didn't have time to send any weapons and certainly not thousands of advisors between Maidan and the war starting. Yanukovich fled 22 February. Antimaidan protests started in Donetsk 1 March and shooting war started in April.

I find this a bit difficult to take seriously. The WW2 in the Pacific didn't start with well-treatment of China and other countries by Japan, either.

I never said that it did. As I said, "in this context it takes two to dance".

Naturally Japanese didn't care about that part of the story, but hey had plenty of other options how they could have responded their the UK or the US trade policy instead of invading Manchuria.

I don't know why it's hard for you to believe. In 1918, Fumimaro Konoe (then part of the Japanese delegation to the Paris Peace Conference) wrote an essay titled "Against a Pacifism Centered on England and America" in which he stated the following:

"Japan is limited in territory, poor in natural resources, and has a small population and thus a meager market for manufactured products. If England closed off its colonies, how would we be able to assure the nation’s secure survival? In such a case, the need to ensure its survival would compel Japan to attempt to overthrow the status quo as Germany did before the war."

Konoe was Prime Minister for most of 1941, resigning in October only after his attempts to negotiate a last-minute settlement with the United States came to nothing. There's no evidence to suggest he changed his mind, though in 1941 he opposed the war with the United States on pragmatic grounds since he believed Japan would lose.

The question is not about whether Japan could have done something different. Of course they could have. The question is whether decades of animosity contributed to the outbreak of war, and it's clear the answer is affirmative here. Even the Japanese invasion of China is hard to imagine if Japan had been better treated by the United Kingdom and the United States.

Japan had two key concerns: physical and economic security. They felt their physical security was threatened because they faced two potentially hostile powers in China and the USSR. In the 1920s Japan had cooperated with Western countries within the framework of the Washington Order, in which China was to remain under an "open door policy" with respect to trade and all powers in the Pacific would cooperate to limit the size of their navies. This order, established when China was weak due to internal strife, caused resentment in China and the terms of this order prevented Japan from ensuring their security by striking China when they were weak, so it was quite reasonable for the Japanese to worry about the future.

If war with China or the USSR broke out in the depths of a depression, the US and the UK could have cut their losses and left Japan to fight alone in a ruinous total war. This, more than anything, Japan wished to avoid at all costs.

The concern about economic security is no less important, since the turn to protectionism all around the world following the Great Depression was exactly what Konoe had feared. Its effect on domestic politics in Japan was also pronounced. Since Japan is an island country that relies heavily on trade, the unilateral tariffs and quotas imposed by the US and the UK on Japanese exports right at the depth of the depression came at the worst possible time. This strengthened the hand of militarists who wished to construct the notorious "Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere".

This is not a simple task, but rather a tall order. Austria was "made neutral" after it was occupied. Finland signed a peace treaty that put it into effectively similar position. Why would any country submit to such a deal voluntarily? The answer is, they often don't. Finland didn't receive significant assistance from the Allies in 1939, yet they decided to defend themselves against the USSR anyway when Stalin attacked.

All it takes is for NATO to stop selling weapons and sending military advisors into Ukraine. It has nothing to do with what Ukraine wants; if NATO says they won't do it then the problem would be solved.

Sure, but the game theoretic implication is that this kind of strategy favors the first party to take the first step and say "I have an army and a map where this neighboring country belongs to us".

My whole point is that there are competing effects in this situation and not considering the resentment that a hostile policy will cause in Russia (or Japan) is a big mistake. I'm not denying that a more lenient policy has this effect, I'm saying it has an offsetting effect which could (and I think does, in the current case with Russia) lower the expected number of war deaths over the next 50 years, say.

What a weird way to present the causality of events. I am quite confident NATO didn't have time to send any weapons and certainly not thousands of advisors between Maidan and the war starting. Yanukovich fled 22 February. Antimaidan protests started in Donetsk 1 March and shooting war started in April.

How is that weird? NATO supports a movement of regime change in Ukraine. Russia sees it as an act against them and ratchets up tensions by taking over Crimea and supporting separatists in Donetsk & Luhansk. NATO sees it as an act of aggression and starts sending arms & military advisors to Ukraine. Russia sees this as a provocation and responds by full-scale invasion of the country.

I don't understand what you find weird about this way to present the causality of events. Have I left something out or inaccurately represented anything that happened?

Another way to look at sanctions is that the government is helping coordinate many independent actors. I suspect that most of the people who have halted trading with Russia would have wanted to do so otherwise but would not have been able to because of market forces. The sanctions are the government’s way of saying “market forces are wrong here, all the independent actors can stop trading with Russia”, with the unfortunate side effect that some people are also being forced to not trade with Russia.

This is a purely hypothetical assumption, much like the theory of hypothetical consent as a justification for political authority. Needless to say, I'm not impressed with it.

It is true that in theory there is a coordination problem with sanctions because they are like taxes: the cost to a country of being sanctioned is second order in the magnitude of the sanctions being imposed. This means even an individual who cares about punishing Japan for its war in China can only impose second-order costs on Japan by his participation at the expense of a first-order cost to himself.

The problem is that there isn't sufficient reason to believe in the real world that governments impose sanctions to solve coordination problems. Everyone can understand that Russian sanctions on foreign countries, such as blocking websites not cooperating with the Russian government or halting trade of various goods with European countries, are actually against the interests of individuals living in Russia. All I'm saying is that the same is true of most sanctions imposed by the United States government or any other government.

You say that imposing costly penalties on norm violators increases demand to do so. I think this is likely to be the crux of our disagreement so can you explain the mechanism by which you think this process operates? In general I would expect that raising the cost of an action reduces the likelihood that an (at least partially rational) agent will choose that action. 

Separate point: I am not quite sure where you’re coming from with the comment about how the US could threaten to nuke Moscow, and I think you may have misunderstood my argument. I’m certainly not proposing anything so dangerous. We should be aiming to increase the costs of launching aggressive wars in order to prevent future wars and especially to prevent future nuclear wars. We definitely shouldn’t escalate the current situation in a way that increases the likelihood of nuclear war!

In general I would expect that raising the cost of an action reduces the likelihood that an (at least partially rational) agent will choose that action.

I think I was explicit about how this works: if someone credibly threatens you by saying "unless you stop using LessWrong forever I will beat you up", you're unlikely to cave to this demand even though it raises the cost of using LW for you. Even if you don't have the power to resist right now, such demands breed resentment and animosity, and if there's enough accumulation of those you may decide you'd rather take a chance and fight than live according to the bully's demands.

When both sides are playing your game, both sides try to find ways of imposing ever-increasing costs on each other and making those vary with states of the world in the correct way to incentivize the behavior they want. This is essentially a recipe for disaster in the real world: it's unlikely that two people, or two countries, interacting in such a way can remain at peace for long.

Separate point: I am not quite sure where you’re coming from with the comment about how the US could threaten to nuke Moscow, and I think you may have misunderstood my argument. I’m certainly not proposing anything so dangerous. We should be aiming to increase the costs of launching aggressive wars in order to prevent future wars and especially to prevent future nuclear wars. We definitely shouldn’t escalate the current situation in a way that increases the likelihood of nuclear war!

I know you're not proposing it. The example was meant to illustrate a flaw in your logic: if disincentivizing bad behavior and incentivizing good behavior with punishments and rewards was always a good idea, then there wouldn't be anything wrong with threatening to nuke Moscow in order to remove Putin from power. There is actually something wrong with it, because you know that this threat can very easily backfire.

What you're proposing is qualitatively not different from this, it differs from it only in the extent of the punishment that would be imposed. I think you should be cautious about it for essentially the same reasons.

Fundamentally wrong mental model, in my opinion. (but upvoted for presenting a well structured one!)

As if saying: "We shouldn't put people in prison because it raises the cost of murder and increases demand to murder." 

Violence is a wildfire, not an auction market. Quantity of violence is zero absent a catalyst, once the catalyst is provided it goes up exponentially until it reaches some saturation point at which point it runs out of fuel and collapses again to zero. 

Supply and Demand for violence form a positive feedback loop. (+ an activation barrier to get started and a cliff back to nothing at the end, dunno what proper terms would be here)

The measures that can be taken are to raise the cost of starting a war(make the catalyst more expensive) or end the war FAST(overwhelming force on one side).

Half the reason Putin is doing this is because he wasn't slapped hard the first time he went invading Georgia(cheaper catalyst in the future). Arguably, the main reason he felt safe invading Georgia is because the US trampled over international law when they invaded Iraq and lost the moral bully pulpit needed to mobilize the EU for sanctions.

The other half of the reason is he thought Ukraine would fold immediately(he thought he had overwhelming force).

The murder example is actually perfect. A lot of murder is revenge killing. A lot of it is essentially feuding going back decades(you killed my uncle, I'll kill your son etc). Same goes for war. France and Germany had a tit for tat war every few decades relationship for centuries. 

The way to break that cycle is by monopolizing violence. 

And it actually does break the cycle in that it removes the immediate popular causes for revenge killing or revanchist war. (Not to say that new causes cannot lead to war again, but the relationship between France and Germany is qualitatively different than it was in the last 80 year span of peace between their countries.)

[2] Evidence from the response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine suggests that we'd go with option 2 and take major economic damage trying to throw China out of the world trade system while still failing to save Taiwan.

These are disanalogous in that the US has not previously implied an intention to go to war to defend Ukraine, but has (somewhat ambiguously) implied an intention to go to war to defend Taiwan. So the US declining to go to war to defend Ukraine is what you should have expected even if you also believed that the US would go to war to defend Taiwan.

We should be willing to end sanctions iff Russia calls off the invasion and brings its soldiers home

I'll just note that this would mean, assuming Ukraine surrenders in the next few weeks, and Putin then does exactly what he says he'll do and withdraws, our sanctions are withdrawn almost immediately after implementation, and Russia is implicitly vindicated. Which is an outcome I would be fine with? It seems like it would end with lots of small wars and no nuclear extinction, no genocide and no global empire.

But I would be very surprised to see a general consensus that it's fine to invade another country and force them to sign treaties so long as you aren't occupying them or [X,Y,Z].

Yeah, maybe I should have worded that better. I was thinking more of the scenario where one of Putin’s underlings assassinated him, takes power and cancels the invasion and returns to the status quo ante. Which is behaviour that we do want to incentivise. 

You can make the same argument for a world where Russia invades a NATO member like the Baltic states. What do we do then? Start World War Three? Abandon huge parts of Europe to be invaded until Russian tanks are rolling through Germany?

Publically, saying that attacking a NATO state is equivalent to attacking Ukraine, seems to me a great way to signal that NATO promises about mutual defense aren't worth the ink they are printed on. 

Why do you do that? It seems pretty inconsistent with your overall position. 

Therefore the main goal of Western strategy should be to never get to that point. That means that our response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine must credibly signal to Russia, China and any other potential invaders that the cost of invading another country is too high. Remember that their leaders are making comparable calculations: what is the best strategy for China/Russia to take given the expected response of the West.

Politicians, think about all sorts of decisions when invading other countries that are not just "what's the best strategy for my country". 

The sanctions on RT and Sputnik made it easier for the Russian government to censor their own population in a stronger way which is likely welcome for a lot of people in the Kremlin that pushed for the war. 

[2] Evidence from the response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine suggests that we'd go with option 2 and take major economic damage trying to throw China out of the world trade system while still failing to save Taiwan.

No, evidence from the Russian invasion suggests that imports that are considered critical like gas in Germany were still going on while politicians engaged in economic damage at home that wouldn't inconvenience their population too much. 

The trade relationship with China is very different and doing significant damage to China involves a much bigger shock to Western economies. 

If you would want to signal that we are willing to accept a lot of damage you should write op-eds about how letting millions of Africans starve is worth it because that would actually signal that you are willing to sacrifice. 

[-]gjm2y40

I think writing op-eds about how letting millions of Africans starve is worth it would signal not "that you are willing to sacrifice" but that you don't care about people far away from you. (Which seems like it's probably the wrong message to send, if you want to make people far away from you believe that invading other people far away from you will get them hit with economic sanctions that will hurt you as well as them.)

You could discuss how the UN food program should be funded in a way that it doesn't have to beg Elon for money and say that funding those things is very important to make up for damage to make the message that starvation is a big deal better.