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(Un)balancing power: What happens when states can pursue or shed military strength?

(Un)balancing Power: What Happens When States Can Pursue Or Shed Military Strength?

War is the ultimate “or else” in international relations. Beliefs about what will happen if states fight to the finish shapes the agreements reached in its shadow, their Ability to avoid war, as well as its duration and terms of settlement. Yet in many discussions of the link between Military power and war, the agents in our theories rarely make decisions over just how powerful to be. Some are strong and some weak, some rise and some decline, yet in most cases the ability to threaten and wage war is given exogenously. We’ve learned a lot from models that assume relative power to be fixed, but it’s worth asking what we can gain from a better understanding of how powerful states choose to become. States have significant choices to make over their ability to say “or else” when negotiating with their adversaries, and students of war and peace can learn from engaging (and then expanding) the basic distinction between internal and external sources of military power.

First, military coalitions are an obviously endogenous form of military power. They have a uniquely strong record of military success in interstate war over the past two centuries, and popular (and maybe apocryphal) grumblings about the difficulties of working with friends and allies notwithstanding. War coalitions allow states to purchase extra military power, and the fact that coalition partners dramatically increase the odds of success in observed wars implies that we should perhaps be careful when calculating strictly dyadic distributions of power in theoretical and empirical models of the onset of war. Some apparent power distributions aren’t what they seem when states can build coalitions. This also suggests (to me, at least) that the prospect of changing alignments might represent a class of shifts in the distribution of power that are consciously chosen by states—and that might prompt their adversaries into Preventive War.

Second, the production of a state’s own military power is a domestic-political issue. The record of war finance since 1950 shows that, while democracies cut nonmilitary spending less than dictatorships, the two regime types don’t appear terribly different in their resources to taxation, debt, or inflationary policies. How states can be expected to pay for their wars is undoubtedly key to others’ estimates of their ability to sustain a lengthy fight. This logic also figures into decisions over preventive war, such as Japan’s decision to attack Russia in 1904. Also notable, however, is the importance of another Russian choice over how much power to develop in the region: the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which allows it to project power across Manchuria and into Korea. This helped prompt a preventive war, but it also raises another puzzle: why do some states choose to become more powerful in such a public way, when doing so risks a preventive war? Streich and Levy’s answer relies on asymmetric information, but we can imagine that competing incentives from domestic opponents pose a fatal dilemma for national leaders in cases like this.

 States have significant choices to make over their ability to say “or else” when negotiating with their adversaries.

Finally, the American rise to global preeminence addresses the question of why the United States adopted the grand strategy of a European great power after the Second World War, but not the First. Preponderance was a feasible goal in 1919, with millions of American troops on the ground in Europe and a tremendous amount of financial leverage over the victorious Entente, for the United States to enter the global fray, and yet it would wait a generation before engaging in more traditional great power politics. Thompson finds the answer in the application of a model of policy change, but there is also an implicit idea that when some countries make choices over how much power to acquire (or to shed), they have a greater impact than others. Further, these decisions are endogenous to the strategic environment, and that’s not trivial. The United States didn’t gain as much in a relative sense after WWI as after WWII, but it still could have embraced a more active role in shaping the European balance of power that Nazi Germany would go on to try to unhinge twenty years later.

The cited research answers important questions about interstate war, and they identify facts that create new puzzles—e.g., why aren’t democracies using their wartime credit advantage? But the common vocabulary in terms of states choosing how much power to acquire, shed, or wield, relates to other major lines of inquiry. How do expectations about war finance influence the outbreak of war? How does the ability to build a coalition influence the escalation of crises to war in the first place? Why do some states engage in public attempts to increase their military power that should, ostensibly, carry a risk of preventive war? Finally, how does one state’s decision to exploit its potential rise to great power status, or to walk away from the commitments it entails, affect the broader currents of great power politics? These questions emerge in different forms throughout the literature on power and war, and offer new ways of thinking about them that should be a boon to researchers working on a wide range of questions.

Featured image credit: military men departing service by skeeze. Public domain via Pixabay.

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(Un)balancing power: What happens when states can pursue or shed military strength?


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