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The Secrecy Gambit: Clandestine Power Shifts and Preventive Conflict

Versions of this paper were presented at the 2017 APSA Annual Meeting, the 2018 SPSA Annual Meeting, and the 2018 APSA Annual Meeting. A .pdf copy is available here.

Brandon Merrell - Yale University
Alexei Abrahams - University of Toronto

Under what conditions should rising states reveal or conceal their military capabilities? We present a formal model in which military announcements reveal information both about a state's current capabilities as well as its potential development trajectory. The results suggest that several common conclusions about crisis behavior should be qualified. First, we identify conditions in which states will coerce their adversaries by signaling strength, but also circumstances in which they will attempt to conceal their military capabilities or even eschew opportunities for growth altogether. The model also clarifies two forms of preventive war that researchers often conflate: wars of discovery and wars of suspicion. Finally, we show that the possibility of covert activity compels all states to take costly actions to reassure suspicious adversaries. While this reassurance tax is part of the 'gambit' played by ambitious states, it imposes a burden on those that cannot pursue clandestine development. We support the theory with historical data on secret alliances and show that the results generate novel predictions for research on military arming, allying, and counterinsurgency.