Released 17 June 2022.
This podcast examines faits accomplis—how states attempt to seize disputed territory using military force, hoping to avoid war in the process—and offers suggestions for how to deter them. Since 1945, faits accomplis have become the most common means by which states attempt to take over territory, even though they frequently result in armed conflict. US deterrent efforts, however, often focus on stopping invasions, not limited land grabs. This study combines the traditional literature on deterrence with Dan Altman’s recent research on faits accomplis to suggest Department of Defense leaders should frame territorial disputes as a real estate market they can both analyze and manipulate.
Click here to read the article.
Keywords: Russia, Ukraine, deterrence, territorial disputes, gray zone, brinkmanship,
Welcome to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production featuring distinguished authors and contributors who get to the heart of the matter in national security affairs.
The views and opinions expressed on this podcast are those of the podcast guest and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, the US Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.
The guests in speaking order on this episode are:
(Guest 1: Brandon Colas)
Decisive Point welcomes Mr. Brandon Colas, author of “Defining and Deterring Faits Accomplis,” which was featured in the Summer 2022 issue of Parameters. Colas is anArmy officer [unintelligible] currently embedded with the United Kingdom Strategic Command Intelligence Center in London as a liaison officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Welcome to Decisive Point, Brandon. It’s great to have this chance to chat with you. Let’s talk about your article, “Defining and Deterring Faits Accomplis.” This study combines the traditional literature of deterrence with Dan Altman’s recent research on faits accomplis to suggest Department of Defense leaders should frame territorial disputes as taking part in a real-estate market that they can both analyze and manipulate to discourage our opponents from conquering without conquest.
What does this look like? Please give us an outline here.
So when I started this research, I began with Tom Schelling (Thomas C. Schelling) and his 1968 classic and, in a lot of ways, Schelling—even though his book is breezy, it’s academic lectures that he’s talking about. It really has defined the US deterrence discussion ever since.
And so Schelling talks about brute force and coercion. And so, brute force—we used to think like (Adolf) Hitler, Poland 1940, right? And coercion would be just building up those forces on the border until the other side caves and gives up their territory or makes those concessions that you’re wanting.
So again, going back to Hitler, you think about him entering Denmark unopposed, right? So those are sort of the two classic examples. But more recent international relations research, especially led by Dan Altman, who’s at Georgia State (University), has looked at small, limited territorial seizures. He calls them faits accomplis, so there’s limited territory that’s disputed. There’s the use of military force, but the aggressor statement still attempts to avoid war in the process. And what’s interesting, Altman goes back from 1945 to present, and he discovers that there’s only four cases of brute force actually being used to seize territory since then. And so that’s when one state again uses their military to completely absorb another state. And those cases—some of them succeeded, like North and South Vietnam. Some of them failed, like Iraq and Kuwait, but it’s actually not that common. And he finds that coercion for seizing wholesale seizure of territory is actually even less common.
So you have this sort of contradiction where you think about words as being caused by territorial conflict, and yet major territorial conflict doesn’t take place. And that’s where Altman looks at faits accomplis and discovers that there’s 65 cases post-1945 of limited use of military force to seize limited territory, like land grabs.
So the classic example is Russia in the Crimea in 2014. It’s just striking, looking back on it, how much Ukraine loses there: It’s 10,000 square miles of territory, two million citizens, pretty much all of their navy. And yet there’s only one Ukrainian casualty.
And so yes, there was some violence involved. All the violence was latent, but it was there. But at the end of the day, this is not a traditional invasion that we think of. It was a fait accompli.
Or we think about China in the South China Sea or the East China Sea that’s like building islands in the middle of nowhere to expand their territory again. There’s violence involved there. They have military defenses placed on these, and yet we don’t really know quite how to deter this or how to handle it. And so that’s what I wanted to study in this article is: How do we frame these limited uses of the military to seize limited pieces of territory, and then how do we deter them? It doesn’t seem like it’s big enough to go to war over, and yet it’s still something that needs to be stopped.
That leads right into my next question: Explain the calculus of determining the desirability of faits accomplis. How do states seize territory?
I wanted to think about why they would seize territory at a particular time. A fait accompli might be something gradualist and slow, or it might be something really kind of quick, like Russia in the Crimea. But what are the factors that would make a state want to seize a piece of disputed territory? And in the article, I came up with the idea of this territory as a sort of real-estate market where you have two opposing states that are looking at this territory, and each state values the territory a little bit differently. But what they have in common is that they don’t want to go to a full-scale war to seize the territory. That’s why the territories are disputed. But that’s also why it isn’t resolved yet.
And so, as I was thinking about that, I wanted to also ask the question of what factors could change to make a state decide, “Now is the time to risk going to war to seize this territory” or “Now still isn’t the time.” And so that’s where I looked at the idea of states factor in the cost of war if they’re going to seize the territory, and I think states would be planning for the worst-case scenario: What happens if they try to seize the territory and end up losing? The second is just the probability of war. Can they actually move in like Russia did in Crimea and not go to war? And then the probability of victory gives them war. So if it does come down to a fight, are they going to win and get this territory at the end? And so the market model isn’t really asking how they see the territory so much as why they seize the territory at a particular time. What are those factors?
Can you talk a little bit more about the model that you offer in your article and just walk us through how that works?
Thinking about how states are looking at the probability of war, the probability of victory, and then also the cost of war, I thought of four factors that states both influence for themselves and try to shape for other states’ perceptions. The first is going to be historical claims. States make historical claims on territory in order to show that they value the territory.
You look at like China’s claims for the South China Sea. They end up going back to this kind of questionable 1947 map. And then, in 2016, they ended up saying they actually found a book that was 500 years old that really proved this has always been Chinese. And then, when the BBC tried to go interview the person who had found the book, they actually had lost the book. So there’s all these crazy historical claims, but states still make them because it’s a signal. It doesn’t convince anybody. I mean, it might convince people within the state itself; it doesn’t convince anybody else though. But it’s a signal that things matter. And you look at (Vladimir) Putin’s crazy essay in July of last year where he talks about how Russia and Ukraine have always been one people. It’s this horrifically boring tone. You can’t follow his logic or his reasoning, but it’s a signal that this matters to Putin. And so, states do this all the time.
And one thing we should think about, too, is even with our allies, if they’re not making claims about these territories that they are in dispute over, like Japan and the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands) against China—if our allies aren’t making the same sort of kind of tedious, tendentious historical claims, it’s a signal that perhaps it’s not actually that important to them.
So these historical claims do matter not because they convince people, but because they show a measure of conviction by a state and its leaders. The second and third both affect the cost of war for a state. The first is obviously military modernization and military developments. If you have a better military, the cost of war is likely to go down for you. It’s likely to increase for your opponents. So that’s something that states need to watch: As another state increases the quality capabilities of its military, it could make them more likely to be aggressive because the cost is less for them.
Another way we can affect the cost of war is looking at the possibility of broadening the quarrel. The focal point here is disputed territories. But when a state brings in other matters into the quarrel, it can make it a lot harder to justify war for this particular territory. So by one example—this is just speculation obviously; this not US government policy; it probably never will be—but if the US tied Chinese student visas and linked that to Chinese expansion in the South China Sea—sorry, started cutting Chinese student visas—on the one hand, these are not related issues. On the other hand, by expanding the quarrel, it forces China to take a step back for their aggression. And so that’s one way that states are able to affect the cost of war: by bringing in matters that are unrelated.
And then the last thing: Thinking about how states affect the probability of war, recent research has been pretty clear that troop placement is a major factor in whether or not territory gets seized. Altman’s research shows that post-1990, when you’re looking at faits accomplis, the majority of them take place in territories that are not garrisoned. And there’s different speculations as to why that is. Part of it is if the territory’s valuable, you probably already have troops there. Part of it is if you have troops there, they could serve as a trip wire and escalate matters. But regardless, I think the case of the matter is, if it’s a disputed territory, especially for our allies, and they don’t have a garrison there, or they don’t have troops nearby, the signal that they’re sending is that it might not be that important to them.
So again, four different areas—historical claims, military developments, broadening the quarrel, and troop placement—they’re all ways that states can use to shape the value of this disputed territory—both for themselves, and then you can try to shape it for your opponent as well. In an ideal situation, if you want the status quo—so you just want to keep the territory disputed, you agree to disagree? You want to keep the value about the same for you, and if your opponent’s value is going up, you try to raise your value. If your opponent’s value is going down, you’re cautious about raising yours because you don’t want your own population to try to increase it. On the other hand, if you want to seize the territory yourself, you’d be wise to lower the value in your opponent’s perception and raise the value of your own.
How can the market model be used to deter faits accomplis?
Even thinking of relatively simple steps that the (the Department of Defense or) DoD is already doing—joint training and exercises with allied forces—what that’s going to do is help their military improve our military improve as we have interoperability like that.
So when it comes time to dispute a territory—again, thinking back to like the South and East China Seas, as the US does joint operations with the Japanese Self-Defense Force and improves that capability and we improve our own capability, the cost goes up for China at the same time if they wanted to try to seize the territory.
So the relatively simple things, a lot of which we are doing, can affect the value of territory. Where I think that matters is that we’re intentional about why we’re doing it and that we focus that attention especially on these geographically disputed areas where war could happen at any time.
Do you have any final thoughts before we part ways?
Yeah, just two things. The first is that I think contested issues are issues of value. And so, the article that I wrote about focused on territorial disputes and, like, deterring our opponents—obviously, we have to ask, “Deterring them from what?” But if we’re able to shape their values and shape our values, I think that can make a difference in how we choose problems.
The second is that our opponents’ tactics, what they use—that’s a means of communication. So, uh, Thomas Schelling talks about the idiom of military action, and the idea behind that is that the means that they use to pursue an end are telling us something, whether or not they want to tell us it. So when we look at a fait accompli, the state is seizing the territory, they’re using the military, they’re risking war—at the end of the day, they’re doing this because they don’t want to go to war for the territory. And so, this signal is they’re going to risk war, but they’re not exactly there yet. And so, one thing that Altman’s researchers showed is that a vigorous military response to a fait accompli when it’s happening often is enough to make it fail. And it can stop there.
And so I think one takeaway from this article is we have to listen to what our opponents are saying. We have to listen to what they’re not saying as well. We’ve been hearing different Russians screaming about red lines ever since February. At the end of the day, we’ve crossed a lot of those red lines so far, and Russia hasn’t done anything, so the real message here that Russia is implicitly sending, whether they want to or not, is that they don’t have the capability or the will to stop what we’ve been doing so far. So I think that’s another important takeaway from this article.
This was a real pleasure. Thank you so much for taking time today.
Oh—thanks so much for the chance, Stephanie.
Listeners, if you’d like more details about defining and deterring faits accomplis, you can read the article at press.armywarcollege.edu/parameters. Look for volume 52, issue 2.
Major Brandon Colas is a US Army foreign area officer currently embedded with the United Kingdom Strategic Command Defence Intelligence in London as a liaison officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency.