Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Politics. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 20 January 2021

Diversionary Theory of War in Foreign Policy Analysislocked

  • Joe D. HaganJoe D. HaganDepartment of Political Science, West Virginia University


Diversionary explanations are a key FPA approach to understanding how domestic politics shape foreign policy and, in particular, the resort to force and risk of war, arguing that increasingly vulnerable leaders manipulate foreign policy in order to enhance their domestic political position. This literature has emerged in major ways since Levy’s early critique in which he noted wide disparity between the lack of theoretical rigor and empirical findings in political science research and the richness of qualitative research by historians offering compelling cases of diversionary wars such as the First World War. Nearly three decades later, however, this situation has significantly changed. A vibrant political science literature has emerged that provides significant empirical evidence based on, first, longitudinal studies of mostly the U.S. case and the presidential use of force since World War II (WWII); and, second, cross-national studies that capture variance in the diversionary resort to force across regime types (and subtypes) and different international contexts. In contrast, historical literature on the origins of World War I (WWI) has come to view the German case as more complex and has placed it into comparative perspective with the other four great powers. Historical research suggests that leaders in all five powers faced rising domestic opposition in the prewar decades; that they subsequently adopted new (yet varied) political strategies for containing opposition; and, at the brink of war, that diversionary and other political motivations played out in indirect and different ways. This article reviews these literatures and suggests that there has been some convergence of themes in the research of political scientists and historians. Consistent with FPA approaches, these literatures point to complex patterns of domestic oppositions across different institutional arenas, contingencies affecting the willingness and ability of leaders to resort to diversionary force, the role of agency stemming from leader beliefs about political stability and the consequences of risking war, and the importance of decision making dynamics in the ultimate resort to war.

You do not currently have access to this article


Please login to access the full content.


Access to the full content requires a subscription