CISS Academic Colloquium Series Presents: Qualitative Inferences: Introducing Proper Nouns to the Rational Study of Great Power Rivalry

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Qualitative inferences: Introducing proper nouns to the rational study of great power rivalry

Since Waltz, scholars of reassurance have argued that uncertainty about a Challenger's strategic motives drove the core tension in great power rivalries. But these scholars make simplistic assumptions about how motives can vary. I theorize that a Challenger can be motivated by many different principles (e.g. nationalism, revenge, security) and each principle implies that a Challenger cares about specific territories. Great powers do not know what principle motivates the Challenger, but they do know which specific territories correspond to which principle. By separating why Challengers fight from what they are fighting over, I expose a new signaling mechanism that is qualitative: great powers learn by watching what a Challenger demands, and not how much they demand. For example, British elites did not know if Hitler was motivated by nationalism or not. But they knew where Germans lived in Europe. They exploited that information to make different inferences about Hitler's motives based on whether Hitler demanded Austria or Poland. I integrate this informal theory of motives into a formal model of enduring, great power rivalry to explain: how Challengers exploit costless messages to re-assure great powers their intentions are limited even as they rapidly militarize and make violent demands; and why great powers suddenly infer a Challenger is aggressive following a specific crisis episodes, and eventually turn to competition. The theory matches instances and timing of competition in Anglo-Soviet (1940s), Anglo-American (1900s), Anglo-German (1930s), Sino-American (modern) relations and many other great power rivalries.  

The article can be viewed here.

Michael Joseph is an Assistant Professor at the University of California, San Diego. His main project integrates the cultural and historical determinants of foreign policy motives into formal theories of great power politics. He derives the assumptions in his formal models using interviews and survey experiments with national security elites. These novel assumptions generate novel predictions that explain cross-national patterns of peace and war in enduring great power rivalries. His second project examines digital technology, the intelligence community and national security abuse. His work appears in the Journal of Politics, Journal of Conflict Resolution, and the Journal of Peace Research. His work has interested policy-makers because it sheds light on U.S.-China relations and the role of digital innovation in intelligence analysis, among other topics.  

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