One of the bloggers at my cousin's Tigerhawk proposes that as with poker there should be an ante in war:
"If the country of Freedonia (with apologies to Groucho Marx) is attacked by the neighboring country of Youristan and several of its allies, and Freedonia successfully repels the attack, and pushes back the attackers deep into their own territory, and captures and holds some of the key strategic ground from which the attack was launched, why is it a bad thing that Freedonia maintains control over a small segment of that ground? Shouldn't there be some kind of ante in war, such that the leaders of Youristan know that if their aggression is ultimately unsuccessful, that some physical ground will be lost? It seems to me that an ante acts as somewhat of a reality check on planned aggression -- if the Youristani leaders understand that their payoff matrix is a little more negative, they might be less inclined to attack in the first place."
The rest of the post segues into the real world case of Israeli settlement of occupied territory, and rather than follow down that mine-strewn path I got thinking about the original premise, and in particular about the idea of an ante in war. In fact, there is a strong historic precedent for resolution of conflicts to the status quo ante bellum. Our War of 1812 was one such, and it is worth considering that this war commensed with a US Declaration of War followed by a failed invasion of Canada. The British promptly repulsed our bungled incursion and went on to seize Detroit. By the logic of the case made at Tigerhawk regarding Freedonia and Youristan, the British would have been justified in keeping Detroit and other occupied territory as a deterrant against US aggression (yes, I know from our perspective it was all about the British impressing seamen, restricting trade and supporting hostile Indians on our frontier, but there are other ways to spin it).
British negotiators at the Treaty of Ghent did make a strong case for just such an outcome based on the principle of uti possidetis: namely, that each side would keep whatever teritory it had gained. US success on Lake Champlain gave America a stronger hand to negotiate peace based on the status quo ante (with the Battle of New Orleans happening in any case after the fact). The point is that one can always come up with a causus belli that casts aggression as defense or vice versa.
There is no simple formula for deterrance of aggression based on the possible costs of failure. All this kind of ante really amounts to is the certainty that it is better to negotiate from a position of strength than weakness and better to win to lose. And in practice, this is really no different than the threat of massive retaliation by a stronger adversary to deter a weaker. "Peace through strength" has been resoundingly challenged since the end of the Cold War by the reality of asymetrical warefare by non-state actors who have less skin in the game and the potential to achieve disproportionate effects.
The true ante in war is its cost in life and health and capital and frequently territory, but also less tangible things like personal and group identity and self determination.