some bargaining theory

hiya. I just turned in some coursework for a course i’m taking at ucl called wars and violence. it’s a 1500 word max essay and I picked the one on bargaining theory because i like it (easy). pasting it here because hosting my academic writing is one of the og purposes of this website.

disclaimer if you’re my professor: no!! go away!! you’re supposed to evaluate this essay anonymously!! don’t read it!! nooooooo (my professor is never going to be on my website thank god)

Why are actors often unable to reach a mutually preferable bargain that allows them to avoid the costs of war? Discuss with reference to contemporary cases.


The issue of bargaining failures leading to international conflict is ever so relevant, in light of notable ongoing developments in Ukraine, Palestine and more. This essay will attempt to highlight imperfect and incomplete information as a key factor that may lead international actors with opposing interests to wage war on each other instead of solving disputes peacefully. After outlining a series of common assumptions that will be upheld throughout the text, this essay’s critique will focus on imperfect information as a key factor leading to the inability to reach peaceful bargains. 

The key assumption at the foundation of rational bargaining theory is that rational actors prefer peace over war, owing to the higher “inevitable” costs associated with the latter (Lake, 2010). Before moving forward in line with this assumption, it is important to note that a reason why states may resort to war is because they have a “non-rational” preference for it, be it for economic, cultural, historic, or domestic political reasons.

As the question focuses on the bargaining process, it may be useful to consider entities on the international stage as non-cooperative actors, in line with a realist conception of international relations, rather than as cooperative players within a more idealistic view (Powell 2002). Non-cooperative actors, far from being necessarily hostile to each other, are defined as acting with the aim of maximising their gain, given the supposed actions of others, and as such they may choose mutually beneficial strategies if they both perceive them to be “egoistically” advantageous (Kreps 1990).

Following the above assumptions, the essay’s main question can be restated as follows: why would two risk-neutral, benefit-maximising rational actors resolve a controversy by resorting to war instead of negotiation? Amongst many possible reasons (Fearon, 1995), the essay shall focus on rational actors’ inability to correctly evaluate the conflict’s likely outcome due to incomplete information.

Limited Information

Incomplete or imperfect information disrupts the bargaining process by causing misalignment between actors’ assessments of confrontation outcomes, introducing uncertainty through conventional means like misrepresentation of capabilities, or non-conventional means such as offensive cyber or information operations. This essay will explore these factors, highlighting that, while intelligence capabilities directly mitigate this information deficit, they are susceptible to both systemic and extraordinary failures.

Imperfect information impacts actors’ perception of their relative power, which in turn influences the structure of the bargaining window. Actors are led to prefer war to an agreement by the belief that war has the potential to shift the negotiating window in their favour, and thus that a war would put them in the condition of negotiating a peace that more than compensates for the higher costs of war. However, issues such as actors’ overrepresentation of their capabilities for deterrence purposes, and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the existence of advanced capabilities kept secret from the adversary, render the less powerful actor unaware it should concede to the other’s demands before the war starts – or even relinquish its own claims. The latter is the case with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where the constant overrepresentation of Russia’s military might has backfired, leading to higher preparedness in the West (Renz, 2023) and likely affecting pre-war bargaining. 

Lack of information introduces uncertainty, which means ‘coercive [diplomacy] failures become possible’ (Sechser, 2018). While this is true for traditional kinds of power – from military to economic coercion – the conduct of offensive cyber operations pushes this concept to its limit. While other kinds of coercion offer players some information as part of the bargaining, offensive cyber, especially when deployed at the highest level, often does not allow for unequivocal attribution (Schulzke 2018, Tsagourias and Farrell 2020). In this sense, the conduct of hostilities in cyberspace strategically utilises uncertainty as a means to covertly intervene against other actors (Lindsay and Gartzke, 2018), with the potential to play a pivotal role in the bargaining process more than on the battlefield. Such was the effect of Stuxnet, which in 2009-2010 successfully delayed the creation of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, by expanding both in timing and in scope the negotiating window for its cessation (Zetter 2015, Nicoll and Delaney 2011).

Information operations interact with bargaining processes as well, as they both muddle the water with regards to potentially key information – in a way, the misrepresentation of capabilities described above may be considered within an information operation framework – and they aim to alter domestic and domestic and foreign publics’ views and priorities, with potential consequences on policymakers’ actions and incentives during negotiation. Russia has devoted a significant amount of effort (Perez and Nair, 2022) to “selling” the war domestically and abroad, in order to ease the political cost of its choice not to come to an agreement. Meanwhile, the competing narratives surrounding the latest developments in Gaza are a testament to the lasting importance of information operations in tipping the scales of public opinion worldwide, with as of yet impossible to evaluate impacts on the international consensus surrounding the area. Information operations may carry important consequences on bargaining, especially in democratic contexts (Tomz and Weeks, 2013), mostly by altering decisionmakers’ domestic politics incentives.

Beyond the balance of power, the informational balance carries substantial weight within the bargaining process (Betts, 1978). Indeed, the Russian case highlights a seldom considered problem: an actor’s knowledge of its own strengths and weaknesses, in addition to the ones of its opponent. Because of institutional culture and political pressure, the Russian intelligence apparatus was led to report overly optimistic information to political leaders and never voice dissent (Dylan, Gioe and Grossfeld 2022), a series of perverse incentives that may have substantially contributed to Putin’s ultimate decision to conduct a totally evitable war of aggression we now know the country was fundamentally not prepared to win within the expected timeframe – if at all.

Multiple overlapping and potentially contradictory causal relationships are at play between knowledge, power and actors’ negotiating choices. Sechser (2018), for instance, while not discounting the key role of the balance of power in deciding actors’ weight in the bargaining stage, posits that the increase of military power also carries a negative effect on the likelihood that an actor’s threats will lead to a successful deal. Indeed, while hard power tips the negotiating window in favour of the coercer, it is also likely to embolden it to undertake riskier gambits, potentially leading to worse outcomes down the line. Once combined with the issue of imperfect information, this argument is once again applicable to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, as Russia’s overconfidence in its military strength is arguably to blame for the rushed and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to invade its neighbour. 

It is not only an actor’s unwarranted confidence in its military strength that may lead to counterproductive results; excessive confidence in its own informational capabilities may also lead to a deterioration of the bargaining window. So-called “intelligence failures” (Betts, 1987) occur when it is assumed that comprehensive, timely intelligence is produced and processed consistently – yet something slips through the cracks. To understand the magnitude of the impact of intelligence failures on the respective actors and their decision to engage in hostilities, one needs to look no further than 9/11 and Iraqi WMDs (Davies, 2004), or, more recently, the attack perpetrated by Hamas on Israel on October 7th (Harding, 2023). A likely reaction to intelligence failures is a short circuiting of the bargaining process, leading to war as a non-rational reaction from the blindsided actor, that potentially bypasses the results of the peaceful bargaining process, as in the case with Iraqi WMDs (Long, 2018).


The field of bargaining theory seeks to model actors’ behaviour, in order to attempt to draw conclusions on the bargaining processes and factors involved in the choice for and conduct of hostilities. Ultimately, incomplete or imperfect information is only one of the factors that may lead actors to war, affecting the bargaining process by introducing uncertainty and causing actors’ assessment of the likely outcome of a confrontation to differ. This can happen either by conventional means, through misrepresentation of actors’ conventional capabilities, or non-conventional means, such as offensive cyber or information operations with destabilising impacts on the bargaining process. Incomplete or imperfect information impacts decisionmakers both directly and through electoral incentives in democratic settings. Finally, intelligence capabilities directly address this information deficit, but they are also liable to systemic and extraordinary failures.

Adopting the assumption of imperfect information allows actors to reap the benefits of imperfect intelligence by preserving them from the consequences of its “inevitable” (Betts, 1978) failures. By providing insights into a target’s values, resolve, and capabilities, intelligence collection and analysis gives players a competitive edge during bargaining, countering the above-described ills of imperfect information. Intelligence about the adversary and knowledge about its own capabilities plays a key role in determining a coercer’s effectiveness (Long, 2018), ultimately influencing the success or failure of the bargaining process. If informational deficit is a prominent reason behind the failure of peaceful bargaining, then better intelligence capabilities are one of the main solutions.


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Davies 1, P.H., 2004. Intelligence culture and intelligence failure in Britain and the United States. Cambridge Review of International Affairs17(3), pp.495-520.

Dylan, H., Gioe, D.V. and Grossfeld, E., 2023. The autocrat’s intelligence paradox: Vladimir Putin’s (mis) management of Russian strategic assessment in the Ukraine War. The British Journal of Politics and International Relations25(3), pp.385-404.

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Renz, B. (2023) ‘Virtual Lecture – Why did the West overestimate Russian military capabilities and why does this matter?’, Royal Air Force Museum, 7 March.

Sechser, T.S., 2018. A bargaining theory of coercion. Coercion: The Power to Hurt in International Politics, pp.55-76.

Schulzke, M., 2018. The politics of attributing blame for cyberattacks and the costs of uncertainty. Perspectives on Politics16(4), pp.954-968.

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Tsagourias, N. and Farrell, M., 2020. Cyber attribution: technical and legal approaches and challenges. European journal of international law31(3), pp.941-967.

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