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date: 18 January 2020

Constructing a General Model Accounting for Interstate Rivalry Termination

Summary and Keywords

Unlike many topics in international relations, a large number of models characterize interstate rivalry termination processes. But many of these models tend to focus on different parts of the rivalry termination puzzle. It is possible, however, to create a general model built around a core of shocks, expectation changes, reciprocity, and reinforcement. Twenty additional elements can be linked as alternative forms of catalysts/shocks and perceptual shifts or as facilitators of the core processes. All 24 constituent elements can be encompassed by the general model, which allows for a fair amount of flexibility in delineating alternative pathways to rivalry de-escalation and termination at different times and in different places. The utility of the unified model is then applied in an illustrative fashion to the Anglo-American rivalry, which ended early in the 20th century.

Keywords: rivalry termination, shocks, expectations, reciprocity, reinforcement, empirical international relations theory


While defining rivalries is not yet subject to widespread consensus, rivalry students agree that a very small number of dyads disproportionally cause trouble in international relations. Most states never experience much conflict with most other states. A few states are caught up in long-running feuds and are responsible for an impressive proportion of observed hostilities. Rivalries begin and end. They possess life cycles that tend to exhibit hot and cold periods of antagonism. Some rivalries experience attempts at de-escalation. Some of these efforts stick and the rivalries end. Some end and then resume. Others never quite end but hostilities fluctuate. The question is: Why do attempts at de-escalation sometimes work and often fail?

Curiously, the analysis of interstate rivalry termination is characterized by a plethora of models that occasionally overlap but that usually emphasize different facets of de-escalation. At least 14 published models can be identified to date (writing in 2017).1 Each new one is variably different from the ones that precede it. Rarely are older models acknowledged to be inferior to new models. Only rarely (if ever) do modelers return to their models and reassess how they have fared since publication or, alternatively, how their models work in comparison to other analysts’ models. These circumstances hardly amount to an analytical crisis. The non-cumulativeness of the rivalry termination literature is hardly novel. But it does afford an opportunity to consider whether it is possible to construct a more general model that encompasses the various emphases of the 14 models. It is also an opportunity to consider the attractions of explicitly borrowing elements of other models for enhancing one of the 14, even if that represents a departure from the way we ordinarily go about doing things.

One of the 14 models (Rasler, 2001a, 2001b; Rasler, Thompson, & Ganguly, 2013; Thompson, 2001b) is appropriated as a core set of processes.2 Shocks, expectation changes, reciprocity, and reinforcement constitute the core of this model. However, the 14 models in total rely on as many as 24 different elements. A generalized model, capable of encompassing all 24 elements, is then constructed around the 4-element core. To show how the generalized model might be applied, a prominent termination case—the end of the rivalry between the United States and Britain in the early years of the 20th century—is discussed and linked selectively to a number of the parts of the generalized model. Other examples, presumably, could be linked to other ensembles of the 24 factors, as long as the core set of processes continue to serve as an analytical anchor. The outcome, therefore and arguably, is a more flexible and comprehensive instrument for deciphering how rivalries end than currently exists.

One and Done and Striving for Novelty as Opposed to Cumulation

Two strong tendencies in the study of international relations phenomena deserve to be challenged. One tendency is to construct a model, apply it to some empirical material, and, if successful, walk away from the model’s further analysis while moving on to another topic. Yet no model is likely to be so successful that it cannot be improved upon with elaboration, possible expansion, fine-tuning, or even significant amendment. We tend to leave these chores to someone else. As a consequence, the “one and done” syndrome often means that there is no follow-up consideration of a model or theory. The other tendency that we have is to construct our models with an emphasis on their autonomy from other models on precisely the same subject. Rather than building on earlier models, authors are encouraged by our industry’s norms rewarding novelty over cumulation to develop distinctively different models that emphasize something missing from predecessor efforts. This observation assumes that analysts actually consider earlier models explicitly, which, sadly, is not always the case.3 In any event, we end up with a number of partial models that beg for unification into a more general model within which the partial elements might fit.

A prime case in point is the analysis of interstate rivalry termination. There are at least 14 different models, each one promoting a different interpretation of why rivalries end. One question is whether we really need 14+ different models to explain rivalry termination?4 Can they be subsumed by an encompassing framework? The answer is yes. Should they be subsumed by an encompassing framework? The answer to this question depends on the value added of more comprehensive explanations. In other words, the proof is in the pudding. If the unified “pudding” outcome provides a superior answer to our why question, then it should be desirable. Another question is whether one of the 14 models can be used as a central vehicle for unifying the other disparate emphases. An argument in the affirmative is developed on this score as well. Finally, it may be asked whether the core model can be improved by incorporating selected elements of the other models. The answer again is yes. In particular, bringing in other model elements helps to pinpoint some of the reasons protracted rivalries move toward de-escalation intermittently but then fall short of achieving termination. Most models aim at predicting a yes or no termination outcome. We can do that and aim for more explanatory power at the same time.

Pursuing these four questions, the model to be utilized as a core vehicle for unifying the multiple emphases in this rivalry termination literature is first outlined. Next comes a brief review of the 13 other models on rivalry termination and an identification of their model components. The ultimate question is whether the components found in the 13 other models can be linked in a meaningful way to the core model. Fortunately, it can be demonstrated that all of the interpretations advanced to date can be integrated into one general or unified model. Whether any one wishes to integrate all of the models will depend on the utility of the 15th model.

The Core Model

Strategic rivalries are relationships linking two parties that view each other as competitive and threatening enemies. Two fundamental termination paths can be derived from this definition: (1) one or both states in the rivalry losing their competitive status and/or (2) one or both states ceasing to be perceived as projecting threat. The variety of circumstances that might lead to one of the two main paths, however, complicates the actual number of pathways. The loss of competitive status, for instance, might be brought about if one side is defeated decisively and acknowledges defeat, one side acknowledges defeat without war, or one or both sides experiences political-economic exhaustion and/or intensive civil war. About half of the rivalry termination cases of the past two centuries (Colaresi, Rasler, & Thompson, 2007) have ended this way, with one side forced essentially to yield or withdraw from the dyadic contests in which they were involved. This type of rivalry termination is fairly easy to explain: one side wins. The more interesting problem is to explain how rivalries terminate prior to one side winning decisively.

The downscaling of threat perception, the main alternative pathway, can come about when one or both sides change their strategic priorities (as in emphasizing domestic development vs. external competition), change their leadership (presumably more critical in situations in which the leader is a principal source of foreign policy orientations), and change their regime (thereby leading to a redefinition of who constitutes friends and enemies), or negotiate a mutual lessening of tension, hostility, and threat without any structural changes in the adversary’s orientation.5 However attained, it is this half of the termination universe that is the more interesting to explain. We can readily understand situations in which one or both sides lost their ability to continue the competition. How enemies are transformed voluntarily into some other category is more intriguing.

There is certainly no guarantee that the advent of the preliminary changes in priorities, leadership, regimes, or negotiations will lead to rivalry termination. Once a rivalry forms, both sides develop highly negative images of their adversaries. Decision-makers expect their rivals to engage in undesirable activities. They have little reason to trust one another. A change in priorities, leadership, or regime may signal genuine changes in foreign policy intentions. But the other side may choose to ignore the signals or view it as part of a deceptive strategy. Negotiations can drag on forever without any breakthrough unless both sides are genuinely interested in de-escalation. Thus, there is definitely something worthy of modeling, assuming that the processes involved lend themselves to generalization.

A parsimonious model involving four variables—shocks, expectation change, reciprocity, and reinforcement—has been developed and tested successfully (Rasler et al., 2013) in an examination of 10 Eurasian rivalries and some 32 opportunities for rivalry de-escalation.6 The model features four necessary components. Some type of internal or external shock is necessary to override foreign policy inertia. Not just any shock will work. The shocks that seem most influential are those that affect state capabilities to participate in international politics. Shocks alone, however, are not sufficient. They must be paired with expectation revision. What this means is that rivals do not have to learn to love each other—that rarely happens. But they do have to alter their perceptions in general about the likelihood of either their adversary’s threat and/or competitiveness. If decisionmakers no longer see an adversary as either as threatening as it once was perceived or as competitive, a negotiated settlement becomes more conceivable. Successful negotiations, in turn, hinge on the adversary’s reaction to concessions that might be advanced (reciprocity). Moreover, there is also a question of whether any de-escalation of hostility that is arranged can be maintained for several years (reinforcement) without reverting to the previous status quo.

More formally, the theory takes the following form:

  1. 1. To tip expectations (and thus strategy and behavior) from one established routine to another requires fundamental alterations in expectations.

  2. 2. In turn, fundamental alterations are made more probable by major shocks that force actors to re-evaluate the accuracy and appropriateness of their existing expectations and associated strategies.

  3. 3. Shocks that decrease perceived threat or the actor’s own capabilities are likely to lead to re-evaluation and de-escalation/termination. Shocks that increase perceived threat or the actor’s own capabilities are likely to reinforce expectations and lead to intensified rivalry.

  4. 4. The more entrenched the expectations are or the greater the strategic inertia is, the greater or the more multiple are the shocks needed to influence expectations.

  5. 5. Shocks must be interpreted. As a consequence, a shock alone is not likely to be sufficient for expectational revisions unless the outcome of the shock completely eliminates the competitive ability of one or more adversaries.

  6. 6. New leaders, especially ones committed to developing support for new policies, may also be committed to changing external relationships and to facilitating attempts at rapprochement. To be most effective, the leadership changes must also remove or neutralize sufficiently opposition by governmental and domestic elites to revisions in expectations, strategy, and behavior. That is, they must achieve consolidation to be effective.

  7. 7. Third-party pressures may be facilitative but are unlikely to be either sufficient or necessary.

  8. 8. A further necessary ingredient in the revision process is the adversary’s reciprocation at some level for any initial concessions made as part of an overture toward strategic and behavioral revisions.

  9. 9. Consistent reinforcement of expectational revisions is necessary to prevent lapses back to the previous relationships still favored by historical conditioning.

Successful terminations examined in Rasler et al. (2013) were found to exhibit all four of the necessary model components. The original model also contained two auxiliary elements in consolidated entrepreneurs who take the initiative to move away from the foreign policy status quo and third-party pressure.7 Empirically, it was discovered that these two elements can facilitate significant de-escalations but that they do not appear to be absolutely necessary as long as the four main ingredients are present.

Still, the question remains whether this model can be improved. Parsimony is well and good, but the selective addition of other variables might give the four-variable model more flexibility and more range. At the same time, there are all these other models framed with varying emphases from which to pick. But it is not necessary to pick and choose if it is possible to take advantage of all the other models simultaneously. Unifying all 14 models into one general termination model utilizing the four-variable model as a core explanation could accomplish this goal. But first it is necessary to review briefly what the other 13 models are about.

Thirteen Other Models

In addition to the four-variable model that will serve as a core explanatory bloc, 13 different models have taken on this question to date. Each model seeks to explain rivalry termination with a handful of variables, ranging from one to six explanatory elements or constituent parts.

Model 1

Rock (1989) puts forward a three-step model that starts with a catalyst, most likely a defeat in a crisis that encourages fresh thinking and that may remove some hardliner obstacles that overcomes policy inertia. Decisionmakers also need to be looking for ways to avoid war with an adversary. Such motivations may be stimulated by one or more of several possibilities: (1) a newly emerged threat, (2) the need to salvage trade relationships, or (3) a desire to avoid internal warfare. If the catalyst and motivations are matched with the presence of facilitating factors (the relative absence of conflict over geopolitical objectives, trade/finance, and sociopolitical distance), peace between great powers is possible.

Model 2

Armstrong (1993) argues that adversaries are more likely to negotiate their differences if they are confronted with the threat of a deteriorating strategic/diplomatic situation that encourages a reconsideration of their own strategies toward others. A second facilitative factor involves an upgrade in the perceived viability of the adversarial regime, hitherto seen as likely to collapse eventually and not worthy of negotiation.

Model 3

Lebow (1997) contends that there are several factors that might encourage conciliation between rivals: (1) situations in which domestic reforms would be helped by reductions in external conflict, (2) explicit recognition that previous hostilities have been counter-productive, (3) some expectation that an adversary will respond favorably to a conciliatory gesture, (4) mutual fear of a third party, and (5) more general economic incentives to reduce international conflict. In Lebow (1997) he adds two more factors: (6) the feasibility of mobilizing domestic support for a rivalry de-escalation and (7) vigorous promotion of de-escalation by a central decisionmaker.

Model 4

The Diehl and Goertz (2000; Goertz & Diehl, 1995) model focuses exclusively on factors that destabilize relationships and lead to the possibility of an initiation of conflict de-escalation. Shifts in power distributions, leadership/regime changes, resource scarcities, major wars, and changes in territorial control are all possible sources of shocks to a rivalry. Since they find that shocks are more closely linked to rivalry initiations than to terminations, however, Diehl and Goertz do not view this factor as a necessary or even a very strong condition.

Model 5

Bennett (1996, 1997a, 1997b, 1998) analyzes rivalry termination from a cost-benefit perspective. This approach requires one to view rivals as engaging in successive bids over possible resolutions of their conflict issues, driven by changes in perceived costs and benefits. As costs or benefits climb, rivals become more open to settlements of their issues. The question then becomes what types of changes effect costs and benefits. The effect of shocks is variable and hinges on the extent to which they increase costs and benefits for both sides. Bennett also argues that too many threats are likely to encourage rivalry reduction and all the more so if one or more of the threats is greater than the others. Changes in leadership create opportunities for new decisionmakers less committed to older strategies. Democratic states offer some protection from being removed from office irregularly for rivalry de-escalations. Democratizing states signal movement towards domestic politics more geared to compromise that flow over into international relations.

Model 6

Maoz and Mor (2002) portray rivals as states that are dissatisfied with some aspect of their relationship due to the perception of incompatible goals and the potential to do something about it. Rivalries end, therefore, when the adversaries are no longer dissatisfied—either because something changed or because misperceptions were corrected—or when one or more of the adversaries no longer believe they can do anything about their incompatible goals.

Model 7

If rivalries exist on the basis of intractable conflict issues, Orme (2004) contends that negotiated settlements will hinge on a set of factors that might encourage hostility reduction. Issues that were once perceived to be intractable might be perceived as more tractable than initially thought. New external threats or severe internal economic problems may encourage decisionmakers to become more pessimistic about their ability to compete with the adversary. If domestic political survival is not at risk and populations can be persuaded to accept foreign policy changes, the pessimism may trump the lack of trust in the opponent’s intentions. Negotiated accommodation becomes more probable in such circumstances.

Model 8

Morey (2009, 2011) contends that if rivals sustain a large number of casualties in a short period of time, domestic political support for more conflict is likely to be lost. The loss of support, in turn, means that new conflicts between the rivals will be less likely, thereby bringing a likely end to the rivalry.

Model 9

Cox (2010) posits three general types of orientation toward existing rivalries. Hawks want rivalries to persist, doves want them to end, and moderates are in the middle, opting for persistence unless they can be convinced that a rivalry is no longer feasible. To end a rivalry, one needs to strengthen the dove position, swing moderates in that direction, and weaken the position of the hawks. Policy failures, especially if they involve economic issues, possess potential for making changes in ruling coalitions and, in the process of doing so, altering the mix of the three types of rivalry orientation. A shift in the direction of dovish views sets up some possibility of a change in policy toward an adversary, especially if something can be offered that is attractive to the adversary. If an approximation of this process happens to the mix of rivalry orientations on both sides of the rivalry more or less at the same time and the adversary responds positively to cooperative signals promptly, the likelihood of rivalry de-escalation is improved all the more.

Model 10

Rivalry actually plays only a minor role in Kupchan’s (2010) model because his interest is broader and more focused on the emergence of “stable peace,” which is similar to a security community and requires much more than rivalry termination. Early on, however, in the movement toward stable peace, a rivalry can de-escalate if decisionmakers choose to reduce the number of adversaries in order to focus on the greatest threat(s). Accommodation can be offered via concessions and, if accepted, the rivalry should de-escalate. If both sides continue to accommodate their earlier adversary, the rivalry can go away altogether.

Model 11

The Mani (2011) model is geared strongly toward political systems moving from autocracy to some degree of democracy. If the earlier authoritarian context is viewed as costly (a synonym for failure), democratizers may seek to minimize the political salience of the military by first pacifying the external environment, thereby reducing the defensive value of the military. In this strategy, securing greater cooperation with a rival can create political space for domestic policies and consolidation of the democratic system. So, the higher the costs, the more likely it is that democratizers will seek to compromise with the rival. The weaker important veto players are, the greater is the probability that conflict with the rival can be de-escalated consistently. More generally, though, it is the combination of the costliness of the preceding authoritarian and the strength of the veto players that is expected to channel democratizing strategies. Either low or high regime costs paired with empowered veto players should lead to inconsistent interaction with the rival. Low or high regime costs with weakened veto players should lead to consistent rivalry interaction (low costs lead to confrontation and high costs lead to compromise).

Model 12

Owsiak and Rider (2013) contend that rivalries are often about disputed borders. Resolving the border boundaries should lead to less conflict and a termination of such rivalries. How exactly that can be achieved is left fairly open-ended in this model framed around overcoming commitment problems. Only two mechanisms are suggested. One is that proximity tends to lead to the likelihood of cooperation on something and, once such cooperation occurs, it may be expanded to other issues. The second mechanism involves third-party actors playing some type of facilitative role. Thus, through repeated interactions and the assistance of external actors, disputants can overcome their differences eventually.8

Model 13

Darnton (2014) argues that the major obstacle to rivalry de-escalation is found in state agencies, especially the military, with a vested interest in maintaining the rivalry. Two things are necessary to overcome their veto powers. If ending a rivalry means that the state agency no longer would have a mission, an alternative mission that is acceptable to the agency needs to be found. But that alone will not suffice. Major resource constraints are also needed to convince the state agency that some change in the status quo cannot be avoided.

Deconstructing the Models

As many as 24 elements or subarguments can be found in these 13 models.9 Almost half (10 or 43%) are “stand-alones” in the sense that they appear in only one model. Clearly, the degree of overlap across the models is not great. However, some of the questions overlap. For example, policy failures (number 21) could also serve as shocks (number 1), as could concentrated conflict (number 20). Number 5 (minimal incompatibilities) is similar but not identical to number 19 (are perceived incompatibilities changing?). Perhaps most interesting, there are four that emphasize some type of perceptual shift as part of their element sets (numbers 11 [counterproductivity assertions], 16 [changes in expectations about capabilities or threats], 18 [pessimism], and 19 [perceptual changes about incompatibilities]). None of these four elements are the same, but they do overlap in terms of requiring decisionmakers to change their minds about something related to the rival. Either the rival is seen as less threatening or one’s own side is less able to cope with the threat. Still, no two of the models are exactly alike, and they generate a plethora of moving parts.

Model Elements

  1. 1. Have shocks (internal or external) impacted on policy inertia? [Rock, 1989; Diehl & Goertz, 2000; Bennett, 1996, 1997a, 1997b, 1998; Rasler, 2001a, 2001b; Thompson, 2001b]

  2. 2. Is a new threat emerging? [Rock, 1989; Lebow, 1997; Bennett, 1996, 1997a, 1997b, 1998; Kupchan, 2010]

  3. 3. Are economic incentives for de-escalation salient? [Rock, 1989]

  4. 4. Are one or both sides acting to evade the outbreak of civil war? [Rock, 1989]

  5. 5. Are incompatibilities considered minimal? [Rock, 1989]

  6. 6. Do one or both sides have incentives to pacify their external environment? [Rock, 1989; Lebow, 1997]

  7. 7. Is the strategic environment deteriorating significantly? [Armstrong, 1993]

  8. 8. Is one or both sides switching from perceptions of regime non-viability to viability? [Armstrong, 1993]

  9. 9. Does it appear to be feasible to mobilize domestic support for de-escalation? [Lebow, 1997; Orme, 2004]

  10. 10. Is reciprocity from the adversary evident? [Lebow, 1997; Rasler, 2001a, 2001b; Thompson, 2001b; Cox, 2010; Kupchan, 2010]

  11. 11. Have one or both sides explicitly recognized the counterproductivity of the past? [Lebow, 1997]

  12. 12. Are there centrally placed policy entrepreneurs who are committed to de-escalation at work? [Lebow, 1997; Rasler, 2001a, 2001b; Thompson, 2001b]

  13. 13. Is there a change in leadership? [Bennett, 1996, 1997a, 1997b, 1998]

  14. 14. Is one or both sides entering into a democratizing situation from a former autocratic situation (Bennett, 1996, 1997a, 1997b, 1998) and/or with high regime costs? [Mani, 2011]

  15. 15. Are third parties encouraging de-escalation? [Rasler, 2001a, 2001b; Thompson, 2001b; Owsiak & Rider, 2013]

  16. 16. Have one or both sides changed their expectations about their own or their adversary’s threat or competitiveness? [Rasler, 2001a, 2001b; Thompson, 2001b; Orme, 2004]

  17. 17. Is there a problem with reinforcing de-escalation? [Rasler, 2001a, 2001b; Thompson, 2001b; Kupchan, 2010]

  18. 18. Have one or both sides become pessimistic about their competitive capabilities? [Maoz & Mor, 2002; Orme, 2004]

  19. 19. Have one or both sides changed their perceptions about their incompatibility with the adversary? [Maoz & Mor, 2002]

  20. 20. Have both sides engaged in concentrated conflict with one another? [Morey, 2009, 2011]

  21. 21. Are domestic and/or foreign policy failures salient? [Cox, 2010]

  22. 22. Are hawk–dove dynamics evident? [Cox, 2010]

  23. 23. Are important veto players weakened significantly? [Mani, 2011]

  24. 24. Are state agency veto players persuaded to accept alternative missions in the context of major resource constraints? [Darnton, 2014]

Table 1 takes this deconstruction a bit further and displays chronologically the appearance of each constituent model part by author. At the risk of using too much imagination, were Table 1 to be viewed as a scatterplot, the trend line is clearly negative. Each author implicitly rejects the value of earlier models to construct something new and different. One gets the impressions that rivalry termination must be quite elusive and complex. Why else would we need so many different models emphasizing so many different factors?10

Table 1. Constituent Model Parts by Author and Publication Date




















New Threat





Economic Incentives




Civil War Evasion


Minimal Incompatibilities


Peace Incentives



Strategic Deterioration


Viability Improvement


Domestic Support







Counter-productivity Recognition


Policy Entrepreneurs



Change in Leadership


Democratizing Regime(s)



Third Party Pressure



Change in Expectations









Perceptual Change


Concentrated Conflict


Policy Failure


Hawk–Dove Dynamics


Weakened Veto Player


Veto Player Vested Interest


Notes: An x in parentheses signifies that the author acknowledges the possible significance of the factor but regards it as a weaker effect than factors not enclosed by parentheses.

R = Rock (1989); A = Armstrong (1993); GD = Goertz and Diehl (1995); L = Lebow (1997); B = Bennett (1996, 1997a, 1997b, 1998; RT = Rasler (2001a, 2001b) and Thompson (2001b); MM = Maoz and Mor (2002); O = Orme (2004); M1 = Morey (2009, 2011; C = Cox (2010); K = Kupchan (2010); M2 = Mani (2011); OR = Owsiak and Rider (2013); D = Darnton (2014).

It should be stated at the outset that there is one obvious justification for multiple models. Rivalries can work differently in different regions. Therefore, accounting for how rivalries end in one part of the world might draw attention to different variables than in other parts of the world. For example, asymmetrical rivalries in South and Southeast Asia depended in part on third-party support. Soviet support for Vietnam against China is a good example. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the Vietnamese were compelled to reconsider the wisdom of maintaining a rivalry with China. Prudence won out. The point to be made in this context, however, is that asymmetrical rivalries are less common outside Asia. A model that emphasized third-party support in asymmetrical situations might be useful in Asia but not in Latin America. Alternatively, explanations of Latin American rivalry terminations often seem to focus on processes that are less likely to be found in the Middle East or sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet that leaves us in the uncomfortable situation of falling back on proper names as explanatory factors. Regional politics are not the same throughout the world, but that does not give us license to dismiss differences encountered as “Latin American” or “Asian” phenomena. One of the purposes of a general model is to offer a path to evading explanations that attempt to generalize what is sometimes localized behavior.

Another perfectly legitimate reason for disagreement is that analysts prefer to give different variables explanatory prominence.11 But few of these models explicitly consider rival hypotheses at the time of their presentation. Hence it is difficult to tell whether analyst A disagrees with analyst B’s model or is simply has not considered the explanatory value of analyst B’s model. A general model should force analysts to pick and choose explanatory ingredients explicitly while rejecting other elements that appear to be less useful.

Still another possibility is that rivalry termination models tend to be accompanied by illustrative cases. Armstrong’s (1993) analysis, for instance, is strongly attached to the conflict of West and East Germany. Kupchan (2010) emphasizes the British-American rivalry. Mani (2011) is very much interested in changes in the Argentine-Brazil-Chile cases in the 1980s and early 1990s. Another reason we have so many models is the tendency to construct models that correspond closely to the cases in which we are most interested or invested. Rather than many general models, we may have some models that are less general than others. Alternatively, it could also be that the variation among rivalry termination processes is so great that no single model could hope to encompass the different ways rivalries end. Thus, we could need a family of models in which different models represent certain categories of rivalry termination. This type of methodological problem might also be handled by a single model with multiple paths to termination—an issue to which we will return.12

Attempts at reconciliation in long-running rivalries sometimes emerge abruptly with no warning. At other times, decisionmakers appear to be more open to cooperation because they are frightened by the alternative of warfare breaking out. They can reflect very genuine motivations on the part of leading decision-makers to “bury hatchets,” but they can also represent tactical shifts responding to short-term vicissitudes. It is also not unknown for one part of a government to be promoting peace while another part of the same government or the political opposition does whatever it can to sabotage cooperative processes. All in all, these characteristics make efforts to de-escalate the most persistent rivalries highly uneven and perhaps even unlikely to succeed. But that is one of the reasons why we are focusing on them—as opposed to a more conventional and straightforward comparison of rivalries that have terminated and those that have not. We are asking what the ingredients are that encourage these efforts to take place and what discourages them from achieving full conflict resolution. In addition, we are asking if it is possible to reduce the number of models in play by developing a more general model of rivalry de-escalation/termination.

How does this generic model apply to the 24 elements? Each one can be slotted into one of the categories but the following illustration should suffice. Within the catalyst/shock category, peace/economic incentives, shocks, new threats, concentrated conflict, and policy failures can be fit. Any or all of these environmental changes can work to stimulate some re-evaluation of the value of keeping a rivalry going. It has already been noted that perceptual shifts could encompass counterproductivity admissions, change in expectations about threats or capabilities, pessimism, and perceptual changes about incompatibilities. Possible facilitators of de-escalations are new leaders, third-party pressures, policy entrepreneurs, weakened veto players, hawk–dove dynamics, and democratization processes. Domestic support, which can be positive or negative, includes hawk–dove dynamics, the likelihood of popular support for rivalry de-escalation, and veto players. In other words, we think all of the distinctiveness of each of the models can be fit into one general model, thereby allowing for variations in different parts of the world and different time periods. Another advantage of the generic model is that it allows for and even underlines the possibility that de-escalation efforts are often only tactical and lack the foundation of genuine shifts in how the adversary is perceived.

These amendments lead to a revision of the original theory underlying the four necessary variables and sketched in Figure 1 (the amendments are in boldface):

  1. 1. To tip expectations (and thus strategy and behavior) from one established routine to another requires fundamental alterations in expectations.

  2. 2. The propensity to alter expectations can be encouraged by realizations that a rivalry situation is highly counterproductive, intense pessimism about the likely trajectory of the rivalry relationships, or changes in the contested issues at the root of the rivalry (incompatibility changes).

  3. 3. In turn, fundamental alterations are made more probably by major shocks that force actors to re-evaluate the accuracy and appropriateness of their existing expectations and associated strategies.

  4. 4. Shocks that decrease perceived threat or the actor’s own capabilities are likely to lead to re-evaluation and de-escalation/termination. Shocks that increase perceived threat or the actor’s own capabilities are likely to reinforce expectations and lead to intensified rivalry.

  5. 5. Shocks can also take the form of new threats, concentrated conflict, or policy failures. The effects of shocks can also be augmented by initiatives to establish more peaceful environments and/or better environments for economic growth.

  6. 6. The more entrenched the expectations are or the greater the strategic inertia is, the greater or the more multiple are the shocks needed to influence expectations.

  7. 7. Shocks must be interpreted. As a consequence, a shock alone is not likely to be sufficient for expectational revisions unless the outcome of the shock completely eliminates the competitive ability of one or more adversaries.

  8. 8. New leaders, especially ones committed to developing support for new policies, may also be committed to changing external relationships and to facilitating attempts at rapprochement. To be most effective, the leadership changes must also remove or neutralize sufficiently opposition by governmental and domestic elites to revisions in expectations, strategy, and behavior. That is, they must achieve consolidation to be effective.

  9. 9. Third-party pressures may be facilitative but are unlikely to be either sufficient or necessary.

  10. 10. A further necessary ingredient in the revision process is the adversary’s reciprocation at some level for any initial concessions made as part of an overture toward strategic and behavioral revisions.

  11. 11. A variety of factors, in addition to new leaders, policy entrepreneurs, and third-party pressures, are conceivable (weakened veto players, hawk–dove dynamics, progress made in democratization processes, the development of alternative military missions). Facilitators, however, are neither necessary nor sufficient in bringing about rivalry de-escalation and termination. Facilitators facilitate by increasing the likelihood of reciprocal behavior in response to positive signals from the adversary.

  12. 12. Consistent reinforcement of expectational revisions is necessary to prevent lapses back to the previous relationships still favored by historical conditioning. Elite (veto players/hawk–dove dynamics) and mass levels of domestic support for maintaining or de-escalating the rivalry can play a significant role, either negative or positive, in whether consistent reinforcement of expectational revisions is forthcoming.

Constructing a General Model Accounting for Interstate Rivalry Termination

Figure 1. Schematic sketch for four sets of amendments vis-à-vis the original core argument.

In other words, generalizing the original shocks-expectations-reciprocity-reinforcement model by incorporating features promoted in alternative models leads to further elaboration of the initial model. It retains its fundamental form. Yet it is capable of building bridges to other emphases. Sometimes, the “other emphases” highlight factors overlooked by the parsimony of the initial model. In other cases, features of other models are subordinated to the central message of the initial model. Regardless, the outcome represents a richer, less parsimonious model that retains, nonetheless, its theoretical integrity. At the same time, it suggests quite strongly that we do not really need 14 different models of rivalry termination. What is being emphasized in these various models is not really so dissimilar. Most or all of the main features of the many models can be integrated into one coherent statement.

It would be naïve to expect that anyone can wave a magic wand and pronounce the disagreements among the models resolved by this type of analytical intervention. All that has been demonstrated is that it is theoretically possible to weave the 14 models into a more compatible system of generalizations about the phenomenon at hand. Whether analysts find the integration useful or not remains to be seen. That will require further testing of the elaborated model.13 No single case study is likely to resolve the issues at stake. In the last section of this article, however, I turn to an illustration of how the elaborated model might be applied to a single case.

An Illustration; The Anglo-American Rivalry

The Anglo–American rivalry offers a good example for applying the generic model. This antagonism involved one state (Britain) that was the most preeminent state in the system for much of its duration. The other state (the United States) began as a breakaway province from the British Empire, became an economically dependent producer of cotton for British textile mills for half a century, and then segued into ultimately replacing Britain as the most preeminent state in the system in the second half of the 20th century. The two states are thus hardly marginal cases in the annals of world politics. Why they did not fight over succession to global leadership is one of the puzzles that analysts contemplate when reviewing prospects for a third world war. The rivalry is interesting in other ways as well. It was asymmetrical in capabilities, pitting the most advanced industrial state against a lesser developed state, that managed to transform its economic status completely. The rivalry involved a contest over predominance in a large region lasting about a century in which the more powerful state sought to contain the expansion of the weaker party and failed. Eventually, the once more powerful state simply capitulated and conceded predominance in North America to the once weaker state peacefully. Nonetheless, the rivalry persisted for quite some time. It began in the late 18th century and endured into the early 20th century. In other words, this rivalry encompasses a fairly big story in world politics. It is not a marginal case. It has also been analyzed by a number of historians and political scientist and, moreover, is an important case in 2 of the 14 studies (Kupchan, 2010; Rock, 1989) dissected in Table 1. Nor is there any dispute about its termination.14

The two states fought two wars (War of the American Revolution and the War of 1812) and suffered through as many as 10 crises that might have ended in more warfare, including a possible British intervention in the American Civil War. The basic issue was which of the two states would be predominant in North America—the fledgling 13 colonies that would be expanding toward the Pacific Ocean or Britain based in Canada. Britain sought to contain U.S. territorial expansion, which meant that boundaries along the northern border became points of friction. Along the southern border, Britain considered annexing Texas before the United States did. The American Civil War marked something of an initial turning point. Its conclusion with a clear victory for the industrializing North suggested to British decisionmakers that regional containment was unlikely to be successful. Britain retained its predominance at sea while conceding the U.S. advantage on land. Canadian boundary questions became less tense as a consequence, especially since the United States no longer seemed interested in territorial expansion to the north. Frictions were not eliminated, but they were substantially reduced in much of the last third of the 19th century.

The larger context in which the rivalry was being played out changed in the last decade of the century. The last crisis between the two antagonists broke out in 1895 over U.S. intervention in a British–Venezuelan boundary dispute in South America. Ironically, the U.S. intervention was justified in terms of the Monroe Doctrine—a policy that had depended heavily on British naval support in earlier decades. It reflected a newly emerging industrial power in North America no longer dependent on selling cotton to British textile manufacturers. This rising power had begun to construct a blue water naval fleet after a century of avoiding such an undertaking lest it encourage a British preventive attack. Britain discovered that its 1895 naval position in the Caribbean was no longer favorable. British decisionmakers were also beginning to perceive increasing threats around the globe. If they could not hope to take on all comers, the rational course of action was to begin eliminating some of the threats so that Britain could focus more intensely on the most acute threats.

Over the next 12 years, Britain chose to end or reduce its rivalries with the United States, France, and Russia to better focus on its rivalry with Germany. It began this process in the Venezuelan boundary dispute by agreeing to the arbitration demanded by the United States. Britain not only agreed to arbitration, it also accepted the Monroe Doctrine justification. The United States reciprocated with a more nuanced arbitration scheme, did not blink when the arbitration worked out in the British favor, and also agreed to arbitration over an ongoing dispute for British claims for damages involving shipping in the Bering Sea. A sequence of continued cooperation ensued. At the turn of the century, Britain sided with the United States in its invasion of Cuba and seizure of the Philippines. The United States officially backed the British suppression of the Boer Revolt. U.S. efforts to construct the Panama Canal in spite of an 1850 agreement with Britain not to do so was accepted by Britain in 1901. The next year the discovery of gold in Alaska led to another Canadian boundary dispute, which was quickly sent to arbitration. Active U.S. support for the British “Open Door” approach to China was also appreciated.

Britain sent all of the right signals that it was prepared to settle its differences with the United States. It had more than conceded U.S. hegemony in North America. It also encouraged the United States’ expansion outside the continent as an enterprise likely to be beneficial to British policies. To sell this about-face, Britain made a series of concessions in several disputes. The United States, for its part, recognized British conciliatory signals and responded in kind. There was nothing inevitable about any of these activities. British decisionmakers might have concluded (correctly as it turned out) that it was the United States and not Germany that was its greatest positional threat. Or they might have dithered in North America while focusing their attentions to other crises elsewhere around the globe—a factor that had diverted U.S.–British crises throughout the 19th century. Instead, they chose to try de-escalating the long-running antagonism with the United States and succeeded with the cooperation of the U.S. government.

How then should the generic model be applied to this case? The termination process began with a combination of shock and new threats. The shock was the renewed threat of an Anglo–American war over the boundary of British Guiana in South America after more than a generation of limited tensions between the two states. Yet Britain’s strategic problems had also changed markedly toward the end of the 19th century. British decision-makers agreed that they could not take on all of the great powers by themselves. They needed to reduce the number of threats with which they were confronted throughout the world. Japan was a rising power in East Asia. Russia threatened the British Empire from Central Asia. Germany appeared to be making new demands from Samoa to Africa. France still wanted to contest African holdings until Fashoda. Now the United States was emerging as a possible problem in the Americas. What to do?

The British chose essentially to concede and to acknowledge the rise of U.S. capability. They signaled that they recognized U.S. strength and that they were no longer prepared to resist its expansion. That had not been the case since 1775, and it addressed the fundamental fear of U.S. decisionmakers throughout the 19th century that Britain might invade and, metaphorically speaking, burn down the White House once more. Of course, it helped that by 1895, U.S. decisionmakers were no longer all that fearful of a possible British attack. The United States was no longer a handful of weak colonies huddled along the eastern coast. It was no longer in a dependent economic position. It was an emerging power of considerable potential, and it was being recognized as such by the leading economic power of the 19th century. If Britain was declaring that U.S. expansion was not viewed as threatening, it signified the likelihood that both British and U.S. expectations were changing. The two states were signaling that they no longer viewed each other as threatening despite the changing relative capabilities of the two parties. They proceeded to signal further that the historical incompatibilities that had characterized their relationship since 1775 were dissolving or could be successfully negotiated.

The British sent remarkably clear signals of their intentions and preferences. The United States quickly reciprocated. The British might have been more reluctant to show their hand so readily. Nor is reciprocation a foregone conclusion in these types of negotiations. The United States might have misread the British signals or simply ignored them and adopted an even more militant stance in the 1895 crisis. That it did not opened up the possibility of a continuing sequence of further concessions and conciliatory moves. That is, the initial reciprocity was reinforced by more cooperative activities. Throughout this process, no additional facilitators appear to be prominent. There were no third-party pressures, policy entrepreneurs, or weakened veto players. Domestic support does not seem to have been critical either. American public opinion was not clamoring for reconciliation with Britain. There were certainly hawks, doves, and veto players, but they did not adopt the de-escalation process as a political football. There were, however, continuing incentives on both sides to see the de-escalation process proceed to its end. As a consequence, the Anglo-American rivalry had been terminated fully by 1903 or 1904, as evidenced by statements made by British and U.S. decisionmakers about the impossibility of war between the two states.

As demonstrated in this application, it seems unlikely that all of the factors displayed in Figure 1 would ever be found applicable in a single case. Two things are important to stress. One is that the core processes (shock-expectations-reciprocity-reinforcement) are found to be operative in negotiated de-escalations. If they are not found in every case, they are less likely to deserve the appellation core processes. Second, it is useful to have “baskets” for the shocks, facilitators, and domestic support that can accommodate the idiosyncracies of various parts of the world in which rivalries tend to play out differently. New threats can convince decisionmakers to reconsider their strategic environment, but they are not absolutely essential. In some places, the military may constitute blocking veto players, while in other places they are not so significant bastions of resistance. Third-party pressures and policy entrepreneurs can make some differences from time to time, but they are not always evident. The generic model affords analytical flexibility—just as it creates further opportunities for theorizing about why some facilitators and not others (or some types of domestic support and not others) are more or less likely to be applicable.

What else might be gained by moving to a more generic model? Quantitative analyses of rivalry de-escalation tend to focus on a single factor at a time. It should be advantageous to know where these single factors fit into a larger picture if, for no other reason, to avoid underspecification. Delineating the 24 elements might also encourage the construction of new datasets that encompass possible termination factors more comprehensively than now exist. Case studies, on the other hand, are often linked to relatively narrow models designed to some extent with the illustrative cases in mind. Do we not really want models that fit only one region or one period of time if it is at all possible to avoid too many explanatory constructs. A more general model that allows for the substitution of different phenomena at various points in a process should be preferred over more inflexible constructs. For example, it is possible that one pathway in the generic model would emphasize democratizing situations in which hawk–dove dynamics were pivotal in some types of cases. Another might find that major policy failures led to strategic recalculations. All of these different pathways could be compatible with the general argument. As long as they are compatible, the general or generic argument should stand as an encompassing framework.

A unified model offers universal scope without sacrificing an abstract sense of how the constituent parts fit together. Application of the more general model may also afford opportunities to specify how rivalries work differently in different parts of the world and different periods of time, if in fact they do. Moreover, there should also be some potential for exploring whether an interstate rivalry termination model could also be applied to domestic rivalries, which might be found to work similarly.

When we ask “What is this phenomenon an example of?” our preference is to start with a relatively broad answer that can cover a variety of very specific combinations. The trick is to avoid being too broad, which ends up not saying much, or too narrow, which ends up excluding too much. The 7-variable, generic model appears to be capable of absorbing some of the dynamics of 14 different models without sacrificing a generalized explanation of rivalry de-escalation and termination.15 Ideally it will also preclude the need to develop still more models of rivalry endgames. Yet these are testable propositions. Are the generic factors sufficient? Are there situations that are not addressed by the generic model? Are all of the generic factors necessary, or do we find different outcomes associated with different combinations of the factors? Does the model work better for explaining terminations than it does for temporary de-escalations? A generic model is hardly the end of analysis; it is only a way station along the path to improving our ability to understand why rivalries end.


Twenty-four elements are found in 14 rivalry termination models. The question stands whether we really need so many different constructs to account for rivalry termination. The answer is no if all 14 models can be encompassed within a more generic model utilizing the linkages among catalysts-shocks, expectation changes, facilitators, reciprocity, reinforcement, incentives, and domestic support. More generalizability is desirable, but it need not come at the expense of ignoring the distinctions of different times, places, and circumstances. The generic model, it is contended, is flexible enough to entertain different manifestations of, and weights for, key explanatory ingredients. Its core is the shock-expectations-reciprocity-reinforcement dynamic that carries or kills a de-escalatory spiral. Everything else either sets up the possibilities for a successful reciprocity-reinforcement dynamic or detracts from the probability of it ever taking place or, once initiated, continuing to a successful outcome.

Still, these claims have yet to be fully substantiated. The core model has been found to be very useful in a variety of settings. It seems unlikely that a more elaborated version would fare more poorly, but there is always the possibility of finding kinks in termination dynamics not yet encountered in studying rivalry endgames. More cases need to be examined to be able to assess the utility of the unified model or determine whether a unified model is desirable in the first place.


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(1.) Ripsman (2016) was read only after this article had been submitted.

(2.) As noted by an external reviewer, the emphasis throughout this article is placed on rivalry termination as a process, not an event. It is possible to date the end of a rivalry with some amount of precision, but no rivalry is likely to end on a given day without some considerable pre-event changes taking place.

(3.) The standard industry correction for this problem is that analyses attempt to control for the non-applicability of earlier arguments. However, there are three problems. One is that most rivalry termination analyses are not accompanied by quantitative analyses that might lend themselves readily to introducing variables to control for earlier arguments. Second, quantitative analyses that have been generated have not attempted to control for very many of the factors put forward by earlier authors. The third problem is that quantitative analyses focus on specific dates and duration, which is more appropriate for analyzing rivalry termination as events. If they are best conceived of as terminating as a function of processes, quantitative modeling will not always apply easily.

(4.) Fourteen models today may predict up to 25 or more down the road. There must be something distinctively different about this topic to encourage so much model proliferation.

(5.) Any one of the four paths, of course, may well involve negotiations. The fourth category is one in which termination or significant de-escalation occurs after some negotiation but in the absence of the first three types of circumstances. In general, the approach adopted in this study ignores the specific nature and content of negotiations. This decision is not intended to imply that negotiations and negotiators are irrelevant to the outcome but only to suggest that the theory focuses on the context in which negotiations are most likely to ensue. It also seems fair to acknowledge that it is assumed that negotiations alone are insufficient for rivalry termination—that is, they are unlikely to succeed in the wrong context. That does not imply that negotiations will always succeed in the right context. The expectancy theory relied on in this analysis, then, can be said to focus on the most propitious context for successful negotiations.

(6.) The 10 cases were Egypt–Israel, Syria–Israel, Israel–Palestinians, India–Pakistan, China–USSR, China–United States, China–Taiwan, China–Vietnam, Thailand–Vietnam, and the two Koreas.

(7.) The “consolidated” adjective implies that policy entrepreneurs have to be able to control their own government to some extent, if only to overcome bureaucratic resistance and that this may take some time to accomplish.

(8.) The analyses by Owsiak and Rider are probably the main exception to the observation that these models are generated by authors who then move on to other projects. Owsiak and Rider have developed several articles around the notion that rivalry termination is linked to territorial disputes. Moreover, the underlying theoretical argument is based on the popular bargaining theory of war and commitment, which certainly has received repeated attention as a core argument. Compare Owsiak and Rider (2013; Rider & Owsiak, 2015) and Owsiak, Diehl, and Goertz (2016).

(9.) It is not clear how to make use of one of Owsiak and Rider’s (2013) mechanisms (expanding cooperation), and I therefore exclude it from this analysis. If proximity does imply an increased likelihood of cooperation on something, it would be difficult to operationally trace the expansion of cooperation possibly over decades (unless all interactions between rivals became gradually more cooperative). This approach also seems tantamount to saying that rivalries end when or if disputants become more cooperative over time, which seems too circular for our purposes..

(10.) The simplest hypothesis is that rivalry termination authors do not pay much attention to earlier models. This tendency varies, but, generally, readers will not find much discussion of how a new model varies from previous models.

(11.) These disagreements about which variables deserve priority would also encompass developing different models for different issues at stake in a rivalry contest. For example, some rivalry models focus on territorial disputes exclusively.

(12.) Actually, we already know that one class of rivalry termination occurs when one side wins decisively and coercively, usually in a war. The defeated party is forced to recognize the reality of the situation—and if not recognized, may have little recourse in any event in the sense that the losing side is no longer able to compete with the winning side. Resentments, mistrust, and a sense of threat may persist, but the ability to compete is entirely absent. This situation is starkly different from cases in which decision-makers choose to de-escalate a rivalry (Colaresi, Rasler, & Thompson, 2007) but certainly easier to explain.

(13.) Alternatively, it is possible that the integrated/elaborated model will simply be ignored in favor of introducing entirely new models.

(14.) I adhere closely to the Kupchan (2010) account on purpose, but see as well the interpretations of Gelber (1938); C. S. Campbell (1957, 1974); A. E. Campbell (1960); Bourne (1967); Perkins (1968); Friedberg (1988); Rock (1989); and Thompson (1999).

(15.) Of course, it is impossible and equally undesirable to try to import all of the dynamics of each and every model into a generic statement. That would simply lead to theoretical bedlam. The real question is whether what is dispensed with in the integration process is crucial to explaining rivalry termination. No doubt, this is an area in which disagreement can be anticipated.