The Uncertainty of Decline: Power Shifts, Interstate Signaling and International Conflict

Yoder, Brandon, Foreign Affairs - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Copeland, Dale, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Owen, John, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Sechser, Todd, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Holt, Charles, Department of Economics, University of Virginia

Can rising states credibly signal their future intentions during a power shift? Existing theories suggest that rising states have strong incentives to misrepresent hostile intentions, in order to avoid incurring opposition while they are still relatively weak. As a result, the conventional wisdom holds that a rising state’'s cooperative behavior is not a credible signal of its intentions in the future, when it will have become more powerful. In contrast, this study presents two formal models that identify conditions under which rising states' ’cooperative signals are credible despite their incentives to misrepresent. In addition, the models identify two "screening mechanisms" that declining states can employ to elicit credible signals of a rising state'’s future intentions. First, a strategy of limited preventive opposition in response to cooperative signals reduces the rising state’s incentive to misrepresent, inducing hostile riser’s to reveal their true intentions through non-cooperative behavior, while making the rising state'’s cooperative signals more credible. Second, a strategy of targeted retrenchment elicits credible signals by removing constraints over the rising state'’s immediate behavior in a particular region, and making hostile risers more likely to attempt revision of the regional international order. The information provided by these screening mechanisms then benefi…ts the declining state by allowing it to fully contain the rise of hostile states, while avoiding unnecessary confl‡ict with benign ones. The theoretical hypotheses are illustrated in four recent cases of great power decline: US retrenchment from Eastern Europe and the origins of the Cold War; British retrenchment from the Western Hemisphere and Anglo-American rapprochement at the turn of the 20th century; British prevention in response to a rising Germany in the 1890s; and a negative case, the lack of US prevention in response to a rising Soviet Union during WWII. These cases largely support the theoretical hypotheses, but also indicate that leaders have been largely unaware of the informational benefi…ts of prevention and retrenchment. Thus, the fi…ndings of the study yield valuable prescriptions for the contemporary world, particularly US foreign policy toward a rising China.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
International Relations, International Security, Power Shifts, Interstate Signaling, Game Theory, Cold War, US-China Relations, Retrenchment, Prevention
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