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Image Theory and the Initiation of Strategic Rivalries

Summary and Keywords

The assessment of an opponent as a strategic rival is analytically equivalent to evaluating its strategic image. The central decision-makers of states reevaluate the image of other regional states and the great powers of the system in response to strategic shocks, as they have an impact on interstate interaction capacity. Interaction capacity in the international system can be affected by three types of changes—military, political, and economic. A strategic rivalry is a process that initiates when the central decision-makers of at least one state in a dyad ascribe the image of an enemy to the other as a consequence of such shocks. It is important to empirically demonstrate the ascription of these images through a cognitive process because strategic rivalries are a function of decision-maker perceptions by definition. Four types of enemy images are identified here—expansionist states, which are territorially revisionist; hegemonic states, which circumscribe a given state’s foreign policy choices; imperial states, which intervene in a given state’s domestic affairs in addition to being hegemonic; and peer-competitors, who pose latent and/or long-term threats. Once formed, these images are sustained over long periods of time and change only slowly in response to additional strategic shocks. These images also inform the strategy that a given state pursues toward its rival.

Keywords: strategic rivalry, rivalry onset, strategic image, strategic shock, expansionist state, hegemonic state, imperial state, peer state, empirical international relations theory


The dyadic approach to the study of warfare has demonstrated that strategic rivals have been involved in a disproportionate number of wars and conflicts over the past two centuries. Indeed, strategic rivals have fought 77.3% of all interstate wars since 1816, 87.2% of all interstate wars in the 20th century, and 91.3% of the interstate wars in the post-1945 era (Colaresi, Rasler, & Thompson, 2007, p. 21). In sharp contrast to the dominant approaches to international relations, which implicitly assume that any two states in the international system have an equal propensity to go to war,1 empirical research has demonstrated that only certain pairs of states are among the most war-prone dyads in the international system, and that they have shown a repeated tendency to engage in such violence. While we know relatively more about some peaceful dyads (e.g., a pair of democratic states is unlikely to fight each other),2 we have only recently begun to understand the dynamics of dyadic interstate rivals. But how do we identify strategic rivals in international relations?

It is demonstrated that assessing the strategic image of another state is analytically equivalent to evaluating whether it is a strategic rival. States reevaluate the images of other powers in the international system in response to strategic shocks (Brecher, 2008). A rivalry initiates only when a state’s central decision-makers ascribe the image of an enemy to another state. Four types of enemy images are identified here: expansionist, hegemonic, imperial, and peer. Once formed, these images are sustained over long periods of time and change only slowly in response to additional strategic shocks. These images also inform the strategy that a state pursues toward its rival.

The remainder of this article is divided into four main sections. The first section discusses the concept of strategic rivals in detail and distinguishes it from the related but distinct ideas of “enduring rivals” and “protracted conflicts.”3 The next section reviews the theories of the origins of enduring rivalries to assess their suitability for explaining the origins of strategic rivalries. Since this is the first theoretical analysis of the initiation of strategic rivalries, the applicabilities of the theories of enduring rivalry initiation are analyzed here to explain the onset of strategic rivalries. The third section uses some of the insights from the literature on the initiation of enduring rivalries to derive a new causal mechanism to account for the origins of strategic rivalries using image theory. The concluding section highlights the implications of this strategic image–based approach to the initiation of strategic rivalries for the broader research on strategic rivalries in international relations.

Strategic Rivalry

For a strategic rivalry to exist, the central decision-makers in one state or both states need to identify their opponent as such. The categorization of an opponent as a strategic rival “is very much a social-psychological process. Actors interpret the intentions of others based on earlier behavior and forecasts about the future behavior of these actors” (Thompson, 2001, p. 561). A strategic rivalry initiates when decision-makers identify their opponent as a competitor, a source of actual or latent threats that has some probability of becoming militarized, and an enemy. All three of these criteria—competition, militarized threat, and enmity—must be present before a dyadic relationship can be identified as a strategic rivalry.

This subjective understanding of rivalry makes some interpretation of perceptions essential to categorizing the opponent as a strategic rival. The literature recommends a number of ways to operationalize the criteria to discern the presence of a strategic rivalry (Colaresi, Rasler, & Thompson, 2007, pp. 21–72). For our purposes, strategic rivals must be independent states as determined by the Gleditsch-Ward database, as it considers some non-European states (such as China) as “independent” earlier than other conventions because of its focus on “practical sovereignty” (Gleditsch & Ward, 1999, pp. 393–413). Furthermore, if two states were not considered rivals prior to the outbreak of a war, they cannot be considered as rivals after a war breaks out unless the rivalry extends beyond the period of military hostility. Finally, unless there is “some explicit kind of significant de-escalation in threat perceptions and hostility,” on the part of a state in a civil war vis-à-vis its rival, the rivalry is considered as ongoing even if it is somewhat dormant for the duration of the civil war (Colaresi, Rasler, & Thompson, 2007, p. 33). For example, the Anglo-American rivalry continued through the American Civil War and only ended around the beginning of the 20th century (Perkins, 1968).

Importantly, the idea of “strategic rivalry” is conceptually distinct from the related notions of “enduring rivalry” and “protracted conflict.” Enduring rivalry refers to a sustained number of militarized conflicts between two states within a stipulated period of time (Diehl & Goertz, 2000).4 As opposed to the perceptual perspective employed in the identification of strategic rivals, scholars of the enduring rivalry concept use a dispute-density approach. For example, Diehl and Goertz (2000) argue that for an enduring rivalry to exist, the opponents must be involved in six militarized disputes within a 20-year period. Furthermore, an enduring rivalry is said to have ended 10 years after the last militarized dispute. There is a great deal of subjectivity in any such analysis. In a revised data set, they relax the dispute-density criterion somewhat by including all dyads involved in three or more militarized disputes over long stretches of time (40–50 years) as rivals after taking into consideration the multiple issues over which rivals contend. However, this “means that there are no precise beginning or termination dates for each rivalry” and that they “consider the beginning of the first dyadic dispute to be the first behavioral sign that a rivalry exists” (Klein, Goertz, & Diehl, 2006, p. 338). In other words, this revised data set does not precisely define the exact conditions that lead to the initiation of a rivalry (or the initiation of a new round of rivalry involving the same dyad). For example, while the China-Japan enduring rivalry existed from 1873–1958 for Diehl and Goertz (2000), a second round also occurred from 1978–1999 for Klein, Goertz, and Diehl (2006), even as the second round is absent from the original Goertz and Diehl database.5

The limitations of the dispute-density approach—including the problem of endogeneity in their research design—have already been dealt with at length elsewhere (Colaresi, Rasler, & Thompson, 2007, pp. 36–72). It is important to note here that the enduring rivalry approach has little to say about the onset of the first militarized dispute. An enduring rivalry is said to have ensued only after militarized hostilities break out and occur at frequencies subjectively benchmarked by the analysts studying it. The processes leading to the escalation of the contest into a militarized dispute in the first instance are not deemed important in this approach. However, with its emphasis on the perceptions of the decision-makers and the history of foreign relations between the states in question, the strategic rivalry approach argues that rivalries need not begin with a bang or a militarized dispute.

On the other hand, a protracted conflict is believed to be in existence when the dyadic contest involves intense and violent conflict over long stretches of time (Brecher, 2016; Bar-Tal, 2013). While hostility is a constant feature of such interactions, actual violence breaks out only sporadically. Furthermore, protracted conflicts “act as agents for defining the scope of national identity and social solidarity,” and that they can end only by “cooling off” in the long run (Azar, Jureidini, & McLaurin, 1978, pp. 41–60). The Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the most notable example of such a protracted conflict.

While there are a number of points of overlap, a strategic rivalry is a more limited concept than a protracted conflict. For example, strategic rivalries need not involve whole societies or act as processes that define national identities. After all, the 19th-century rivalry between Britain and Qing Empire did not define the British national identity, even as it had a larger impact on the Chinese elite (Wang, 2003). Similarly, unlike a protracted conflict, a strategic rivalry does not necessitate the experience of direct warfare or violence, as illustrated by the Soviet-American rivalry during the Cold War (Larson, 1999, pp. 371–390). As such, strategic rivalry is a subset of protracted conflicts (Colaresi & Thompson, 2002, pp. 263–287).

Existing Explanations of Enduring Rivalry Initiation

There are three different perspectives in the limited extant literature on the onset of enduring rivalries. The first perspective focuses on the issues under contention, while the second and third perspectives emphasize the structural and behavioral dimensions that lead to rivalry initiation, respectively. Since all these works focus on the initiation of enduring rivalries, this section analyzes their applicability for explaining the onset of strategic rivalries.

Territorial Disputes and Rivalry Initiation

Taking an issue-based approach, Vasquez (1993, p. 75) characterizes a rivalry as “a competitive relationship between two actors over an issue” that is highly salient to the both of them. In other words, “the characteristics of the issue under contention” are an important factor affecting “the shape of political contention” for Vasquez (1993, p. 46). However, in a later study, Vasquez and Leskiw (2001, p. 313) conclude that the origin of rivalry “appears to lie in territorial disputes.” Furthermore, they argue that this is particularly true for contiguous states. For Vasquez and Leskiw, territorial disputes are more likely to lead to the initiation of a rivalry between two competing states than disputes over specific policies or disputes over the nature of a state’s regime. While this is an important contribution to the literature on rivalry origins, it remains incomplete.

First, not all instances of territorial disputes between states lead to the initiation of a rivalry. Based on quantitative analysis, Vasquez and Leskiw’s findings are probabilistic, not universal. For example, the ownership of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea is disputed between China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Brunei. However, rivalry is absent between some dyads in this dispute (e.g., China-Malaysia). To be fair, Vasquez and Leskiw argue that territorial disputes are more likely to lead to the formation of rivalries than other types of issues (as opposed to always causing rivalries to form). However, they do not specify why some territorial disputes lead to the onset of rivalries while others do not. Although Vasquez argues that territorial disputes between “equal” dyads are more likely to result in rivalries as “relative equality is a pre-requisite of rivalry . . . because the logic of power or status is fundamentally different from the logic of inequality,” we are not told how this notion of equality works in practice (Vasquez, 1996, p. 533). The history of interstate conflict is replete with highly unequal dyads, such as the U.S.-Japan rivalry in the first half of the 20th century or the more recent Sino-Vietnamese rivalry.

Second, not all territorial issues are alike. In fact, religiously salient territory under dispute is unlikely to be easily resolved (Hassner, 2003, pp. 1–33). It has been further argued that territorial disputes that involve ethnic irredentism or national unification are more likely to escalate to high levels of diplomatic and military conflict in the post-1950 period than issues involving strategically salient or economically valuable territory (Huth, 1998). It is quite likely that different types of territorial issues have (or had) different propensities to give rise to rivalries in different periods of history. However, this issue is not explored further by Vasquez and Leskiw.

Finally, it should be noted that there are three main types of issues over which rivalries emerge with territory being the source of only one of these (Colaresi, Rasler, & Thompson, 2007, pp. 78–80). Rivalries that are contests over the exclusive control of territory are known as spatial rivalries. But states also compete for relative status, both in the politico-economic and geopolitical milieux. Such rivalries that are contests at the global, regional, or relational levels are known as positional rivalries. The third type of rivalry known as ideological rivalry is fought over different belief systems—political, economic, or social/societal. Since a rivalry may involve more than one issue, it is important to understand the sequence in which issues were added to a given rivalry dyad. Arguably, a compound rivalry involving more than one issue will be contested more intensely and will be more difficult to terminate than a simple rivalry over a single issue. A focus on territory alone is insufficient to understand rivalry initiation (and evolution).

Structural and Behavioral Perspectives on Rivalry Initiation

The second perspective on rivalry initiation emphasizes the structural factors within which a rivalry emerges. Goertz and Diehl (1995, p. 31) have argued that the beginning (and the termination) of an enduring rivalry is closely related to the timing of a large “political shock,” or a dramatic change in the international/regional system that “alters the processes, relationships, and expectations that drive nation-state interactions.” Political shocks include world wars, territorial changes, changing power balances, civil wars, and national independences for these scholars.

While the identification of these structural conditions is a noteworthy contribution, Goertz and Diehl (1995, p. 38) themselves note that political shocks are merely a modest “necessary condition . . . [but] not a sufficient condition” for rivalry onset. In other words, not every political shock will lead to the creation of a new rivalry. For example, while the political shock of American independence led to the onset its rivalry with Britain (or the former colonial power), Indian independence did not lead to the onset of a rivalry with Britain (the former colonial power). Moreover, Goertz and Diehl do not specify which pair of states will emerge as rivals in the aftermath of certain systemic shocks. After all, Indian and Pakistani independence led to the onset of their mutual rivalry instead of a rivalry with Britain (the former colonial power) (Ganguly, 2001).

Since a purely structural model is unable to fully explain the onset of rivalries, other scholars have tried to combine structural factors with behavioral processes. These scholars focus on the behavior of states in dyadic conflicts in their early confrontations to understand whether or not an enduring rivalry ensues. For example, Valeriano (2013)’s “steps-to-rivalry” model seeks to understand why some repeated militarized interstate disputes are isolated events, why others become protorivalries, while the remaining morph into enduring rivalries. He explains this variation by analyzing the use of power politics—alliances, arms races, and constant use of force—to manage interstate disputes. Other scholars like Stinnett and Diehl (2001, pp. 717–740) analyze behavioral factors such as conflict outcome and conflict severity in the early dyadic confrontations, in addition to structural factors—political shocks, military balance, and geographic contiguity—to explain the formation of enduring rivalries. Similarly, Maoz and Mor (2002) create a game-theoretic framework to explain why certain states choose to change or defend the status quo depending upon their capability to do so. Their model shows how the preferences of the actors and their management of their initial disputes lock them in an enduring rivalry.

This third perspective on rivalry initiation that focuses on the behavior of a pair of states in their early confrontations is not suitable for explaining the onset of strategic rivalries. According to Mor (2003, pp. 29–57), the “role of theory on rivalry origins is to detect the factors responsible for the continued transition from one dispute to another.”. However, this is tantamount to “using conflict to explain conflict” after arbitrarily choosing a threshold dispute-density criteria of x militarized disputes in a given time period (Thompson, 2015, p. 3). Since strategic rivalries can be formed even “in the absence of any militarized disputes,” we are more interested in understanding decision-maker perceptions before the outbreak of the first militarized dispute or war (Colaresi, Rasler, & Thompson, 2007, p. 3). In fact, the escalation of a rivalry to a militarized dispute or war is an empirically distinct issue from the onset of a strategic rivalry in the first place. Given the limitations of theories of enduring rivalry onset, image theory offers a useful mechanism to understand the initiation of strategic rivalries.

Image Theory and the Initiation of Strategic Rivalries

The categorization of a state as a strategic rival is a cognitive process. The analyst’s task is further complicated, as it involves looking for information pertinent to rivalry in the foreign policy histories of the states involved in order to ascertain the perceptions of the key decision-makers. However, unlike alliances, strategic rivalries are seldom formally announced. Moreover, the mere utterance of terms such as rivalry or threat is not enough, for they mean different things to different individuals. In fact, political expediency may require that these terms not be uttered at all. Consequently, we need to derive a set of criteria from the very definition of a strategic rivalry to understand rivalry onset.

We are primarily concerned with the views of a state’s principal decision-makers. Different constituencies within states may have different perceptions of who its rivals are (or should be). “Unless they control the government, constituency views are not considered the same as those of the principal decision-makers” (Colaresi, Rasler, & Thompson, 2007, p. 33). The principal decision-makers of a given state must be empirically identified. This group normally comprises the chief executive and his/her foreign policy leadership.6 The chief executive’s ability to select the small coterie of individuals who advise him or her on foreign and security policy should not be underestimated (even in democracies) (Janis, 1982). The working assumption is that war and preparation for war—enterprises with which rivals are constantly involved—leads to the centralization of the decision-making process. Notably, Tilly (1990, p. 34) considered a “ruler” to represent “the state’s entire decision-making apparatus, thus reducing to a single point a complex, contingent set of social relations”.

Moving along, states (or more precisely, the central decision-makers of states) pay close attention to strategic shocks in the international system (as made clear by Goertz and Diehl’s structural logic, discussed previously). Since these leaders cannot constantly reevaluate other states in the international system, they pay particular attention to strategic shocks, as they have an impact on a state’s physical “interaction capacity” (Buzan & Little, 2000, pp. 90–110). Interaction capacity in the international system can be affected by three types of changes—military, political, and economic. Military interaction capacity is affected by war (and its outcome), and due to changes in a state’s threat environment as a result of developments in military technology, military organization, and the making and breaking of alliances (Levy & Thompson, 2011). Political interaction capacity is a function of changes in a state’s domestic political institutions, as well as the creation of new states in the international system.7 Economic interaction capacity is a function of a state’s domestic economic institutions (including a transformation of the dominant mode of production from agriculture to industry and services), in addition to resource scarcity in the international system (Thompson, 1997, pp. 286–318; Orme, 1997/1998, pp. 138–167). Arguably, changes in military interaction capacity pose a larger and immediate challenge to a given state than changes in political or economic interaction capacity.

A strategic shock represented by changes in the military, political, or economic interaction capacity in the international system leads the central decision-makers of a state to reevaluate the dangers posed by a regional state, the great powers in the system undergoing such transformation, or both. The rationale for this is straightforward—these states have the greatest capacity to physically harm a given state (as most states are only capable of interacting in their immediate neighborhoods or with the great powers of the system).8 At the same time, a state undergoing changes in military, political, or economic interaction capacity will reevaluate its regional neighbors and the great powers of the system, as it will have a differential impact on its ability to interact with these states. A strategic rivalry emerges out of such strategic shocks when the central decision-makers of at least one state identify their opponent as a competitor, as militarily threatening, and as an enemy.


A competition exists between two states when they vie for the same objectives or goals. At the same time, the two states must also have the capabilities to attain the goals in question.9 Both the states in question may independently have come to pursue the same goals, or alternatively, one of the two may have come to desire the given objectives only after finding out that the other state desires those goals. The goals may include tangibles, such as territory or a particular set of domestic institutions (political, economic, or social); or intangibles, such as position at the apex of a system (global, regional, or dyadic). The goals that a state strives for may be determined from its history, geography, the statements of its central leadership, and the state’s foreign policy behavior. Their capabilities need not be equal. However, they must be sufficient to credibly challenge the opponent for the goals under consideration. A state’s capabilities may be discerned from objective indicators of its material power, both economic and military:

Competition = f(Goals, Capabilities)

In other words, competition is a function of goals and capabilities.


First and foremost, threat is a function of power. While offensive realists focus only “on the offensive capabilities of potential rivals, not their intentions,” which are deemed as unknowable, this is problematic (Mearsheimer, 2001, p. 45). If threat is merely a function of material capabilities, then Canada should perceive the United States as a threat (although this is clearly not the case). Consequently, defensive and neoclassical realists have argued that it is important to focus on a state’s motivations (or intentions) too (Rose, 1998, pp. 144–172). For Walt (1987, pp. 25–26), threat is a function of four attributes: aggregate material power, geographic proximity, offensive capabilities, and intentions. While the first three material attributes can be easily measured, assessing a state’s intentions is tricky, and unfortunately Walt does not discuss how this should be done. Although some scholars like Kydd (1997, pp. 114–155) and Edelstein (2000) focus on a state’s domestic institutions and the behavioral signals that it issues to discern its intentions, these approaches do not use cognitive or psychological processes in assessing threats.

Since strategic rivalries are a function of decision-maker perceptions by definition, we need to understand threat assessment through psychological processes. According to Jervis (1976) and Stein (1993), the way that decision-makers process information affects their threat perception. Political psychology is “as much about accurate judgments as inaccurate judgments” (Mercer, 2005, p. 99). We are not directly concerned with whether these perceptions are accurate. Instead, we are more concerned with how the decision-makers actually perceived the intentions of the potential rival. Irrespective of whether they are accurate, the assumption here is that these perceptions influence the strategy that the decision-makers pursue toward the state in question.

There are both cognitive (or unmotivated) and affective (or motivated) factors involved in the decision-making process. The cognitive factors include the processes that all humans use to simplify and understand the world around them. Human beings are hardwired to process information using cognitive schemata, scripts, heuristics, and other cognitive shortcuts. Cognitive theories specify how individuals anchor, adjust, and modify their beliefs. They also highlight a number of biases that people use, such as the hindsight bias, black swans, the conjunction fallacy, the confirmation bias, and the fundamental attribution error, all of which have an impact on their decision-making process.10

Unlike cognitive factors, which emphasize the instinctual way that human brains process information and make decisions, affective factors look at dispositional attributes and emotions such as fears and needs. Motivated biases “refer to the individuals’ psychological needs to maintain their own emotional well-being and to avoid fear, shame, guilt, and stress” (Levy, 2003, p. 268).11 Since affective reasoning is believed to have a biological basis and brings the insights of neurosciences into the decision-making process, it is difficult to demonstrate its influence empirically. Although affective factors are hardly unimportant, this empirical limitation is not problematic because motivated biases “are most likely to arise in highly consequential decisions” even as unmotivated (or cognitive) biases “are pervasive” (Levy, 2003, p. 268).

So long as it can be empirically demonstrated that a psychological factor—cognitive as opposed to affective—influenced the decision-makers’ assessment, a psychological mechanism is at work. The “core of psychological logic consists of the claim that people arrive at certain actions because they analyze, categorize, perceive, judge, desire, [and] feel” in instinctual and hardwired ways (Parsons, 2007, p. 138). Empirically, we do not need to demonstrate that all these factors were at work. It is enough to demonstrate that cognitive biases were at work, as these pervasive biases also operate when leaders are making highly consequential decisions. A careful analysis of the statements of the leadership (and the state’s behavior) can demonstrate these factors at work. As such, we can empirically understand threat assessment through a combination of Walt’s three material factors—aggregate power, geography, and offensive capabilities—mixed with intentions analyzed through a cognitive process.

The Influence of Ideology

However, to complicate matters, threat is also influenced by ideology in addition to material power and intentions. While classical realism did acknowledge the role of ideology in international politics, it was dismissed as a mere rationalization of power politics (Morgenthau, 2005). Similarly, neorealism dismissed ideology as a unit-level attribute and focused only on the distribution of capabilities, which is a relational/systemic variable (Waltz, 1979, pp. 97–98). Most analyses of ideology in international relations have largely focused on the impact of specific ideologies on a state’s international behavior.12

Nevertheless, the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union highlighted the salience of ideological differences in the threat perceptions of American and Soviet leaders (Engerman, 2010, pp. 20–43). Haas (2005, p. 20) has analyzed the impact of “ideological distance” between two states on the threat perception of their respective leaders. Instead of focusing on the impact of a specific ideology on a state’s foreign policy behavior, Haas has highlighted the impact of a relational/systemic factor—ideological distance—on international politics. According to him, the “greater the ideological differences dividing the states’ leaders, the more likely they are to see one another as threats to both their domestic power and the security of their state” (Haas, 2005, p. 14).

Haas uses a threefold criterion to measure ideological distance—differences in regime type, preferred systems of political economy, and beliefs about which groups are eligible for full citizenship rights (Haas, 2005, pp. 31–35). Thus, it is important to study the impact of ideological distance on threat perceptions, which can be captured by understanding the differences between two states’ political, economic, and social/societal institutions. However, it is important to emphasize that ideological variables do not operate by themselves in the absence of power politics, and therefore, material capabilities, intentions, and ideology must be assessed together in ascertaining threat perceptions (Haas, 2005, pp. 24–31). For example, just because some states are ideologically similar does not mean that they will band together (Walt, 1987, pp. 33–40). Similarly, even as the United States is ideologically distant from both Iran and Saudi Arabia, it perceives a threat from the former but not from the latter because power politics matter (Gause, 2015, pp. 637–645). Nevertheless, ideological differences will intensify the threat perception from a powerful adversary, especially in times of great uncertainty associated with strategic shocks. In other words, we have the following relationship:

Threat Perception = f(Power, Intentions, Ideological Distance)

Power = f(Aggregate Capabilities, Geographic Proximity, Offensive Capabilities)

Intentions = Goals = f(Cognitive process)

Ideological Distance = f(Regime Type, Politico-Economic Institutions, Social/Societal Institutions)


The psychological classification of some states as enemies in the international system began with the pioneering works of Gladstone (1959, pp. 132–137) and Boulding (1959, 1957). Gladstone argued that states projected the conception of enemy to other states in response to several psychological pulses. On the other hand, Boulding elaborated the much broader concept of a “national image.” According to him, states have certain images of themselves and others in the international system. These images constituted the states’ international environment and also shaped their strategic interactions. Boulding (1959, pp. 120–121) thought of images as “the total cognitive, affective, and evaluative structure of the behavioral unit, or its internal view of itself and its universe.” Importantly, he made a distinction between elite images (or images held by the central decision-makers of the state) and mass images (or images held by the masses, who do not take part in the decision-making process).

In the context of strategic rivalries, we are primarily interested in elite images, as rivalries are a function of decision-maker perceptions by definition. At the same time, the study of strategic rivalries is concerned with the ascription of images to other states in the international system, as opposed to the images of themselves that states try to portray.13 Furthermore, these images must be attributed to other states through a psychological process. There is a vast amount of literature on the sociological and intersubjective understanding of the “self” and “other” in international relations, but that need not concern us here.14 Finally, we are more interested in images as cognitive schemata, and not those that emerge through motivated biases, for reasons already discussed.

Image Theory and International Relations

Image theory is one of the four main research programs on cognition in international relations along with operational code analysis, cognitive mapping, and conceptual complexity (Young & Schafer, 1998, pp. 63–96). While scholars such as Holsti did use the concept of images in their analysis in the 1960s, they tended to blur it with operational code analysis (Holsti, 1967; Finaly, Holsti, & Fagen, 1967). Unlike operational code analysis, which focuses on “a policymaker’s broad beliefs about politics” in general, image theory is a relational/dyadic approach that emphasizes “the policymaker’s perceptions and beliefs concerning a particular actor in world politics” (Rosati, 1995, p. 60). The contemporary program on image theory in international relations was developed by Richard Cottam, Richard Herrmann, and Martha Cottam (Cottam, 1977; Herrmann, 1985; Cottam, 1986; Cottam & Cottam, 2001).

Given the extraordinary complexity of the world around us, people use images to simplify reality in order to make sense of objects and events by conceptually categorizing them in their minds (Pinker, 2002, pp. 197–218). This understanding of the term images is derived from its usage in psychology.15 These mental images “consist of complicated opinions, positions, doubts, and passionately held convictions, rooted in experience and amenable by argument, by more experience, or by coercion” (Gopnik, 1994, pp. 138–139). According to Cottam, images are “complicated bundles of cognition” that states have about other states in the international system (Cottam, 1994, p. 10; Cottam, 2000, pp. 204–206). Herrmann and Fischerkeller (1995, p. 415) understand images as “a subject’s cognitive construction or mental representation of another actor in world politics.” The underlying approach to such a conceptualization of images rests on the following assumptions: the real world is complex and uncertain, and decision-makers try to reduce the confusion thus generated using cognitive shortcuts. These shortcuts not only simplify reality, but they also filter out unnecessary information while helping the decision-makers to make sense of the other actors. At the same time, these images guide the decision-makers in determining a response toward other states (Schafer, 1997, pp. 813–829). In other words, images are functionally similar to stereotypes (Alexander, Brewer, & Herrmann, 1999, pp. 78–93).

All in all, the Cottams have identified seven types of so-called ideal images in their analysis—enemy, barbarian, imperialist, colonial, degenerate, rogue, and ally (Cottam & Cottam, 2001, pp. 96–99; Cottam, 1994, pp. 20–23). On the other hand, Herrmann and Fischerkeller (1995, p. 428) have identified five types of images of other states that decision-makers hold in their minds—enemy, ally, degenerate, imperial, and colony. There are clear overlaps between the categories of these scholars. Furthermore, the classification of “enemy” and “imperial” images as distinct is also problematic because they are mutually overlapping categories. Therefore, it is important to understand how such classifications are made.

These categorizations are based on three types of considerations for the Cottams, as well as for Herrmann and Fischerkeller—whether the state in question is a threat or opportunity (depending upon its goals), its relative capabilities, and assessments about its culture (Cottam & Cottam, 2001, pp. 87–122; Herrmann & Fischerkeller, 1995, pp. 425–427). However, there is a difference in how these two sets of scholars conceptualize culture. The perception of culture “involves assessing a country’s capacity to create policies, to carry them out, and to achieve its goals” (Cottam, 1994, p. 22). On the other hand, Herrmann and Fischerkeller (1995, pp. 425–426) are interested in “the judgments of culture of other actors and what norms and behavior the other actor is likely to respect.” However, Herrmann, Voss, Schooler, and Ciarrochi (1997, p. 410) operationalize culture analogous to the Cottams by viewing it as “the decision process observed in a country.” Given this ambiguity, as well as the presence of the sociological/normative dimension, we must use institutions to capture this variable. After all, sociological institutionalism is “a way of bringing culture back in” because the “institutions in which an individual lives . . . shape the very values and desires of that individual” through socialization and learning (Keating, 2008, p. 104). Consequently, the “institutional distance” between two states’ political, economic, and social/societal institutions, as well as the perceptions of the degree of centralization in the other state’s decision-making process, can be used as a proxy for the assessments about its culture.

In effect, the image that the central decision-makers of a state ascribe to another state in the international system is a function of three factors—whether it poses a threat or an opportunity, its relative capabilities, and its culture:

Image = f(Threat/Opportunity, Capabilities, Culture)

Culture = f(Institutional Distance, Degree of Centralization of the Decision-making Process)

Institutional Distance = f(Differences in political, economic, and social institutions)

Using these criteria, we have the following seven images that states have of other states in the international system—expansive, hegemonic, imperial, peer, ally, neutral, and dependency (see Table 1). A threatening state may be territorially irredentist (or expansionist); it may try to influence and constrain the foreign policy options of the given state (hegemonic); or it may try to influence and intervene in the domestic politics of the given state in addition to being hegemonic (imperial).16 In addition to these three cases, where the threat is imminent or is perceived as such, there may also be cases where the perceived threat is latent and/or long-term in nature.17 The image attributed to such states is that of a peer. Peers compete for long-term dominance for status in a regional system or globally.18 In other words, we have four types of “enemy” images—expansionist, hegemonic, imperial, and peer. These images are not mutually exclusive;19 and depending on the “institutional distance,” these four images may or may not be accompanied by an ideological threat (since ideological threats do not exist independently of power politics, as discussed previously). The seven images listed in Table 1 represent ideal types. For example, it is quite possible that an allied state may have considerably lower capabilities than one’s own. However, it would make the given state a subordinate ally. While this may be an analytically useful category, it is not a conceptually distinct category from that of an ally.20

Table 1. Strategic Perceptions and Images

Strategic Perceptions


  1. 1. Threat (irredentist)

  2. 2. Comparable capability

  3. 3. High degree of centralization

Expansionist (enemy) RIVAL

  1. 1. Threat (foreign policy)

  2. 2. Comparable of higher capability

  3. 3. High degree of centralization

Hegemonic (enemy) RIVAL

  1. 1. Threat (foreign and domestic affairs)

  2. 2. Comparable or higher capability

  3. 3. High degree of centralization

Imperial (enemy) RIVAL

  1. 1. Threat (latent and/or long-term)

  2. 2. Comparable or higher capability

  3. 3. High degree of centralization

Peer (enemy) RIVAL

  1. 1. Opportunity (common goals)

  2. 2. Comparable capability

  3. 3. Comparable degree of centralization


  1. 1. Neither threat nor opportunity

  2. 2. Lower capability

  3. 3. Comparable degree of centralization


  1. 1. Opportunity (via domination or exploitation)

  2. 2. Declining or lower capability

  3. 3. Declining/lower degree of centralization


Note: This table is inspired by Table 2 in Herrmann and Fischerkeller (1995, p. 430).

(*) These enemy images may or may not have an ideological component, depending upon the perception of the “institutional distance” between the two states.

Strategic Images and Strategic Rivals

From the previous discussion, it is clear that the notions of competition, threat, and enmity, while conceptually distinct, overlap analytically. An analysis of a state’s capabilities and goals reveals whether it is in competition with the given state. Threat assessment is a function of power/capabilities, intentions/goals, and ideological/institutional distance. Finally, whether the state fits the enemy image depends upon whether it is a threat or an opportunity, its relative capabilities, and the perceptions about its culture (which is a function of the perceptions of the degree of centralization of its decision-making process and the institutional distance between the two states). Therefore, analytically, the assessment of the image of another state includes the assessments of competition, threat, and enmity and is therefore equivalent to assessing whether it is a rival. Consequently, a state’s central decision-makers reevaluate the image of other regional states and the great powers of the system in response to strategic shocks. A rivalry initiates only when they ascribe the image of an “enemy” to another state as a consequence.

Importantly, Vasquez’s territorial disputes, as well as Goertz and Diehl’s structural explanation based on political shocks, are subsumed under this causal mechanism based on image theory. Moreover, as noted previously, the seven ideal type images should suffice in most instances. For example, even though President Ronald Reagan characterized the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” we do not need a conceptual category of “evil” to understand the American image of the Soviet Union. Seen from the United States, the Soviet Union was not only a peer competitor, but it was also an ideological rival. Similarly, President George W. Bush’s characterization of Iran as a member of the “axis of evil” can be understood through the American image of Iran as a potential regional hegemon in the Middle East.

Furthermore, it should be noted that just because we are focusing on the perceptions of the central decision-makers in response to strategic shocks to understand the ascription of images, that does not mean that domestic politics do not play any role. After all, the strategic shocks that lead to reevaluation of images include changes in political, military, and economic interaction capacities in the state whose image is being reassessed, as well as the state whose leaders are making this reassessment. Furthermore, according to social cognitive theory, there is a reciprocal interaction between the individual cognition of decision-makers and social perceptions because “people are producers as well as products of social systems” (Bandura, 2001, pp. 1–26). In any case, the assessment of the image of another state is analyzed through the cognitive shortcuts that a leader uses to process information, as opposed to attributing the image to his or her dispositional traits. Therefore, images, once formed, will be “sticky” and are unlikely to change in the absence of new strategic shocks.

The causal significance of images lies in the fact that they inform the strategy that a given state pursues toward its opponent. For example, as the Cottams have shown, the image of an imperial power is associated with the strategy of independence vis-à-vis this power that interferes in a given state’s domestic and foreign affairs. While the actual policy through which this strategy is pursued may depend upon the individual leader and his or her political party, the strategy itself does not change in the absence of a strategic shock. This is because images create “institutionalized constituencies” that ensure the continuation of strategies consistent with the images (Herrmann, 2003, p. 308). For example, the United States consistently pursued the strategy of containment of the Soviet Union, its Cold War rival, even as different presidents (and their administrations/political parties) chose to implement its specifics differently (Gaddis, 1982). While image formation precedes the adoption of a strategy toward another state (Herrmann, 2003, p. 299; Burgess, 1968), self-perception theorists have argued that decision-makers adjust the images of other states to justify their actions cognitively (Larson, 1985). However, qualitative methods as well as experimental research have shown that images precede and are causally linked to strategy.21 Moreover, these laboratory findings have also been demonstrated at the level of foreign policymaking across different cultures (Tetlock, 2006). Therefore, in terms of the empirical assessment of images in specific dyads, the international relations scholar must demonstrate that image formation occurs before strategy formulation, as hypothesized here.

Finally, it should be noted that a given state may have more than one enemy or rival, depending upon its ability to maintain more than one such relationship. In such cases, states rank their rivals using a threefold criterion—how active the different threats are, the relative power of the different states posing threats, and the ego-relevancy of the threatening states for the given state (Finlay, Holsti, & Fagen, 1967, pp. 2–4).22 While the degrees of threat and relative power are easy to rank in a hierarchical fashion, ego-relevancy is a tricky concept. We know that actors have a tendency to overestimate their own centrality in the actions and decisions of others as a consequence of the egocentric bias (Stein, 1993, p. 367). Ego-relevancy is the reverse of this concept, to the extent that it refers to the generation of heightened response to the threatening actions of one state as opposed to another as a consequence of history and strategy. As expected, states will compete more intensely with highly ranked rivals than with those who are ranked lower on this scale (Garcia, Tor, & Gonzalez, 2006, pp. 970–982). For example, even as India perceives China as its principal rival, India is ranked lower in the hierarchy of China’s rivals, after the United States and Japan (Garver, 2002, pp. 109–134).


It has been argued that the evaluation of the strategic image of another state is analytically equivalent to ascertaining whether it is a rival. A state’s central decision-makers reevaluate the strategic image of other states in response to strategic shocks. A strategic rivalry initiates only after one state ascribes the image of an enemy to another state. For example, the strategic shock of the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 led Mao Zedong to ascribe the image of an “imperial” enemy to the United States because of the American involvement in the Chinese Civil War on the side of the Nationalists. The Chinese Communist leadership was clearly using the availability heuristic while making this assessment (and it was not merely a function of Communist ideology and rhetoric).

However, the American perception of the “loss of China” was predicated on the (erroneous) belief that China had to be saved by the United States. The United States had been viewing China through the lens of cognitive paternalism ever since advancing the Open Door policy at the start of the 20th century.23 Therefore, the United States, which had seen itself as a protector of a “dependent” China, now developed the image of China as a dependent of the Soviet Union. In 1949, the U.S.-China rivalry was one-sided, as China was not viewed as a rival by the United States (since it was perceived as being too weak because of its dependent status). The American image of China changed only after their militaries clashed head on in the Korean peninsula in 1950; this led to their 20-year conflict, as the United States now began to view China as an ideological rival that was seeking hegemony in Asia (Borg & Heinrichs, 1980; Shambaugh, 1988a, 1988b; Tu, 1978; Jervis, 1980). In other words, the U.S.-China rivalry did not emerge as a consequence of a territorial dispute (as per Vasquez’s hypothesis). Whereas the strategic shock of the end of the Chinese Civil War was necessary, it was hardly sufficient. U.S.-China relations would have evolved along a different trajectory if the Nationalists had emerged victorious in 1949.

This brief description of the onset of the U.S.-China rivalry demonstrates that the images that two states have of each other need not be mirror images (i.e., both sides need not have the same image, or even the same type of enemy image, of the other). This is hardly surprising because according to the psychological approach to international relations, even though there may be an objective reality out there, we understand it subjectively (McDermott, 2004). Future research must analyze the consequences of interaction between various pairs of mutual strategic images to ascertain if they have a differential propensity toward conflict and violence. Arguably, strategic interaction between two states with mutual enemy images is more conflict prone than in those cases where mutual images are mismatched. Existing research already indicates that spatial rivals—or rivals who perceive each other as expansionists—are more prone to war than positional rivals, who tend to fight each other after joining an ongoing dispute (Colaresi, Rasler, & Thompson, 2007, p. 190). Therefore, future research must address hypotheses on the relationship between enemy image type and violence. It is possible that dyads involving hegemonic, imperial, and peer images show a greater propensity for low-level violence and proxy wars involving third-parties than actual, dyadic warfare.

Furthermore, implicit in the image theory of rivalry initiation is a theory of rivalry evolution and termination, because successive strategic shocks lead to new assessments of the opponent. A rivalry terminates when both states in the dyad ascribe a nonenemy image to the other side in response to certain strategic shocks.

While the strategic shock of the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 led to the emergence of a one-sided U.S.-China rivalry (with China viewing the United States as a rival), it was the strategic shock of the 1950 Korean War that led the United States to view China as a hegemonic and ideological rival in East Asia. Later, the strategic shock of the Sino-Soviet split (and clash in 1969) ended the U.S.-China rivalry after 1971, as the two sides became “tacit” allies (Goh, 2005). A new round of U.S.-China rivalry began only after the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait crisis (Garver, 1997). The United States and China are now involved in a positional rivalry in the hierarchy of states in East Asia and the Western Pacific.24 However, an ideological dimension is absent (or has been less salient until now) in the second round, although the difference in their domestic political systems will loom larger as China’s power increases (Christensen, 2015). The sequence and speed with which issues are added or removed from a strategic rivalry deserve more attention.

Further Reading

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (1.) For example, see Kenneth Waltz (1979), Theory of International Politics (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (2.) The “relative absence of war between democracies is an extraordinarily strong empirical regularity in search of a theory to explain it.” Jack Levy and William Thompson (2010), Causes of War (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, p. 108).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (3.) Unless stated otherwise, this article uses the term rivalry to refer to strategic rivals.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (4.) Paul Diehl and Gary Goertz (2000), War and Peace in International Rivalry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press). Other important works that focus on dispute density as a criterion for conceptualizing rivalries include James Klein, Gary Goertz, and Paul Diehl (2000), “The New Rivalry Dataset: Procedures and Patterns,” Journal of Peace Research, 43(3), 331–348; D. Scott Bennett (1996), “Security, Bargaining, and the End of Interstate Rivalry,” International Studies Quarterly, 40(2), 157–183; Bennett (1997), “Democracy, Regime Change, and Rivalry Termination,” International Interactions, 22(4), 369–397; Bennett (1997), “Measuring Rivalry Termination, 1816–1992,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, 41(2), 227–254; Bennett (1998), “Integrating and Testing Models of Rivalry Duration,” American Journal of Political Science, 42(4), 1200–1232; and Zeev Maoz and Ben Mor (1992), Bound by Struggle: The Strategic Evolution of Enduring International Rivalries (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (5.) For a tabular comparison of the start and end dates of all rivalries, as per the coding procedures used by the scholars noted in note 11, see Colaresi, Rasler, and Thompson (2007), Strategic Rivalries (pp. 38–50).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (6.) Neoclassical realism also emphasizes the importance of the “foreign policy executive.” See Norrin Ripsman, Jeffrey Taliaferro, and Steven Lobell (2016), Neoclassical Realist Theory of International Politics (New York: Oxford University Press).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (7.) War propensity is a function of regime type since democracies, democratizing states, and authoritarian regimes show different types of conflict behavior. See A. J. Enterline (1998), “Regime Changes, Neighborhoods, and Interstate Conflict, 1816–1992,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, 42(6), 804–829.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (8.) As a general rule, a state’s ability to project power declines with distance. This problem also affects the great powers even as they have the ability to project power beyond their immediate neighborhoods. See Kenneth Boulding (1962), Conflict and Defense (New York: Harper, p. 262); and Patrick Porter (2015), The Global Village Myth: Distance, War, and the Limits of Power (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (9.) Thomas Szayna et al. (2001), The Emergence of Peer Competitors: A Framework for Analysis (Santa Monica: RAND, pp. 7–8). While this work is an analysis of a competitor for the global superpower, I have adapted the definition of competition for any dyad.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (10.) For the classic treatment of these factors, see Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky, eds. (1982), Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases (New York: Cambridge University Press). For an updated discussion, see Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (Eds.) (2000), Choices, Values, and Frames (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press); and Thomas Gilovich, Dale Griffin, and Daniel Kahneman (Eds.) (2003), Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (11.) Jack Levy (2003), “Political Psychology and Foreign Policy,” in David Sears, Leonie Huddy, and Robert Jervis (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology (New York: Oxford University Press, p. 268). Also see Rose McDermott (2004), Political Psychology in International Relations (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, pp. 153–188); and Stephen Peter Rosen (2005), War and Human Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (12.) For example, see Vendulka Kubálková and Albert A Cruickshank (1989), Marxism and International Relations, 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (13.) On how states try to portray themselves, including a “theory of deception,” see Robert Jervis (1989), The Logic of Images in International Relations, Morningside (Ed.) (New York: Columbia University Press). Jervis’s initial work had a rationalist bent, as he has himself admitted.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (14.) On attempts to bridge the gap between psychological and sociological processes in this regard, see Janice Gross Stein, “Image, Identity, and Conflict Resolution,” in Chester Crocker, Fen Hampson, and Pamela Aall (Eds.) (1996), Managing Global Chaos: Sources of and Responses to International Conflict (Washington: USIP Press, pp. 93–111).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (15.) For the meaning of “images” in psychology and in other disciplines, see Jon Roeckelein (2004), Imagery in Psychology: A Reference Guide (Westport, CT: Praeger, pp. 2–24).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (16.) The hegemonic and imperial conceptualizations have been inspired by Watson. See Adam Watson (1992), The Evolution of International Society (London, UK: Routledge, pp. 13–18).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (17.) On the latent and long-term nature of certain threats, see Noel Kaplowitz (1984), “Psychopolitical Dimensions of International Relations: The Reciprocal Effects of Conflict Strategies,” International Studies Quarterly, 28(4), 373–406; and Kaplowitz (1990), “National Self-Images, Perceptions of Enemies, and Conflict Strategies: Psychopolitical Dimensions of International Relations,” Political Psychology, 11(1), 39–82.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (18.) This may or may not involve competition over territory in the short run (or even as a proxy for status).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (19.) For example, an expansionist state may or may not be hegemonic.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (20.) For an example of such subordinate categories, see Cottam (1994), Images and Intervention (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, pp. 31–34). In addition to enemies, Cottam discusses states that are subordinates/dependents of the enemy.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (21.) For qualitative support, see Cottam, Images and Intervention. On experimental research design, see Schafer (1997), “Images and Policy Preferences,” Political Psychology, 18(4), 813–829; Herrmann, Voss, Schooler, and Ciarrochi, “Images in International Relations: An Experimental Test of Cognitive Schemata,” International Studies Quarterly, 41(3), 410; Emanuele Castano, Alain Bonacossa, and Peter Gries (2016), “National Images as Integrated Schemas: Subliminal Primes of Image Attributes Shape Foreign Policy Preferences,” Political Psychology, 37(3), 351–366; and Véronique Eicher (2013), “Value Differentiation Between Enemies and Allies: Value Projection in National Images,” Political Psychology, 34(1), 127–144.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (22.) See Finlay, Holsti, and Fagen (1967), Enemies in Politics (Chicago: RAND McNally & Co, pp. 2–4). While proximity is another important dimension in this regard, it has already been included in the conception of threat, as discussed here.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (23.) This was ironic because the Open Door policy was ultimately about how to best exploit China, even as it had the consequence of formally preserving China’s territorial integrity.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (24.) One of the proxies of this positional rivalry is a set of Chinese territorial disputes with U.S. friends and allies in East Asia. It should also be noted that the Taiwan issue does not represent a territorial dispute between the United States and China because the United States is not in a rivalry with China for sovereignty over this island.