Solving the Puzzles of International Trade, War and Order | MIT News

For Mariya Grinbergthe beginning of a research project often begins with an almost tangible feeling of irritation.

“I was reading something, a definition or an idea that doesn’t make sense, that seems logically incoherent — and it stings,” says Grinberg, who joined the Department of Political Science as an assistant professor on July 1. “I try to fix what’s not working, like solving a puzzle. Her ultimate goal, she says, is to ‘find patterns around which I can build a theory’.

As a specialist in security studies, Grinberg’s general interests “gravitate towards questions of time horizons”. This means, for example, how long-term planning by states affects their short-term decision-making and how the anticipated duration of events affects how states respond to them. But within this vast and sometimes abstract space, Grinberg researches issues in discrete areas at the heart of security studies: international order, state decline, and wartime commerce.

While she is “all about theory,” Grinberg’s work draws from archives for empirical evidence that amplifies her theoretical arguments and sheds light on contemporary issues in the race for global power. It is research that challenges some common misconceptions in its field and has yielded provocative results on how states balance national security concerns with self-interest. Her thesis project on wartime trade between enemies, which she is currently developing in book form, is an example of this.

Steal the ideas

His project was sparked by conversations with fellow University of Chicago graduate students about the impact of economic interdependence on the likelihood of conflict between nations. “The basic idea was that if states trade a lot and war disrupts trade, those states don’t want to go to war,” she recalls. “Something about it wasn’t working for me, and I started pushing that idea,” she says.

Grinberg was born in Russia into a family of computer scientists. She shares the domestic aptitude for logical problem solving and has translated it into a rigorous analysis of issues in her own field. So, faced with claims that economically linked states avoid conflict, she began a methodical interrogation. “There was a lot of logic behind the general conception of trade as good, and war disrupting trade as bad.” But, she wondered, “Why shouldn’t trade take place during war?”

Grinberg broke this down into a series of related questions: “You don’t want to sell a gun to an adversary, which would be bad because it could shoot me immediately, but what about a vase? Although the vase has no bullets, an opponent could sell it somewhere and possibly buy a gun, which would take longer to do harm. But what if the war ends before the enemy has a chance to buy the weapon? »

Working through his arguments, Grinberg established instances where trade could legitimately be conducted during conflict. It was time to turn to the evidence in the historical record to find out very precisely what kind of trade took place during wars and under what kind of conditions.

Grinberg dug deep into British and French archives, where she found a wealth of relevant documents dating back to the Crimean War. She found notes from a British advisory committee during World War I that recommended banning the trade of products that could be used immediately in wartime, as well as those that could be used in war before the end of the war and those whose sales generated profits. that could be used during the war.

Of particular interest to Grinberg: The committee also recommended that if it took longer for the enemy to convert trade gains into military capability than the war would last, then it made sense to trade with the enemy. “You can trade them something that they can turn into profit over a year to buy a tank, if you think the war will be over in six months,” says Grinberg. “If a state predicts a longer war, it may add items to the prohibited trade list.”

These wartime trade policies appeared in every archive she explored. “States do rational things,” says Grinberg. “Trading is mutually beneficial, and it makes sense for both sides to keep trading, except under certain conditions.” At the start of World War I, for example, Germany and the Allied armies frequently repositioned their troops as they attempted to outflank each other. During this period, merchants from warring nations were allowed to buy and sell commodities such as pickaxes, shovels, and spades. But as the war progressed, armies dug in positions and “all of a sudden the ‘tools and tools of entrenchment’, as the British called them, were banned from trade,” says Grinberg.

There were more prohibitions for World War II, which the participating nations thought would last longer. But Britain and Germany continued to trade products they could not get anywhere else: for example, Britain needed Germany’s precision-made knitting needles, because the equipment specialist to make the needles was not available in Britain for the foreseeable future.

Political implications

With the evidence of this research in hand, Grinberg began to think about the implications. “The argument for economic interdependence rests on the idea that nations do not trade in war, and with more trade we should see less fighting.” But that’s not how it works at all, says Grinberg. “Given more interdependence and the likelihood of continued trade in the event of conflict, the push is not towards less war, but towards continued trade during war.”

His thesis and a related article, “Wartime Commercial Policy and Trade between Enemies” (published in International Security), insist on the argument that “trade cannot be used as a lever to prevent war, because we have too many incentives to trade during war”. This means, for example, that we should not assume that because the United States trades with another country, there is less possibility of war with that country. Given the strained relations between China and the United States, two very established trading partners, this seems an important observation.

In addition to this ongoing project, Grinberg is preparing an article on state decline and strategies that states can use to avoid such downfalls. The project is “Britain-centric, with American implications,” she says. Grinberg also relishes teaching at MIT, where she can meet colleagues and students face-to-face for the first time since Covid-19 drove teaching online. The academic match seems perfect to him: “Few universities in the United States have devoted security studies programs open to the economic dimensions of the field, and who appreciate both theory and case study methodology,” she says. “I won the lottery here.”