Divided We Fight

Kevin Lewis

March 22, 2023

Framing States: Unitary Actor Language and Public Support for Coercive Foreign Policy 
Mary Beth Altier & John Kane
International Studies Quarterly, March 2023 


A defining feature of public (and, often, scholarly) discussion of international affairs is the treatment of states as unitary actors, that is, akin to individual persons. Drawing upon social-psychological research, we theorize that such unitary actor (UA) framing increases the degree to which adversarial states are perceived as entitative -- that is, as relatively united -- and, thus, the perceived complicity of a country's people in their government's actions. We therefore hypothesize that UA framing increases citizens’ support for indiscriminate, coercive policies against target states. In a content analysis of US elite statements spanning three decades, we first establish that UA framing is exceedingly common, occurring in nearly two-thirds of all references to adversarial states. We then conduct a series of survey experiments on US adults, finding that, compared to frames in which a state is described as more factious and disunited, UA framing is associated with significantly greater willingness to impose harmful, indiscriminate economic sanctions and military strikes against target states. Our results highlight the utility and applicability of entitativity to political science research, and have important implications for the role of elite discourse in bolstering public support for hawkish foreign policymaking.

The Long-run Impact of Childhood Wartime Violence on Preferences for Nuclear Proliferation
James Kim
Journal of Conflict Resolution, forthcoming 


How do childhood experiences of wartime violence affect individuals’ preferences for nuclear proliferation? This paper argues that individuals who experienced severe war violence during childhood are more likely to value the security-enhancing aspects of nuclear weapons. These individuals are more concerned about being exposed to additional wartime violence, so they view nuclear weapons as a deterrent against large-scale invasions. By utilizing the geographic variation of violence intensity during the Korean War, this paper compares the pre-war and post-war cohorts who resided in severely damaged regions and relatively safe areas. Within the pre-war cohort, I find that individuals who resided in war-torn areas are more supportive of nuclear proliferation than those who were exposed to less violence. This regional difference, however, is not substantial in the post-war generation. The results suggest that direct exposure to wartime violence during childhood increases public demand for nuclear weapons when confronted with security threats.

The Cult of the Persuasive: Why U.S. Security Assistance Fails
Rachel Tecott Metz
International Security, Winter 2022/23, Pages 95-135 


Security assistance is a pillar of U.S. foreign policy and a ubiquitous feature of international relations. The record, however, is mixed at best. Security assistance is hard because recipient leaders are often motivated to implement policies that keep their militaries weak. The central challenge of security assistance, then, is influence. How does the United States aim to influence recipient leaders to improve their militaries, and what drives its approach? Influence in security assistance can be understood as an escalation ladder with four rungs: teaching, persuasion, conditionality, and direct command. Washington increasingly delegates security assistance to the Department of Defense, and the latter to the U.S. Army. U.S. Army advisers tend to rely exclusively on teaching and persuasion, even when recipient leaders routinely ignore their advice. The U.S. Army's preference for persuasion and aversion to conditionality in security assistance can be traced to its bureaucratic interests and to the ideology that it has developed -- the cult of the persuasive -- to advance those interests. A case study examines the bureaucratic drivers of the U.S. Army's persistent reliance on persuasion to influence Iraqi leaders to reform and strengthen the Iraqi Army. Qualitative analysis leverages over one hundred original interviews, as well as oral histories and recently declassified U.S. Central Command documents. The findings illustrate how the interests and ideologies of the military services tasked with implementing U.S. foreign policy can instead undermine it.

Are U.S. Drone Strikes Racist? Evidence of Public Attitude Formation in the United States
Paul Lushenko, Keith Carter & Srinjoy Bose
Cornell Working Paper, March 2023 


Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, U.S. officials have used armed unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to kill terrorists abroad. Despite or because of strong support among Americans, critics claim that U.S. drone strikes are racist. Yet, there is no systematic evidence that these operations are racialized. We field two original and image-based survey experiments on U.S. citizens and members of the military to empirically assess the relationship between race and attitudes of support for U.S. drone strikes. Our study isolates the causal effect of two mechanisms that scholars argue shape racial preferences for strikes, including the skin color and geographic setting of a target. We find little evidence that U.S. citizens calibrate their support for strikes along these lines, and this is consistent but more pronounced among the military. Rather, our results show that respondents with racist worldviews are more likely to support drone strikes invariant of a target’s skin color and location, and that providing more contextual detail on the target can decrease support for these operations. Our findings suggest that the way officials frame U.S. drone strikes, often de-emphasizing targets as humans, has potentially more important implications for public support than do implicit racist attitudes.

More than a Number: Aging Leaders in International Politics
Joshua Byun & Austin Carson
International Studies Quarterly, March 2023 


How does leader age affect international politics? Challenging the existing literature's focus on chronological age, we argue that leaders do not age the same in the eyes of their beholders. Combining insights from gerontology on age-related stereotypes and studies of face-to-face diplomacy, we show that judgments about age informed by high-level personal encounters have profound consequences for how elderly leaders are appraised and treated by their counterparts. A leader who betrays indicators of “senility” during face-to-face encounters will elicit harsh judgments by activating negative stereotypes about aging. Older leaders can also surprise their interlocutors: those long thought to be senile may show themselves as mentally and physically fit. Perceptions of age, in turn, shape how observers understand a leader's agency and shape decisions to “engage” or “bypass” the leader in the context of interstate cooperation. We draw on declassified primary documents to compare American views of three elderly leaders in Cold War Asia -- Syngman Rhee, Mao Tse-tung, and Chou Enlai -- and how such views informed Washington's approach to these leaders, finding powerful support for our arguments. Our findings suggest new insights for the IR research program on leaders as well as lessons for statecraft in an era of aging decision makers.

‘Hybrid warfare’ as an academic fashion
Chiara Libiseller
Journal of Strategic Studies, forthcoming 


The ‘hybrid warfare’ concept had been coined years earlier, but became fashionable only when it was adopted and adapted by NATO in 2014, after which academic interest suddenly sky-rocketed. Academics often adopted NATO’s understanding of the concept, took for granted its fit for Russian actions, and imported its political assumptions into the academic debate. The fashionability of the term also led to bandwagoning and thus superficial engagement with both the concept and the phenomenon it was applied to. This article outlines this process and its implications for the field of Strategic Studies.

Responding to Uncertainty: The Importance of Covertness in Support for Retaliation to Cyber and Kinetic Attacks
Kathryn Hedgecock & Lauren Sukin
Journal of Conflict Resolution, forthcoming 


This paper investigates the escalation dynamics of cyber attacks. Two main theories have been advanced. First, “means-based” theory argues attack type determines response; cyber attacks are less likely to escalate than kinetic attacks. Second, “effects-based” theory argues an attack’s material consequences determine the likelihood of retaliation. We advance a third perspective, arguing that the covertness of an attack has the largest effect on its propensity towards escalation. We identify two characteristics of covertness that affect support for retaliation: the certainty of attribution and its timing. We use a survey experiment to assess public support for retaliation, while varying the means, effects, timing, and attribution certainty of attacks. We find no evidence for the effects-based approach, instead finding high levels of support for retaliation regardless of an attack’s scale. We find that the most significant contributor to support for retaliation is an attack’s covertness.

Rebel Capacity, Intelligence Gathering, and Combat Tactics
Konstantin Sonin & Austin Wright
American Journal of Political Science, forthcoming 


Classic and modern theories of rebel warfare emphasize the role of resource endowments. We demonstrate that intelligence gathering, made possible by these endowments, plays a critical role in determining specifics of how rebels launch complex attacks against better equipped government forces. We test implications of a theoretical model using highly detailed data about Afghan rebel attacks, insurgent-led spy networks, and counterinsurgent operations. Leveraging quasi-random variation in opium suitability, we find that improved rebel capacity is associated with (1) increased insurgent operations; (2) improved battlefield tactics through technological innovation, increased complexity, and attack clustering; and (3) increased effectiveness against security forces, especially harder targets. These results show that access to capital, coupled with intelligence gathering, meaningfully impacts how and where rebels fight.

Excessive Force or Armored Restraint? Government Mechanization and Civilian Casualties in Civil Conflict
Ryan Van Wie & Jacob Walden
Journal of Conflict Resolution, forthcoming 


Does increasing counterinsurgent mechanization result in higher levels of unintentional civilian casualties? Existing research on unintentional civilian victimization in recent conflicts has focused on air strikes, but this question remains unexplored in research examining counterinsurgent force structure for ground units. However, a host of counterinsurgency practitioners in Iraq have cited the mechanized forces’ effectiveness in delivering precision fires that limit civilian casualties. We propose an armored restraint theory, suggesting that mechanized crews’ armored protection enhances soldiers’ decision space when making the consequential choice to employ lethal force. When this enhanced decision space is combined with units that systematically respect jus in bello principles and non-combatant immunity norms, it results in armored restraint, which may reduce government-caused civilian casualties in civil conflicts. We test this theory using micro-data from Iraq and find mechanized units are associated with significantly lower civilian casualty levels compared to dismounted units.

UN Security Council Elections as an Incentive for Compliance
Johann Caro-Burnett & Eric Weese
Journal of Conflict Resolution, forthcoming 


Standard economic theory would predict that costly demands placed by the United Nations on its members should be rewarded. Similarly, when rewards are not attractive enough, countries are not expected to comply with such demands. In this paper, we study whether the rewards offered by the United Nations are seats at the Security Council. We show empirically that countries that have greater demands placed upon them by Security Council resolutions are more likely to be elected. Furthermore, although countries comply with resolutions leading up to their election, compliance decreases after they are elected. Finally, we show that countries that have not been in the Security Council recently, and thus are due for election, have additional requests made of them.

Locking Down Violence: The COVID-19 Pandemic’s Impact on Non-State Actor Violence
Dawn Brancati, Jóhanna Birnir & Qutaiba Idlbi
American Political Science Review, forthcoming 


Although the effects of non-state actor violence on public health outcomes are well known, the effects of public health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic on non-state actor violence are not. Lockdown measures, widely used to stop the spread of disease in crises, we argue, are likely to reduce non-state actor violence, especially in urban and non-base areas. These measures deplete actors’ resources, reduce the number of high-value civilian targets, and make it logistically more difficult to conduct attacks. Using the example of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and taking advantage of the exogenous nature of COVID-19 lockdowns, we find that curfews and travel bans significantly reduce violence, especially in populated and non-base areas. These effects are most likely due to short-term changes in ISIS’s targets and logistics rather than its resources. These findings provide important insights into the security aspects of public health crises and offer novel findings into the general effectiveness of two common counterinsurgency tools.

Arctic Shock: Utilizing Climate Change to Test a Theory of Resource Competition
Jonathan Markowitz
Journal of Conflict Resolution, forthcoming 


Why do some states project military force to seek control of resources, while others do not? Conventional wisdom asserts that resource-scarce states should have the strongest interest in securing control over resources. Counter-intuitively, I argue that, under existing conditions, the opposite is true. It is not resource-scarce states that will be more interested in militarily seeking additional resources, but rather states that are resource-abundant and dependent on income from extracting those resources. I test this proposition by leveraging a natural experiment that analyzes how states reacted to an exogenous shock that exposed resources in the Arctic in 2007. I employ original data that measures the change in states’ Arctic military presence before and after the shock. I find that dependence, not scarcity, explains how states responded to the shock. The findings enhance our understanding of the causes of resource competition and the geopolitical implications of climate change.


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