Michelle Allendoerfer: Fearon’s Rational Theory of War

Today we have the first of two posts by Dr. Michelle Allendoerfer, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Women’s Leadership Program (wlp.gwu.edu), George Washington University:

Rationality of WarOf the concepts typically taught in an Introduction to International Relations class, Fearon’s rationalist theories of war is one of the most challenging for students.  Getting students to actively engage with these concepts makes them more concrete and less abstract.  There are bargaining activities out there to illustrate the bargaining theory of war, but many treat wars as “all or nothing” — the winner gets the spoils while the loser gets nothing (minus the costs of war to both parties).  I wanted an activity that reflected a wider range of war outcomes in which the loser may end up with some division of the spoils.

I divided my class into dyads made up of two groups.  I made eight groups of 3-4 students (four dyads).  Each dyad gets a modified deck of cards (I used only 2-9 with more cards in the middle of the range), tokens (10 per round), a coin, and a handout.

To play, each group takes a card from the deck. In all rounds but the first, this information is kept private.  The challenger, selected by a coin toss, makes an offer to divide 10 tokens. I used Hershey kisses because my class is small and motivated by chocolate; anything that incentivizes the students will work, such as poker chips tied to extra credit.  If the defender accepts, the tokens are divided according to the offer and the round ends.

If the defender rejects, the groups go to war by showing their cards. I linked the division of tokens to the margin of victory. For example, if side A plays a 6 and side B plays a 3, the margin of victory is 3 in favor of side A and this corresponds to a 8/2 split of the tokens – this information is on the handout provided to the students. If a war occurs both sides pay the cost of 2 tokens.

A practice round helps get the students going.  An initial practice round where cards are not hidden also illustrates to students the crucial point of Fearon that war is ex post inefficient and should not happen in conditions of complete information.

In my next post, I’ll share some of my reflections on the activity and some notes on debriefing.  Feel free to email me (mallendo-at-gwu-dot-edu) with questions or for a copy of the handout I use to facilitate the game.  I’m happy to share those materials.

6 thoughts on “Michelle Allendoerfer: Fearon’s Rational Theory of War

  1. This is fantastic. I am always looking for good ways to teach Fearon 1995. Actually, I am currently working with our IT department through an internal grant to develop an online simulation of international crisis bargaining based on Fearon’s logic. This post has really helped me think about that project as well.

    1. I believe there is a lot that can be said in favor of these kinds of relatively simple classroom exercises. The investment of time and effort on the part of the instructor is minimal, so if a particular activity fails, it’s easy to recover. And students get to experience the behavior rather than only read about it.

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