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The Secrecy Gambit: Clandestine Power Shifts and Preventive Conflict

Brandon Merrell - PhD candidate, U.C. San Diego
Alexei Abrahams - Postdoctoral Scholar, Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance

Signals of strength enable countries to deter threats during crises and extract favorable bargains during peace. However, countries often forgo signaling opportunities by concealing new weapons and technologies. Why do actors sometimes choose secrecy at the expense of signaling? We present a formal model in which a country first decides whether to pursue a power shift and then whether to announce or conceal its decision. The results show that several common conclusions about crisis behavior should be qualified. First, whereas popular models suggest that incomplete information and credible commitment problems can cause war independently, we demonstrate that the combination of these mechanisms can facilitate peace. Second, we distinguish between two forms of preventive war that create opposing incentives for rising states: wars of discovery and wars of suspicion. Finally, we show that secret developers and non-developers fall under equal suspicion and must therefore take costly steps to reassure adversaries. While this reassurance tax is part of the `gambit' played by ambitious states, it constitutes a burden for those content with the status quo. These effects generate new predictions for empirical research on arming, allying, and counterinsurgency.

Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the 2017 APSA Annual Meeting and the 2018 SPSA Annual Meeting. Copy available upon request.