Foreign Targets and Diversionary Conflict

States fight wars. Why? Domestic unrest has been regarded as one of the causes of interstate war.1 Many journalists as well as scholars often shed light on domestic troubles in their attempts to explain why political leaders choose military aggression. According to their view, leaders with domestic vulnerability tend to initiate interstate conflicts in order to divert public attention to foreign affairs and to call for domestic support for their leadership. This diversionary war theory has gained support from inductive (case studies) and deductive studies (formal modeling). On the one hand, some international relations (IR) scholars have shown, by analyzing individual historical cases such as the Falklands/Malvinas War and World War I, that political leaders' decisions for using military force against other states are driven by personal rather than national interests.2 When faced with domestic challenges to their political leadership, struggling leaders have initiated international conflict, demanded domestic strong support for “national” survival and interests, and stigmatized their political opponents as anti-patriotic. On the other, some scholars have developed an agent-principal analytic framework in which an unpopular leader is expected to initiate a foreign conflict in order to demonstrate his/her competence to a domestic audience and increase the probability of staying in power. (Richards, Morgan, Wilson, Schwebach, and Young 1993; Tarar 2006).3 Diversionary action is a rational decision made by domestically vulnerable leaders whose primary concern is for personal political survival.

However, this diversionary war theory has faced a challenge from statistical analyses for a large number of cases (Rummel 1963; Tanter1966; Ostrom and Job 1986; Meernik 2004).4 Although IR scholars could prove and show how diversionary incentives contributed to the onset of interstate conflicts in formal modeling and descriptive case studies, the quantitative evidence for the correlation between domestic unrest and interstate conflict was not strong enough to support the diversionary war theory. This gap between theory and evidence, and between anecdotal studies and large-N studies, has led some scholars to seek some condition—such as regime type—under which domestic unrest causes interstate conflict. One good example is the absence of democratic diversion. Some have argued that democracies are more likely than nondemocracies to initiate diversionary conflict, because democratic leaders cannot rely on the repression authoritarian leaders often use and because they are more vulnerable to overt domestic dissatisfaction (Gelpi 1997; Kisangani and Pickering 2009). By contrast, others insist that democratic leaders are not able to initiate a diversionary conflict even if they are willing to do so. Democratic leaders, they say, cannot hide their hostile intention due to transparency of decision making; furthermore, their potential targets may make strategic moves in order to avoid being a target in international conflict (Smith 1996; Leeds and Davis 1997; Clark 2003). ...

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