What IR Can Learn From The NHL

Both Gary and Rebecca cited Marc Lynch recommending “intervening” in Libya:
The appropriate comparison is Bosnia or Kosovo, or even Rwanda where a massacre is unfolding on live television and the world is challenged to act.

It is time for the United States, NATO, the United Nations and the Arab League to act forcefully to try to prevent the already bloody situation from degenerating into something much worse. I petulantly asked whether Mark Lynch had ever seen an intervention he didn’t like.

The answer, of course, is yes, which a moment’s thought about pseudonyms would have made clear. My social radar remains a perfect contraindicator.

But that leaves several questions, not the least of which is “with what Army”? Certainly not the U.S. one, which is overextended in battles of—let us be polite&dubious optimal cost.

NATO and The United Nations suffer similar issues, along with “institutional inertia” (unlike the U.S., they do not jump into wars without a strategy, a purpose, and a plan).

This leaves the Arab League, which has several members—Egypt, Lebanon, Somalia, Bahrain, Iraq, Libya (being the issue at hand), Yemen, the Sudan, Tunisia, and possibly Saudi Arabia and Jordan come immediately to mind—that are rather preoccupied themselves.

It’s not just that the very sharp Mr. Lynch conflates genocides with civil war; it’s that he chooses the wrong strategy for ending the process.

Watch NHL fights. Here’s a good example (fight starts ca. 0:55):

Note that the fight isn’t ended until half a minute later. The referees (especially the one on the left side of the screen) are paying attention the entire time—fallen gloves get picked up or kicked out of the way—but they don’t even attempt an intervention until the players are on the ice.

The corrolary is that as soon as a player falls to the ice, they intervene.

The question for those advocating military action should be seen in that light: how can we quickly and efficiently get the battle to the point where intervention does not involve getting in the middle of two moving targets.

This is an economics blog, so, yes, you can bet that my answer will be economics-related.

If you want to stop a dictator from killing his people, freeze any of his personal assets that are held out of the country.

In cases where the dictator is likely to fall, it sends a clear signal to other countries. (In cases where the dictator is likely to succeed, the worst case scenario is that banking relationships will be damaged, a consideration that the domestic government would have considered before making the decision to freeze the assets in the first place.)

The purpose of financial in lieu of military intervention is to balance the tradeoff. A dictator whose funds will remain unencumbered no matter how many of his people he kills will not change his behaviour. A dictator who stands to lose a large (and increasing) portion of $70 billion faces a scenario where extending his time in office may well appear too costly.

(There is the added signalling benefit of the proliferation of asset-freezings that occur. Since each country and institution that freezes the assets is weighing their decision based on political outcomes, the more places that freeze his assets, the more clear it becomes that his efforts are not expected to succeed.)

Again, I premise this on the idea that Tom Friedman’s basic premise is correct: that economic activity mitigates the chance of military activity. But the idea here is much easier to implement uni-, bi-, or multilaterally than managing the logistics of moving soldiers, machinery, and rations to an area that may have ended activities by the time you can start to have an effect. (Even ignoring if the effect will be negative.)

IR recommendations should follow the lead of NHL referees: make it as easy as possible for the fighters to be separated, but don’t put your body between them until then.

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