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date: 17 October 2017

Summary and Keywords

In the three decades since Jack Levy published his seminal review essay on the topic, there has been a great deal of quantitative research on the proposition that state leaders can use international conflict to enhance their political prospects at home. The findings of this work are frequently described as “mixed” or “inconsistent.” This characterization is superficially correct, but it is also misleading in some important respects. Focusing on two of Levy’s most important concerns about previous research, there has been substantial progress in our understanding of this phenomenon.

First, as Levy suggests in his essay, researchers have elaborated a range of different mechanisms linking domestic political trouble with international conflict rather than a single diversionary argument. Processes creating diversionary incentives bear a family resemblance to one another but can have different behavioral implications. Four of them are (1) in-group/out-group dynamics, (2) agenda setting, (3) leader efforts to demonstrate competence in foreign policy, and (4) efforts to blame foreign leaders or perhaps domestic minorities for problems. In addition, researchers have identified some countervailing mechanisms that may inhibit state leaders’ ability to pursue diversionary strategies, the most important of which is the possibility that potential targets may strategically avoid conflict with leaders likely to behave aggressively.

Second, research has identified scope conditions that limit the applicability of diversionary arguments, another of Levy’s concerns about the research he reviewed. Above all, diversionary uses of military force (though not other diversionary strategies) may be possible for only a narrow range of states. Though very powerful states may pursue such a strategy against a wide range of targets, the leaders of less powerful states may have this option only during fairly serious episodes of interstate hostility, such as rivalries and territorial disputes. A substantial amount of research has focused exclusively on the United States, a country that clearly has the capacity to pursue this strategy. While the findings of this work cannot be generalized to many other states, they have revealed some important nuances in the processes that create diversionary incentives. The extent to which these incentives hinge on highly specific political and institutional characteristics point to the difficulty of applying realistic diversionary arguments to a large sample of states. Research on smaller, more homogenous samples or individual states is more promising, even though it will not produce an answer to the broad question of how prevalent diversionary behavior is. As with many broad questions about political phenomena, the only correct answer may be “it depends.” Diversionary foreign policy happens, but not in the same way in every instance and not in every state in the international system.

Keywords: foreign policy, use of force, international conflict, diversionary hypothesis, strategic conflict avoidance, quantitative research, empirical international relations theory

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