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date: 18 April 2024

Diversionary Theories of Conflict: The Promises and Challenges of an Opportunities Approachfree

Diversionary Theories of Conflict: The Promises and Challenges of an Opportunities Approachfree

  • Charity ButcherCharity ButcherDepartment of Political Science and International Affairs, Kennesaw State University


Since the early 1990s, a significant amount of research has been dedicated to refining the causal mechanisms that lead to the diversionary use of force and the various conditions under which such diversionary actions are most likely. This article focuses specifically on the latter—highlighting the research on the various conditions that create opportunities for states to utilize diversionary tactics—while also emphasizing how these opportunities are connected to specific causal processes for diversionary conflict. While significant attention has been paid to the domestic factors that provide additional opportunities for or constraints on actors to utilize diversionary force, less research has considered the international and dyadic opportunities for diversionary force and the interaction and interplay of these domestic and international, or dyadic, factors. These international and dyadic factors specifically focus on those related to the potential target of diversionary conflict and are an important part of fully understanding the decision-making process of leaders contemplating diversionary tactics. Both the domestic and international opportunities for diversionary force identified in the literature will be considered, specifically those focusing on advancements made in understanding the international and dyadic dimensions of these opportunities and the characteristics of potential target states.

While the movement toward identifying various opportunities for diversionary behavior, both domestic and international, or dyadic, is an important pathway in diversionary research, this approach comes with some significant challenges. First, diversionary motivations are extremely hard to “prove” since leaders have incentives to hide these motives. This problem is compounded as more opportunities for diversionary force are added to the mix—as these opportunities may, in themselves, provide motives for war. For example, rivalry and territorial disputes are shown as international opportunities for diversionary force, yet these factors are also known to be two of the most prominent causes of war between states. Thus, parsing out diversionary motives from other fundamental national security motives becomes increasingly difficult.

While quantitative studies can help uncover broad patterns of potential diversionary behavior, they are less equipped to fully explain the ways that various domestic and international opportunities might interact. Nor can these studies demonstrate whether diversion was actual present within specific cases. Case studies can help fill these gaps by allowing more in-depth analysis of these potential diversionary opportunities. Overall, quantitative studies that help uncover patterns and qualitative studies that investigate diversionary tactics in a single case or set of cases are both important parts of the puzzle. To best understand diversionary conflict, researchers need to rely increasingly on both approaches.


  • Conflict Studies
  • Foreign Policy
  • International Relations Theory


Diversionary theories of conflict have received significant attention in the literature, particularly since Jack Levy (1989) critiqued the state of diversionary war research. Scholars have increasingly worked to clarify the causal mechanisms that might lead to diversionary conflict and have identified a wide range of factors that make diversionary conflict more likely. Diversionary conflict, by its nature, has both domestic and international elements. On the domestic side of the equation, there are two considerations or factors. One is the domestic problems themselves, which can be economic, political, or some combination, that may motivate leaders to choose diversionary force. The other is separate factors, or opportunities, related to the domestic context that leaders find themselves in. Regime type, elections and the reselection process, regime change, the economic and/or military capabilities of the state, and the ethnic composition of the population are examples of domestic contexts that might provide domestic opportunities that make diversionary tactics in the wake of domestic problems more or less likely. On the international side of the equation, the very act of diversionary conflict is international. It requires that a leader target another state, with the intention of diverting attention from domestic problems. There is also another international dimension—the international and dyadic factors that influence the likelihood that diversionary tactics will be chosen. Characteristics of the target state, and the dyadic relationship between the potential initiator of diversion and the target state, are important international, or dyadic, factors that impact the likelihood of diversionary conflict.

A significant amount of research has been conducted on the domestic side of the equation, including the domestic opportunities that impact decisions to use diversionary force. While less research has focused on the international and dyadic opportunities for diversionary conflict, scholars are increasingly considering these factors and how this international dimension interacts with domestic opportunities. This work on diversionary conflict is considered, specifically focusing on the domestic and international opportunities for such behavior. While diversionary research that encompasses both domestic and international opportunities is likely to provide the most complete picture of the diversionary conflict, this approach is not without challenges. The conclusion provides a discussion of these challenges and proposes paths for future research.

Motivations for Diversionary Uses of Force

Diversionary theory rests on the idea that states experiencing domestic problems may attempt to divert the public’s attention away from these problems by targeting external states. These domestic problems could be political or economic, or even based on ethnic cleavages within the country, but in each case, leaders are theorized to utilize diversionary force largely to either help stay in power or bolster their domestic support. In these cases, the use of force is not primarily driven by national security interests, but by the personal and/or political interests of the leader or other powerful actors. Certainly, international and security issues might provide additional opportunities in the two-level game that leaders might play in determining how to deal with domestic unrest, but the motivation for utilizing diversionary force is less about an immediate international threat and more about using external force to deal with a domestic problem.

A variety of political problems might entice a leader to choose diversionary tactics. Dassel and Reinhardt (1999) argued that the only kind of domestic strife that leads to diversionary conflict is contested political institutions or disagreements over the fundamental rules of the political game because these types of domestic problems are the only ones that threaten the military’s interest—something they argued is necessary for diversion to occur. Other scholars have pointed to a lack of political support, including low public opinion, as one domestic political issue that leaders might encounter. In the face of low public opinion, leaders might be motivated to divert the public’s attention to international issues by launching a diversionary attack (Meernik, 2000). Some of the research on diversionary theory utilizes public opinion polling data (DeRouen, 2000; Fordham, 2002) to measure domestic political issues. However, polling data is not available in all countries and is more common in democracies. Scholars have therefore increasingly moved away from these types of measures, particularly for cross-national data analysis. Extremely low levels of political support and public opinion can also lead to greater political unrest, including protests, strikes, rebellions, riots, and anti-government demonstrations. Moving beyond mere opinion polls, broader cross-national studies have attempted to measure political unrest and political dissatisfaction utilizing measures of these actions (Gelpi, 1997; Kisangani & Pickering, 2007, 2011; Pickering & Kisangani, 2005, 2010; Tir, 2010).

In addition to political problems, domestic economic issues have been linked to potential diversionary tactics. Scholars have utilized various measures of economic problems, including unemployment, inflation, and economic growth rates (e.g., DeRouen, 1995; Foster, 2006; Heldt, 1999; Hess & Orphanides, 1995; James & Oneal, 1991; Kisangani & Pickering, 2007, 2011; Meernick & Waterman, 1996; Miller, 1995; Mitchell & Prins, 2004; Oneal & Tir, 2006; Ostrom & Job, 1986; Pickering & Kisangani, 2005, 2010; Tir, 2010). Meernik (2000) also included the Dow Jones Industrial Average in his study of the United States. It should also be noted that large-n work on diversionary conflict often includes both political and economic measures, and economic problems are not always separate from political ones. As Miller (1995) argued, economic policy outcomes are an indirect measure of a leader’s popularity, with the assumption that failed economic policies lead to lower domestic political support.

Related to these political and economic factors, ethnic fractionalization or the lack of national cohesion could also be an incentive for leaders to choose diversionary tactics. As Haynes (2016) noted, ethnically divided states may be more likely to initiative diversionary conflicts because they are more unstable domestically, providing incentives for leaders to engage in diversionary behavior. Butcher and Maru (2018) considered how attempts to create a national unified identity in Eritrea, in the face of ethnic divisions, may have provided incentives for diversionary behavior. While they do not find strong evidence for diversionary behavior in the Eritrean case, the idea that domestic ethnic relations could create diversionary incentives is certainly worth consideration.

When faced with these various domestic problems, some states may be incentivized to utilize diversionary tactics to help to bolster domestic support for the regime and/or help the regime to stay in power. There are a variety of causal pathways that explain how these various domestic challenges lead to leaders choosing to use force against another state. One of the foundational theories of diversionary conflict is grounded in the sociological literature on group dynamics (Coser, 1956; Simmel, 1898). This literature focuses on the idea of an “in-group” and an “out-group,” where people divide themselves into an “in-group”—people with which they share some common identity, and an “out-group”—people who are outside that identity. According to this theory, the internal cohesion of the in-group increases as conflict with the out-group increases. Thus, as the external threat grows, the cohesion of group identity is strengthened.

Diversionary arguments utilizing in-group and out-group identities take a more instrumentally motivated approach than the sociological literature may initially indicate. Diversionary arguments often assume that leaders, faced with domestic unrest, will capitalize on these in-group and out-group identities to bolster the cohesion of national identity, and thus, also increase support for the regime. By going to war with another state, the leader can create a “rally around the flag” type of effect and help gain support for their regime and divert the public’s attention away from domestic problems. The fact that this might work (that people would forget the internal problems of their state and support the regime) is tied to the sociology of group dynamics. Such in-group and out-group dynamics would be most effective when the out-group is seen as particularly threatening or is a symbolic target for the domestic population. Similar to the idea of in-group and out-group, leaders might utilize other countries as scapegoats for their domestic problems by blaming these problems on foreign entities (see the article “More Than Mixed Results: What We Have Learned From Quantitative Research on the Diversionary Hypothesis”). Again, this process is likely to be most effective when the external target is symbolic for the domestic population and viewed as a potential threat.

Aside from in-group and out-group dynamics and scapegoating, leaders might decide to use bellicose foreign policies to demonstrate their competence in foreign policy or to help set the agenda to one focused on foreign policy. For example, Tarar (2006) presented a game theoretical model relying on a principal–agent approach that accounts for citizen perceptions of a leader’s competence. In the wake of domestic problems, leaders signal their competence with successful aggressive foreign policies. With these diversionary causal processes, leaders believe that the focus on foreign policy, even if this does not create a rally around the flag effect, will help to bolster their domestic support by having the population pay attention to something else or by having the population recognize the effectiveness of the leader in dealing with a different issue.

Opportunities for Diversionary Conflict

While there are various causal pathways that might lead to diversionary uses of force, what has become clear through the increased research on diversionary tactics is that not all states have an equal opportunity to utilize diversionary conflict. Although the motives for diversionary uses of force might be domestic, there is a variety of other factors, both domestic and international or dyadic that affect the likelihood of diversionary force being chosen as an option. There has been significant research on the domestic characteristics of states and leaders that make diversionary conflict a viable option and/or provide constraints on the actions of leaders. However, international, or dyadic-level, factors that impact the likelihood of diversion being a tactic chosen by states has received less attention. This discrepancy may not be surprising at first, given that the motivation for diversion comes from the leaders’ desire to deal with domestic turmoil. At the same time, diversionary theory rests on the interplay between domestic and international factors, and thus, in making decisions to take diversionary actions, leaders must also consider the international context, and particularly the characteristics of the potential target state, in their decision. It is important to discuss the various domestic opportunities and factors that have been identified by scholars, as well as the international or dyadic opportunities that shape the likelihood of diversionary uses of force.

Domestic Contexts and Opportunities for Diversionary Conflict

While the motives for diversionary conflict are rooted in domestic problems and challenges that leaders might face, there are also domestic contexts that create opportunities for diversionary tactics to be used and domestic factors that may constrain leaders from using such tactics. Thus, while many states may have domestic issues that might make the diversionary use of force appealing, the various domestic contexts of states also shape the likelihood of this option being chosen (see the article “Diversionary Theory of War in Foreign Policy Analysis”). Regime type and elections, regime change, domestic structures, economic and military capabilities, domestic ethnic cleavages, and even the individual psychology of leaders can impact the likelihood of diversionary conflict.

Significant research has been conducted on how regime type impacts the use of diversionary force. Some early works found that democracies were less likely to use diversionary force than authoritarian governments (Enterline, & Gleditsch 2000; Heldt, 1999; Miller, 1995, 1999). Other authors, such as Gelpi (1997) and Davies (2002), found democracies to be more likely to utilize diversionary conflict than authoritarian countries. According to Gelpi (1997), authoritarian countries have fewer constraints and, as such, can respond to domestic unrest through repression. However, democracies have political pressures and bids for reelection that prevent them from forcefully repressing opposition groups. Davies (2002) found that violent domestic strife increases the likelihood of diversionary conflict, while nonviolent domestic strife increases the likelihood of repression.

Related to democracies, the process of elections and domestic reselection has also been discussed as a potential domestic opportunity for the use of diversionary force (Leeds & Davis, 1997; Smith, 1996). Smith (1996) considered the reselection process in democratic states. He suggested not only that leaders, particularly in democracies that are coming up on reelection, may have incentives to utilize diversionary force in the face of domestic unrest, but also that potential targets of such behavior are aware of this issue and are likely to take actions to avoid being targeted. Leeds and Davis (1997) confirmed Smith’s argument. This argument hints at the importance of the potential targets of diversionary force but does not fully explore this idea. Similarly, Richards et al. (1993) focused on the importance of the domestic reselection processes, framing the discussion of diversionary uses of force as a principal–agent problem, where leaders are tempted to use aggressive foreign policy to improve the likelihood they can remain in office. Tarar (2006) combined a diversionary model in the wake of reselection with a bargaining model of war. His game theoretical model suggests that the benefits of holding office, compared to the costs of war, are important elements that leaders consider when contemplating diversionary tactics. Gent (2009) expanded on these strategic models by considering the two-level game aspect of diversionary theory. In particular, Gent argued that reselection processes may not lead to war in all cases and that the strategic interactions between countries are important. As such, Gent also brought more international considerations into the discussion of diversionary war, but this is limited to strategic interactions between the countries and not a wider variety of international and dyadic characteristics.

Looking at authoritarian states and the case of Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands, Oakes (2006, 2012) considered a state’s extractive capacity as an important factor impacting the options that states have in responding to domestic problems. She argued that authoritarian states with low extractive capacity may not have the resources available to make reforms addressing domestic unrest but will also not have the capacity to repress this discontent, and thus, these states may choose diversionary tactics. In addition, Oakes argued that diversionary conflict is more likely when there is a symbolic target available for a state to initiate conflict with and the potential conflict is likely to have a low cost. Oakes’s focus on the importance of a symbolic target is key, and it is a significant attempt to bring in characteristics of the target state, and the international context, into the study of diversionary conflict. Similarly, Enterline and Gleditsch (2000) considered both domestic and international factors and how they might impact the use of diversionary tactics. Domestic constraints affect the options leaders have, while international environments are also important. The authors argued that diversionary tactics may be more likely in the presence of threatening international environments.

Some authors have considered regime type and diversionary force in more nuanced ways, suggesting that not all democratic or authoritarian countries have similar opportunities for diversionary force. Pickering and Kisangani (2005) found that only certain types of democracies and autocracies are likely to use diversionary tactics. Kisangani and Pickering (2007) distinguished between different types of diversion—benevolent and belligerent diversionary uses of force. The authors found that democracies and mixed regimes tend to use benevolent uses of force while autocracies do not use either type of diversionary force. In a follow-up study, Kisangani and Pickering (2011) found that more accountable democratic leaders, such as the leaders of majoritarian, weak party majority, and minority governments, were more likely to use diversionary force than those leaders with less accountability, and that democratic leaders are more likely to use benevolent military force than belligerent force for diversion. These findings suggest that domestic constraints, such as leader accountability, impacts the opportunity for diversionary conflict. Pickering and Kisangani (2010) found not only the best evidence for diversionary uses of force by single-party regimes (compared to personalist and military regimes), but also that personalist and military regimes use diversionary force overseas when faced with unrest.

Sobek (2007), focusing on Renaissance Italy, found that autocratic states, or oligarchies, are more likely to use diversion while republics were less prone to diversionary tactics. Furthermore, Sobek found that oligarchies are more likely to attack states that were experiencing turmoil. This is important as it indicates that not all targets are created equal. Mansfield and Snyder (2005) contended that regimes in transition from autocracy to democracy, particularly without certain types of domestic institutions, will be more bellicose in their foreign relations. Gent (2009) argued that leaders of mixed regimes (rather than democracies or autocracies) are the most likely to engage in diversionary actions. Similar to Sobek, Gent suggested that international factors, in particular strategic interactions between states, impact their propensity toward diversionary tactics. However, these studies are somewhat limited in their consideration of international factors.

Aside from regime type and regime changes, other scholars have focused on domestic resources, capacities, and capabilities when discussing diversionary tactics. Miller (1999) argued that domestic structures condition the relationship between domestic problems and diversionary uses of force. He focused on levels of policy resources, which are measured by the proportion of total central government revenue that is derived from direct taxes, and argued that governments with more available revenue are better able to recover from economic problems and, thus, have less incentive for diversionary tactics in the wake of economic crisis. Conversely, those leaders with fewer resources available to them will be more likely to pursue diversionary tactics.

Yeh and Wu (2020) argued that the process of diversionary behavior is different in weak states than strong ones. First, weak states are likely to be less prone to utilize diversionary force, as such states will potentially have harsher electoral consequences for using force. Second, the relationship between weak states and great powers is likely to impact the choice of diversionary tactics, as such tactics might not be supported by great powers that the weaker state relies on. Using the case of Taiwan, the authors found support for the idea that diversionary tactics are conditional. This piece is particularly interesting in that it combines domestic-level conditions (being a weak state) with international-level and dyadic-level factors—the relationship between the state and great powers. Similarly, Li et al. (2009) considered the use of diversionary tactics by Taiwan. They focused on actions that fall short of war, arguing that middle powers such as Taiwan, with strong connections to major powers like the United States, may be more reluctant to use diversionary tactics that would lead to war. Within this context, they found that the leaders in Taipei were more likely to use independence rhetoric as a diversionary tactic when faced with domestic problems.

A significant amount of research focusing on diversionary conflict focuses on the decision-making of United States leaders (e.g., see Blomdahl, 2017; Fordham, 1998a, 1998b; Foster & Keller, 2014; Foster & Palmer, 2006; Hess & Orphanides, 1995; Meernik, 1994, 2000; Meernik & Waterman, 1996; Ostrom & Job, 1986; see also the article “The ‘Rally-’Round-the-Flag’ Phenomenon and the Diversionary Use of Force”). The focus on the United States further suggests the importance of power, resources, and capabilities as domestic factors that might provide opportunities for diversionary conflict. Not all countries will have the domestic contexts and opportunities for such tactics, and the United States is unique in its capacity (Fordham, 2017).

In addition to regime type, institutions and state capabilities, a state’s societal characteristics, including ethnic composition, has also been theorized to impact the likelihood of diversionary tactics. Haynes (2016) found that ethnically fragmented states are more likely to initiate diversionary conflicts. Finally, psychological features of leaders also play a role in the choice of diversionary tactics. Foster and Keller (2014) argued that leaders with low conceptual complexity, especially if they are also hawkish in their foreign policy leanings, will be more likely to lean toward simplistic decision-making processes, which would include utilizing diversionary tactics. The authors tested their theory by looking at U.S. leaders and found support for their propositions. Foster and Keller (2020) considered the British case and found that prime ministers who are especially distrustful are more predisposed to use military force, will be more focused on the potential costs of domestic economic problems, and fear that others in their cabinet are interesting in overtaking their position. Such individuals will be more inclined to seek out diversionary conflicts rather than attempt to fix economic policy.

International and Dyadic Contexts and Opportunities for Diversionary Conflict

There is a significant number of studies focused on the various domestic contexts that impact the likelihood of diversionary tactics. Some of these studies also incorporate a small number of international or dyadic-level factors in their analyses (e.g., Enterline & Gleditsch, 2000; Gent, 2009; Oakes, 2006, 2012; Sobek, 2007; Yeh & Wu, 2020). Still, fewer studies have focused on the international factors and opportunities that influence diversionary uses of force than those that fully analyze domestic considerations. This is somewhat surprising since diversionary theory rests on the interplay between domestic and international factors. Furthermore, when making foreign policy decisions, actors are likely to consider the characteristics of the target state and their historical relationship with this state. Various causal processes and theories linking domestic problems within a country to the use of diversionary tactics also make underlying assumptions about the target of the diversionary action. For example, in-group and out-group mechanisms are built on the relationship and connection between the in-group (the state potentially utilizing diversionary tactics) and the out-group (the target state). It is significantly more likely that these dynamics would lead to a rallying effect in situations when the out-group is viewed as a potential threat to the in-group.

Similarly, scapegoating other countries and attempting to blame them for your own internal problems is likely to only work for certain external targets, such as those that have had negative relations with your country in the past and/or those that pose some real or perceived threat to the country. As Enterline and Gleditsch (2000) and Oakes (2006) argued, diversionary conflict may be more likely when the state has a symbolic target or there is an interstate threat. Even the diversionary casual processes that point to leaders’ attempts to set the agenda or demonstrate their competence in foreign policy are likely to be more effective against certain kinds of states. Overall, the characteristics of the state that is the target of diversionary behavior is quite important for understanding diversionary conflict, as the characteristics of the target likely have significant impacts on opportunity for diversionary conflict. In addition, these international and dyadic factors likely interact with domestic opportunities for diversionary conflict and, thus, need to be more fully researched.

Several key international contexts and dyadic relationships have been identified in the literature on diversionary conflict. Dyadic power considerations have been discussed as important international contexts affecting diversionary behavior, as have regime types and human rights records of target states. Situations where there are internationally contentious issues, such as rivalry or territorial disputes, and situations where there are cross-border ethnic considerations between countries are some of the areas that appear to provide important international opportunities for the diversionary use of force.

Jung (2014a) considered a wide range of dyadic factors that might affect the likelihood of diversionary conflict and argued that diversionary tactics are most likely to be used against certain types of external targets. In particular, the author argued that targets that are fear-producing, such as those that are rapidly rising in power or that have different identities, are more likely to stoke the domestic audience’s fear, and thus more likely to produce a rallying effect. The author found that the presence of a rising power, a territory target, or a hegemony target is associated with diversionary conflict. Importantly, Jung (2014a) that “when there is no attractive diversionary target, a state’s domestic unrest makes its political leaders less likely to initiate a dyadic conflict” (p. 573). This study clearly indicates the importance of characteristics of target states in potential cases of diversionary conflict. The author also argued that certain states are more likely to be the target of diversionary force. In particular, he found that states that have high levels of constraints, like democracies or states with high levels of trade openness, are more likely to be the target of diversionary conflicts, as they will be less likely to reciprocate harshly. Thus, not all targets are created equal. Tokdemir and Mark (2018) considered factors of the target state that may impact the United States’ use of diversionary conflict. They found that U.S. presidents are more likely to choose targets that violate human rights, as these states provide easy and convincing targets to both domestic and international audiences.

Another dyadic factor that has been theorized to impact the opportunity for diversionary tactics is international rivalry. International rivalry creates an historical context that shapes interactions between countries and the foreign policy decisions that leaders make. Rivals have a history of competitive and conflictual interactions that make them more likely to distrust one another and less likely to seek peaceful resolutions to disputes. Many studies have demonstrated the war prone-ness of rival states (Diehl & Goertz, 1992, 1993, 2000; Hensel, 1998, 1999; Senese & Vasquez, 2008, Thompson, 1995, 2001; Vasquez, 1996). International rivalry creates a situation where certain states might be perceived as particularly threatening and/or are symbolic targets that could produce in-group and out-group dynamics and lead to rallying effects.

Mitchell and Prins (2004) considered how international rivalry between states might make diversionary tactics more likely to be utilized by leaders. They argued that within the rivalry context, which is ripe with antagonism, mistrust, and animosity, leaders can more easily manipulate foreign policies to suit their own personal agendas. In addition, leaders in such rivalry situations can blame domestic problems, such as economic weakness, on these international rival states. These processes correspond with both the in-group/out-group and scapegoating explanations for the diversionary use of force. Rival states are easily turned into an out-group, helping to create a greater sense of in-group identity and potential rallying effects. Furthermore, rivals, because of their “enemy” status, are easy targets for scapegoating. Mitchell and Prins found that high levels of inflation (as a measure of domestic instability) increase the probability of militarized dispute initiation between rival states, while actually decreasing the likelihood of these types of disputes among non-rivals. However, they also found that the increased likelihood of diversionary conflict between rivals is largely limited to non-democracies, connecting back to the domestic opportunities for diversionary conflict. Thus, a rivalry relationship increases the likelihood that leaders (particularly authoritarian leaders) will use diversionary tactics when faced with domestic unrest. This study highlighted one of the key international, or dyadic-level, factors that provides an opportunity for diversionary uses of force while also connecting to domestic opportunities. In addition, it emphasized the importance of considering characteristics of the potential targets of diversionary acts.

Foster (2006) also considered a variety of international and dyadic-level factors, including rivalry, that impact diversionary uses of force. Like Mitchell and Prins (2004), he considered the interplay of international and dyadic and domestic and state-level factors. He analyzed how power status interacts with rivalry to impact diversionary behavior. He found that nonmajor powers generally appear to divert only against enduring rivals, while major powers are slightly less likely to use diversion against rivals than nonrivals. However, these findings seemed to be particularly driven by the case of the United States, where when faced with high levels of inflation, the United States is more likely to initiate conflict against nonrivals than against rivals, but that other major powers are more likely to initiate conflict against rivals than nonrivals. Carter (2020) also analyzed diversion by the United States, though she focused on “diversionary cheap talk” rather than diversionary force. She found that the United States is more likely to criticize foreign countries, and particularly historical rivals, when faced with domestic economic problems.

Another international and dyadic factor that has been connected to the diversionary use of force is territory—and territorial disputes specifically. A significant amount of research has shown that territorial disputes are one of the primary causes of war between states (e.g., see Hensel, 2000, 2001; Huth, 2000; Kocs, 1995; Vasquez, 1996). Authors have emphasized that territory is often viewed as a highly salient issue—either due to its strategic value or its affective value to population (Hensel, 2001; Hensel & Mitchell, 2005; Hensel et al., 2008; Huth & Allee, 2002; Toft, 2003). Furthermore, territorial disputes have also been linked to other international contexts, such as rivalry (Rasler & Thompson, 2006; Vasquez, 1996). Theories related to diversionary behavior would suggest when a country is involved in a territorial dispute, the other state in that dispute would make a salient target, similar to a rival state. This could be through portraying the other state as an “out-group” or by using scapegoating tactics to blame internal problems on that state. Furthermore, beginning a conflict as part of a territorial claim could potentially help demonstrate competence in foreign policy. Overall, territorial disputes provide an international or dyadic opportunity for the use of diversionary tactics.

Heldt (1999) briefly discussed the economic benefits of territorial conflict as a motive for diversionary conflict, but this is a small part of the overall argument and theory, and he is primarily concerned with how various domestic factors impact the likelihood of territorial disputes more generally. Tir (2010) argued that given the salience of territorial issues, diversionary tactics may be especially used to launch territorial conflicts. Tir (2010, p. 417) suggested that territorial diversions, versus other types of diversionary conflict, are better able to capture the public’s attention, can more easily tap into the public’s feelings regarding their identity, and can help the leader unify a fractured society. Tir found that government unpopularity is strongly associated with militarized territorial disputes, while economic growth has a weaker relationship with such disputes.

Expanding on the work of Mitchell and Prins (2004), Mitchell and Thyne (2010) consider the relationship between contentious issues (more broadly) and diversionary behavior. The authors found that when states are involved in a contentious issue claim (such as a territorial dispute) they are generally more likely to initiate a militarized dispute; however, this likelihood is especially high when accompanied by high levels of inflation (supporting a diversionary theory of conflict). Furthermore, the more salient the claim, the higher the likelihood of diversionary tactics. Mitchell and Thyne’s findings are consistent with those of Mitchell and Prins (2004) and Tir (2010), as well as support the idea promoted by Oakes (2006) concerning the importance of “symbolic” targets. Jung (2014a) found that challengers in a territorial claim are more likely to initiate a military conflict related to the contested claim when they suffer domestic problems, and this is particularly true when the target country is weaker than the challenger—thus posing a lower military risk. Similarly, Wiegand (2018) found that in states involved in territorial disputes and with political unrest, but not economic unrest, are more prone to diversionary uses of force—specifically the initiation of militarized interstate disputes. Taken together, these studies give strong support for the idea that diversionary tactics are more likely to be used in certain international and dyadic contexts, such as those associated with a rivalry and/or territorial dispute.

Similar to rivalry and territorial disputes, cross-border ethnic connections can create ripe situations for diversionary tactics. Several studies have demonstrated the potential foreign policy impact of cross-border ethnic connections (Carment, 1993; Carment & James, 1995; David & Moore, 1997; Davis et al., 1997; Heraclides, 1990, 1991; Mishali-Ram, 2006; Moore, 2002; Saideman, 1997, 2001; Trumbore, 2003; Woodwell, 2004). Ethnic connections can also overlap with territorial issues, adding salience to territory, particularly if this territory is seen as a “homeland” for a particular ethnic group or is in some other way highly connected to a particular population (Hensel, 2001; Hensel & Mitchell, 2005; Hensel et al., 2008; Toft, 2003). Cross-border ethnic connections can create pressures on leaders to take action against another state, particularly when ethnic kin are disadvantaged or discriminated against in the other state, or can provide exploitable opportunities for states due to the salience of ethnic identities. Given these opportunities, potential cross-border ethnic and religious ties can also be connected to potential diversionary tactics. Diversionary theories relying on in-group and out-group distinctions are especially well suited for a discussion of cross-border ethnic connections or differences—as ethnicity can easily be framed in in-group and out-group terms. Similarly, scapegoating theories fit well with potential cross-border ethnic connections.

Jung (2014a) found that identity targets, defined as situations where two states have different majority religious identities, were significantly associated with diversionary tactics, but only during the Cold War, and not in the post-Cold War period. This particular approach to identities is quite limiting as it combines major religions like Islam into a single category and thus does not account for interreligious differences (such as those between Shi‘a and Sunni) and does not consider the role of ethnic affinity between countries. Haynes (2016) considered diversionary opportunities presented when the initiating state (particularly an ethnically fragmented state) has an ethnic connection to the targeted state. Haynes argued that diversionary conflict will be most likely when the target state has an ethnic connection to an excluded minority in the initiative state. The idea is that the target state may be viewed particularly threatening because of its potential connection to the excluded group in the initiating state. The target state could be providing support for the initiating state’s exclude ethnic group, or at least can be accused of such action. As such, conflict with this target state is an exploitable conflict opportunity for the initiating state. The results support Haynes’s argument, and he utilized the case of the 1998 dispute between Turkey and Syria to illustrate these transnational ethnic dimensions.

While Haynes argued that initiating states with marginalized ethnic groups might use diversionary tactics against states with ethnic ties to these groups, arguments could also be made that diversionary tactics could be used by an initiating state to protect their ethnic kin that are marginalized in a neighboring state. In such a situation, it would be easy to present the target state as a threatening “out-group.” Although previous research has considered how such connections impact foreign policy, none have considered how diversionary uses of force might also relate to the idea of coming to the aid of one’s ethnic brethren. This is certainly an area for future research on opportunities and diversionary theories of conflict.

Challenges with an Opportunities Approach

While a consideration of international and dyadic contexts as opportunities for diversionary uses of force is an important part of the diversionary puzzle, there are some key challenges with these considerations. Overall, one of the key challenges with scholarship on diversionary conflict is that it is extremely difficult to “prove” that diversionary motives are the primary cause of the use of force. The motives of leaders, especially if they are diversionary in nature, are not usually extremely transparent. As such, scholars must make assumptions about motives based on the best available information and situational contexts.

When considering the interplay between domestic problems and unrest, domestic opportunities for diversion, and international or dyadic contexts and opportunities for diversion, it may be difficult to specifically test diversionary motives. The fact that leaders consider both domestic and international factors when making decisions is certainly not new, but only a small number of such decisions are likely to be motivated by diversionary desires. Large-n quantitative analyses can help uncover patterns related to the connection between domestic factors and international ones but may not be able to fully ascertain whether diversionary motives were actually present in any given set of cases. Most large-n studies use measures of domestic unrest or problems, such as protest, leader popularity, and economic crises, to help demonstrate diversionary motives, but again, there are likely cases within these data that appear diversionary but really are not due to broad nature of measures of diversionary motives.

This problem is confounded further as more opportunities—and particularly international opportunities—for diversionary uses of force are added to the mix. In these cases, international opportunities for diversionary uses of force may also represent clear international security issues that affect the national interests of a state. As such, it is difficult to parse out conflicts that are occurring amidst both international and domestic pressures from those that have diversionary motives. This problem has yet to be fully explored within the diversionary literature.

In fact, some of the research discounting diversionary tactics has incorporated an international analysis, showing that these international factors are more important than domestic ones for impacting international conflict. For example, Meernik (1994) argued that, while some scholars previously found domestic political reasons to be important motivations for the use of force by U.S. presidents, these studies fail to fully consider the international considerations that affected presidential decision-making. When international considerations, such as the presence of an American military base, U.S. military aid, and prior use of force, are considered, Meernik found that the domestic political conditions are no longer statistically significant in affecting presidential decisions to use force. Instead, presidents seemed to be primarily motivated by these international conditions. Meernik found such domestic considerations are not important even in the face of international crises. Meernik’s study suggested the importance of focusing on international factors, but his analysis was limited only to the United States, and thus the generalizability was unclear. Similarly, DeRouen (2000) also considered the U.S. use of diversionary force, while controlling for international factors such as international crises and Soviet/Russian crisis activity and interactions. The author similarly found less support for diversionary tactics, and more support for the fact that Soviet crisis activity, was a major factor driving the use of force. Like Meernik (1994), these results suggested that, while international considerations are important in discussions of diversionary conflict, in some situations, when international factors are considered, diversionary tactics no longer seem present. These examples demonstrate the difficulty in parsing out the role of diversion as a motive in conflict.

The fact that many of the international opportunities that are linked to diversionary incentives, such as territorial disputes and rivalry, are also situations where wars are most likely, also makes it difficult to fully tease out the role of diversion. Another challenge with focusing on opportunities, particularly international ones, is that domestic problems (like economic crises) could be linked to the actions of other states (including rivals), and thus could represent legitimate grievances between states and grounds for potential armed conflicts. The conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea provides an example—where the economic crisis that Eritrea experienced was directly related to actions taken by the Ethiopian government (Butcher & Maru, 2018). In these cases, it becomes very difficult to disentangle traditional measures of domestic problems used as indicators of potential diversionary motives with other types of national security motives for imitating conflicts.

Future Directions in Research on Diversionary Theories of Conflict

Focusing on the ways that domestic factors and international factors interact, and when these interactions might symbolize diversionary motives, is an important step forward. However, these approaches also come with some challenges. In the face of these challenges, quantitative scholars should continue to refine the various opportunities for diversionary uses of force, at both the domestic and international levels, focusing on how these factors might interact with one another. However, while important for understanding diversionary behavior, quantitative studies are less equipped to fully demonstrate the decision-making process of diversion. As such, case studies and various qualitative approaches are an important part of the puzzle, and scholars must continue to contribute such cases to the literature on diversionary conflict. For example, the use of process tracing within a single case, or small number of cases, would be a particularly useful qualitative path to explicitly trace the linkages between domestic pressures and factors and diversionary tactics. Qualitative comparative analysis, first developed by Charles Ragin (1987), provides a middle ground between single case studies and large-n datasets where researchers could analyze several cases to determine the various causal pathways leading to potential diversionary uses of force.

In-depth analyses of specific case studies can provide a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between domestic and international factors. When looking at an individual case or set of cases, researchers can more fully explore leaders’ actions and statements in relation to a conflict and evidence of diversion—such as whether leaders have actively attempted to scapegoat neighbors or to create a rallying effect among the population. For example, Butcher and Maru (2018) considered the popular accusations that the Ethiopia–Eritrea War (1998–2000) had diversionary motives by closely analyzing a variety of domestic and international, or dyadic, opportunities for diversion and the decision-making processes of leaders. Through this detailed analysis, the authors were able to parse out where divisionary motives may have been present, and where they seemed less likely. Similarly, significant research has been conducted on the Malvinas/Falklands conflict between the United Kingdom and Argentina, focusing on various theories that might explain the conflict, including diversionary theory and prospect theory (Oakes, 2006, 2012; Schenoni et al., 2020).

Case studies and qualitative analysis will not necessarily help researchers to understand how common diversion is, but they will help them to refine the causal mechanisms of diversionary tactics and provide a more nuanced understanding of how diversion works. They can also allow them to better test whether international and dyadic factors are truly providing opportunities for diversionary conflict, or if these factors are interacting with domestic level considerations to lead to conflict that is not motivated by diversion. Overall, quantitative studies that help to uncover patterns and qualitative studies that investigate diversionary tactics in specific cases are both important parts of the puzzle. To best understand diversionary conflict, researchers need to increasingly rely on both approaches.


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