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Article

Mark Souva

A large body of theoretical work posits that power shifts or expected power shifts cause war. Power transition theory, cyclic theories of war, preventive war arguments, and the bargaining model of war are discussed in this article. Indeed, shifting power is one of the most popular and venerable explanations for war. Its origins go at least as far back as Thucydides, who famously wrote, “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear this caused in Sparta.” Two major points must be discussed. First, there is an impressive correlation between major power war and shifting power, a correlation consistent with the arguments of several systemic theories of war. Second, much of the empirical research examining power shifts and war suffers from endogeneity and model specification concerns. Regarding endogeneity, more effort should be placed on identifying valid instruments and conducting experiments. Regarding model specification, more attention needs to be paid to scope conditions. Shifting power is not expected to cause war in all contexts. Precisely defining the relevant contexts and modeling them empirically is necessary to evaluate the shifting power and war hypothesis.

Article

The idea of power transition, or power shift, has recently been much in vogue in scholarly, policy, and even popular discourse. It has, for example, motivated a resurgent interest in the power-transition theory and the danger of the so-called Thucydides trap. China’s recent rise has especially motivated an interest in these topics, engendering concerns about whether this development means that China is on a collision course with the United States. These concerns stem from the proposition that the danger of a system-destabilizing war increases when a rising power catches up to a declining hegemon and challenges the latter’s preeminent position in the international system. Thucydides’s famous remark about the origin of the Peloponnesian War, claiming that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable” in ancient Greece, has frequently been invoked to support this view. Whereas power shift is a generic term referring to any change in the balance of capabilities between two or more states, power transition is a more specific concept pointing to a reversal of positions whereby a rising latecomer overtakes a previous dominant power in the international system (or at least when this latecomer approaches power parity with the dominant power). Power-transition theory presents a contemporary version of Thucydides’s explanation of the Peloponnesian War. It calls attention to the changing power relationships among the world’s major states and provides a seemingly cogent framework to understand the dynamics that can produce war between these states and their respective allies. A careful reader will immediately find the preceding paragraph unsatisfactory as it contains several important ambiguities. For instance, what do we mean by “major states” or “great powers,” and what do we have in mind when we refer to changes in their relative “power”? Also, does the power-transition theory claim that war is likely to break out when there is a change in the identity of the world’s most powerful country? Or does it also say that war is likely to occur even in the absence of a late-rising state overtaking, and therefore displacing, an incumbent hegemon? If so, how closely does the late-rising state have to match the incumbent’s power capabilities before the power-transition theory predicts a war between them? Would the latecomer have to reach at least 80%, 90%, or even 95% of the incumbent’s power before an approximate parity between the two is achieved? Does the power-transition theory pertain only to the relationship between the world’s two most powerful states, or does it apply to other states? And if power transition is a necessary but insufficient condition for war, what are the other pertinent variables and their interaction effects with power shifts? Finally, what do we mean by war or systemic war? The answers to these questions are not self-evident. How they are dealt with—or not—is in itself suggestive of the power relations in the world being studied by scholars and these scholars’ positions in this world and their relations to it.

Article

Frank C. Zagare

Perfect deterrence theory and classical deterrence theory are two theoretical frameworks that have divergent empirical implications and dissimilar policy recommendations. In perfect deterrence theory, threat credibility plays a central role in the operation of both direct and extended deterrence relationships. But credible threats are neither necessary nor sufficient for deterrence to prevail, and under certain conditions, the presence of a credible threat may actually undermine deterrence. In perfect deterrence theory, the cost of conflict and status quo evaluations are also important strategic variables. Classical deterrence theorists tend to fixate on the former and ignore the latter. This theoretical oversight precludes a nuanced understanding of the dynamics of deterrence.

Article

Power transition theory and Graham Allison’s Thucydides Trap Project are discussed in tandem with two complementary aims: to highlight theoretical and empirical contributions of the power transition research program, and to provide critical perspective on the Thucydides Trap Project. Conventional-wisdom approaches of this sort are distinguished from power transition theory, the empirical international relations theory proposed by A. F. K. Organski and further articulated and tested by generations of scholars. The theory’s central elements—national power, stages of power transition, shifts in the distribution of power, international order and the status quo—are identified and discussed, with a focus on key variables used to explain war and peace among contending states. A comparative, critical examination of the Thucydides Trap Project is used as a lens for spotlighting key empirical contributions of the power transition theory research tradition and the value of adhering to norms of scientific rigor. Opportunities for further growth and development are noted, with special attention afforded to essential features of the power transition theory research program, including the study of (1) the timing and initiation of war; (2) rising powers’ dissatisfaction with the status quo, and a possible distinction between dissatisfaction and revisionism; and (3) reducing the risk of violent, revisionist challenges.

Article

Historically one of the world’s most conflict-prone regions, since the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979, East Asia has enjoyed a relative interstate peace. Implications of some of the relevant “East Asian peace” literature for theories of international relations need assessment. The central conclusion is that, contrary to often expressed dissatisfaction with the state of IR theory, it is possible to identify a core of theoretical knowledge that has considerable explanatory power for war and peace in East Asia, and is also based on general theory with considerable support across global regions. This diverges somewhat from the well-known argument of Lake in 2011: It is not the “-isms” that lead us astray, but how we use them. Unlike Lake, but consistent with Legro and Moravcsik (1999), it is argued that broad theoretical constructs are needed, and indeed useful ones exist, while mid-level or problem-focused analysis is no substitute for a theory-based research program. What is often lacking is an effort by empirical researchers to clearly and coherently tie their research design to theoretically important claims. Empirical political science as a whole is becoming more sophisticated in its methods and capabilities for causal inference, and it is also becoming more relevant and useful for policy makers. We should devote as much attention to the theoretical contributions of our research. The article addresses the role of theory in IR, the ways that empirical analysis of East Asia (and other regions) can contribute to theory building and theory testing, the existing literature on East Asian peace, some informed speculation about how the potential for mid-term military conflict between the United States and China might be assessed, and thoughts about current and potential contributions to IR theory based on the study of the East Asian peace. Theorizing in social science is hard, and any scholar’s dissatisfaction with existing theory should be heavily tempered with acknowledgment that s/he has not proposed a more powerful one. Regional analysis, and comparative regional analysis, can provide important potential gains by challenging current theory with hard tests. East Asia not only is a crucially important part of the world for the future of interstate peace, it also presents challenging and useful empirical puzzles for our theories.

Article

Carmela Lutmar and Lesley Terris

War termination is not a monocausal event but rather the product of a multitude of strategic, political, and psychological factors. Variables at different levels of analysis, such as power distributions, regime types, leadership and leadership changes, and psychological factors are all found to influence war termination processes. Recent studies have also explored how variables at different levels of analysis interact with one another to impact the onset and outcome of war termination, across different types of conflict (interstate and intrastate). Dynamic Bargaining models contribute to our understanding by perceiving war termination in terms of the parties’ ability to reach a mutually beneficial agreement, against a background of accumulating costs and under conditions of incomplete information.

Article

Most of the world has experienced a revolutionary and unprecedented development over the course of the last century and especially since the end of the Second World War: significant population aging. By any standard measure—median age, the number of 60- or 65-year-olds and over as a percentage of a population, or old-age dependency ratios (the ratio of seniors to working-age adults), most of the world is significantly older today than in the middle of the 20th century, and the trend is accelerating. The world’s great powers have not been immune to this trend. To the contrary, many of these countries have been leading the way, aging faster and to a greater extent than most other countries. By 2050, the median age of China, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States will be at least 40. Germany and Japan are currently two of the oldest countries in the world, and China is likely aging faster than any other country in history. How is the near worldwide phenomenon of population aging likely to affect international relations (IR)? Most scholars who have examined this issue have linked the potential effects created by aging to established IR theories. Most analyses that have developed around the issue of aging, in other words, have not created new theoretical approaches to the study of international politics. They have instead argued that aging is likely to affect key variables associated with existing IR theories, which will then tend to generate particular outcomes based on these theories’ predictions. The IR theories that studies of populating aging have most frequently tied into include ones from realist, diversionary war, and constructivist research programs. Many of the arguments that link the effects of aging to these theories reach opposite conclusions, with some predicting a much higher probability of international conflict due to aging, others the reverse. There are, however, very few empirical analyses that test these competing hypotheses, largely because aging is such a new phenomenon.

Article

Michael Masterson and Jessica L. P. Weeks

What do we know about the causes and outcomes of international military conflict? Decades of research from different theoretical traditions have explored the outbreak and conclusion of international conflict from a variety of angles. Broadly speaking, scholarship about international conflict has tended to orbit around three core concepts: power, institutions, and the source of the interstate dispute. The question that remains is how well verified are the most important theories? Three influential theories seek to predict patterns of international conflict: power transition theory, which argues that shifts in power increase the likelihood of war; selectorate theory, which predicts that states that have large winning coalitions are more selective about war; and theories about issue indivisibility and war, which predict that issues that states view as impossible to divide—such as a national homeland—are more likely to lead to conflict. Each of these theories produces specific predictions, allowing an assessment of how well the evidence supports the theories’ main conjectures. Central to understanding the causes of conflict is whether empirical work has tested these three theories using well-validated measures; whether a variety of scholars have tested the core propositions of the theory; and whether scholars have found evidence of the causal mechanisms proposed by each theory. Although each theory has garnered some support, they all fall short on one or more of these criteria. In particular, more work is needed in both measurement and evidence of causal mechanisms before scholars can be confident of the theories’ explanatory power.

Article

On the one hand, the idea of a capitalist peace is a set of loosely integrated, but testable propositions. On the other hand it is part of a wider, libertarian philosophy of life. The spirit of this wider conception is best expressed by a quote from a pioneer of quantitative international politics, in 1981 Rummel wrote, “If you want peace, then minimize the power of government.” Although there has been a proliferation of variables assessing capitalism and economic interdependence—from economic freedom via contract intensity to the avoidance of state ownership or protectionism—the most frequently analyzed proposition about the capitalist peace says that trade makes military conflict and war less likely. By and large, the evidence supports this proposition in dyadic designs as well as in monadic designs. This cross-design validity of the proposition is important, because it distinguishes the peace by trade proposition from the democratic peace proposition. Most researchers agree that war is extremely unlikely in dyads where both nations are democracies. But only a minority contends that democracies are less frequently involved in military conflict than other states. The dyadic and the monadic findings are compatible because military conflict looks even more likely between an autocracy and a democracy than between two autocracies. Whereas the democratic peace is limited in application, the pacifying impact of trade or economic interdependence is more general. Moreover, the democratic peace may be embedded in a wider economic or capitalist peace. There is strong evidence that democracy rests on a foundation of capitalism or economic freedom and the prosperity that has been gained only by capitalism or some degree of economic freedom. Moreover, economic freedom and prosperity contribute to the avoidance of civil war. Better still: Economic freedom does not only promote economic growth and prosperity among those nations where people enjoy economic freedom, but the economic freedom of rich countries provides poor countries with the advantages of backwardness and catch-up opportunities. Capitalist peace theory evolves. It has been suggested that the pacifying impact of trade rests on the expectation that trade, or access to resources and markets, will continue. This suggestion requires a new look at economic sanctions, too. By interfering with trade, sanctions must undermine the expectation of future benefits of trade and globally interconnected markets. Given the rareness of evidence in favor of the effectiveness of economic sanctions in eliminating undesirable policies of other nations, a capitalist peace perspective implies the recommendation to use sanctions much less frequently than politicians do. They are likely to eliminate a pacifying factor when it is most urgently needed. The wider or visionary perspective on the capitalist peace is useful not only in connecting it with the issue of sanctions, but also in demonstrating the inherent limitations of capitalism as a tool to achieve peace. From a static perspective, capitalism, economic freedom, or trade may exert some pacifying impact, as argued above. But capitalism is a dynamic economic order. It is about “creative destruction”. Capitalism is not egalitarian. Nations grow at different speeds. They rise and decline. Capitalism and unequal economic growth upset pecking orders and contribute to power transitions that are related to risks of war, especially great power war. Whether the contribution of capitalism to power transitions—or its pacifying impact prevails—cannot be judged with much confidence.