How Power Dynamics Hinder Problem-Solving between Allies

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Maryann Kwakwa, covers the new article by Robert Powell, University of California, Berkeley, “Why Some Persistent Problems Persist.”

During the Soviet-Afghan War, the United States and Pakistan were on the same page. As opponents of the Soviet invasion, they joined forces to compel Russia to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. However, following 9/11, the interests of these allies were no longer aligned. Even though Taliban safe havens in Pakistan posed a significant threat to the West, the U.S. government could not convince Pakistan to go after their adversaries. Why was the United States able to influence Pakistan’s behavior in one instance and not the other? In the article, “Why Some Persistent Problems Persist,” Robert Powell examines what factors prevent strong states from convincing weak ones to solve problems on their behalf.

The principal-agent problem occurs when a more powerful principal attempts to convince a less powerful agent to take actions that further the principal’s interests. The principal is typically trying to get the agent to stop a threat to the principal. However, because the agent usually has more information than the principal, the principal cannot always ensure that the agent will act in the principal’s best interest. Instead, the agent may act in its own interest, making it more difficult—or even impossible—to solve the principal’s problem.

Highlighting a fundamental incentive problem that occurs when stronger states seek help from weaker states, Powell creates a game in which the “principal” attempts to get the “agent” to solve a problem that the principal is facing. Importantly, Powell focuses on situations in which doing what the principal wants has costs for the agent. As a result, convincing the agent to do the principal’s bidding requires incentivizing the agent before they will act on the principal’s behalf. However, these incentives will stop once the problem is resolved, creating another incentive to let the problem persist. The game ends if the agent solves the principal’s problem or if the principal decides to deal with the problem itself.

First, he finds that, as the principal and agent become more patient, the barriers to resolving the principal’s problem increase.Powell’s analysis produces three main results. First, he finds that, as the principal and agent become more patient, the barriers to resolving the principal’s problem increase. Take, for example, a scenario in which the agent is an authoritarian regime, and the principal is a donor trying to convince the agent to become more democratic. The authoritarian regime has an incentive to delay democratization—to be “patient” in solving the problem—because there are benefits associated with remaining in office. The agent will fight democratization for as long as possible, passing undemocratic laws and policies. As the amount of authoritarian legislation increases, the amount of effort that the donor can convince the regime to expend to democratize decreases.

Powell’s second finding is that under conditions of costliness for agents, the principal’s problem takes longer to resolve. In our example, solving the donor’s problem by democratizing not only creates an ongoing problem for the authoritarian regime (they lose the benefits associated with holding office), but the regime also has an incentive to delay the problem solving process because they can demand more benefits from the principal as the cost of solving the principal’s problem increases. Finally, Powell shows that, even though the agent becomes less and less likely to resolve the principal’s problem as time goes on, the principal still prefers working through the agent rather than dealing with the problem directly. Therefore, while a donor might continue to offer benefits to the authoritarian regime despite delays, the likelihood of democratization decreases. The result of these findings is that the problem persists.Powell shows that, even though the agent becomes less and less likely to resolve the principal’s problem as time goes on, the principal still prefers working through the agent rather than dealing with the problem directly.

Even though Pakistan fought to eliminate threats to American interests during the Soviet-Afghan War, they were ultimately left to repair and defend their country on their own. This is why Pakistan demanded far more from the United States when they sought help decades later. While Pakistan was in a good position to fight against the Taliban, they were willing to wait until the United States proved they would not leave them without resources to protect their country from further retaliation.

Powell’s research reveals that some incentives work against strong states that are seeking help from weak states with goals that differ from their own. More specifically, threats of future punishment are not enough to persuade weak states to uphold their part of an agreement if resolving the strong state’s problem will (1) create an ongoing problem for the weak state or (2) prevent the weak state from drawing benefits from the strong state. When it comes to arms control, problems persist when principals cannot persuade agents to solve their problems without ongoing costs.


  • Maryann Kwakwa is a Ph.D. candidate (A.B.D.) in American Politics and Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Her research interests include civic engagement, education, race/ethnic politics, and democratic citizenship. In her dissertation, Maryann uses a mixed-methods approach to analyze the effect of undergraduate college experiences on civic engagement in the United States. Maryann graduated from Oberlin College in 2014 with a Bachelor of Arts in Law and Society and a minor in Politics. At Notre Dame, Maryann has served on numerous departmental committees, led discussion sections for introductory American Politics courses, and taught a senior seminar, “Politics in Cyberspace,” as the instructor of record. She has also published a virtual review article for the American Political Science Association and two, co-authored journal articles, which appear in Politics, Groups, and Identities.
  • Article details: American Political Science ReviewFirst View, “Why Some Persistent Problems Persist”, Publishing online 25 July 2019
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*