Writing Armageddon

Writing Armageddon
Furious writing or writing furiously?

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Last Post of 2015: Hardliners, Accommodationists, and the Steps to War framework.

First, let me give thanks to all who have followed the initiation of this blog. The goal of Stohasmoi is to provide newly minted academics in international relations, and especially the peace science tradition, with a place to present some thoughts on the scientific study of international relations. It is also a place for them to provide running commentary for current events, or ideas relevant to political science as a discipline and politics as a living practice. 2016 shall bring more contributors, a more diverse set of contributors, and more posts.

In this post, my last for 2016, I would like to talk a bıt about how the Steps to War framework combines two venerable explanatory stories of war in an interesting way and raises the possibility of a labor intensive but fascinating project. The Steps to War Framework for the study of the causes of war was developed by John Vasquez and the late Paul Senese, and enriched and evaluated by Douglas Gibler, Brandon Valeriano,  Michael Colaresi and William Thompson, Susan Sample,  and others. The modular character of the framework has permitted the consilience of work on specific steps (territorial issues, rivalry, alliances, military disputes, and mutual military buildups) with work on domestic factors that influence and are influences by war (public attitudes to torture, regime type).

At its heart the Steps to War combines two explanatory stories for the causes of war. The conflict spiral model, in which war is essentially driven by the actions and reactions states take in order to increase their security (security dilemma) , and stories focusing on the domestic balance between hardliners and accommodationists in government. The clearest and most sophisticated version of this story is the Selectorate theory. In this case the decision of leaders and elites in government to go to war is driven by the need to satisfy important constituents. These connections have not been fully expressed in the literature on the Steps to War, nor fully evaluated empirically, but they lie under the main themes. The idea that actions count in explaining war, the continuous focus on the balance between those who wish for war and those who wish for peace inside decision making bodies, and the interrelation between these two factors are central to the explanatory story that underpins Steps to War. War thus happens because political elites take actions that increase the power and influence of hardliners in governments, until the point at which they dominate and go to war.

The avoidance of naïve tautology comes primarily from Vasquez’s argument that doves that follow the “si vi pacem, para bellum” dictum of the real-politic culture (if you want peace prepare for war) essentially delude themselves. The policies they support are more likely to lead to a violent reaction, which will act as proof of the legitimacy of the war party position. Doves will either become marginalized in the decision making, or transform to hawks. Thus the second prong of the Steps to War Framework, is that governments that wished for peace by following the dictums of the thousand year real-politic culture open up the political space for those that wish to war. This is different to the inadvertent war explanatory story, where pacific governments go to war due to friction. Instead in Steps to War pacific governments start the steps to war. However by the time war happens the war parties in both sides are dominant and selectorate theory dynamics lead the elites in government to go to war. The common end point of both prongs of steps to war is the dominance of war parties. War is always a conscious decision at the final point. But the initial engagement in the Steps to War might not have been.

Steps to war have been given rigorous empirical evaluations, both qualitative and quantitative. However the connection between the steps and the balance between accommodationists and hardliners has not been directly evaluated in a large-n number. In many ways the use of force has been the implicit proxy for changes in that balance. Qualitative designs have the upper hand here, since they permit a richer analysis of dynamics within states (there are examples of application to East Asia, to the 1970s-1980s Vietnam-China crises, the Anglo-Spanish War of Jenkin’s Ear, and post-cold war China). However even those can only give us an immediate picture of the pre-crises periods, not necessarily the long progress of a dispute along the steps to war. An accumulation of case studies though (Steps to War of X) could provide a breakthrough on this.

In cooperation with historians and scholars of comparative politics, peace and conflict scholars or international relations scholars conducting case studies on the steps to war can accumulate information on decision makers, the fluctuations in their position in the decision making process, and their stance towards accommodation or hard line. As such information is accumulated case by case; a dataset of accommodationists and hardliners will result. This data set then can be a basis both for absolute numbers, and for ratios of accommodationists/hard-liners. In turn these can be the dependent variables in large n empirical evaluations. Indeed this could be the elusive continuous measure of war-likelihood that our field has been wrestling with from inception.

Is this feasible? Not as a project conducted by individual scholars working in isolation. It would also be hard to do for some conflicts due to the paucity of sources. But as a concentrated multi-member activity, and for major power wars initially (or maybe sub-regions wars) it would be a laborious, but do-able project.

An indicator of what the end result could look like is the result of one of the activities I had the Master’s student at Georgia Southern University do for my class on Peace and War Studies. Using the books “The Sleepwalkers” and “Thirteen Days” I had each student locate the position of key decision makers as accommodationists or hard-liners in the 1890-1914 period for each of Germany, France, Russia and Austria-Hungary.  I need to stress that this was not a rigorous exercise but more a proof of concepts. The results in absolute number of hardliners and accommodationists in the 1890-1914 period can be seen in the following illustration.


What we can see is that as time passes the number of decision makers increases until the period of the immediate crisis 1912-1914. In that period the number of war-party members remains stable, but there is a sharp decrease in members of the peace parties as they are either shut out of the decision making process, or become war-party members. By 1914 those willing to fight a war clearly dominate the decision making process. It is not a wonder that war came in 1914.

This process, in a more sophisticated form, could be conducted for multiple war cases, and cases were war did not happen. The accumulated information would constitute of dataset of the sinews of war and peace in the history of international relations.

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