After taking in all the feedback I got at APSA over this project (see here and here, too), I’ve managed to turn around a new draft. The angle’s a bit different, but it focuses more on the basic dilemma that powerful states face in international disputes: convincing their opponents that they’re willing to use force while, at the same time, convincing everyone else that they’re reluctant to do so. As you can imagine, that might be difficult.
Convincing my opponent that I’m willing to go to the mat gets me better deals and, oftentimes, a reduced chance of war. But when great powers move, plenty of parties other than their immediate adversaries are watching: other enemies, allies, even your friendly neighborhood middle power worried about more powerful states being a little to willing to use the military instrument. When these outsiders—alone or in concert—can take diplomatic actions designed to frustrate a great power’s ability to project power (i.e., “soft balancing“), then our great power is caught between two competing incentives:
Signaling resolve by escalating the crisis can facilitate a peaceful resolution of the crisis, but in doing so I provoke world opinion and end up taking a raw deal, because the seriousness of my threat to fight is undermined. On the other hand, if I don’t escalate, I can convince outsiders that I’m restrained, which leads them to impose diplomatic costs on my opponent, but since my opponent remains optimistic that I’m unwilling to fight, there’s still a risk of war.
You can imagine that this might cause some problems. When world opinion is strong enough, an otherwise resolute state may choose not to demonstrate resolve, showing restraint, winning outside diplomatic support, and discouraging its opponent from risking a war in which it will have world opinion turned against it. This is good for the great power in question, and it’s also what American decisionmakers hoped to do by limiting their escalation in the Berlin Crisis of 1961. However, the chance of avoiding outside diplomatic opposition in the first place can also prevent a resolute state from revealing its resolve when simply escalating would have averted war.
The upshot? Outsiders—especially those that want to reward the exercise of military restraint (and I don’t know many that don’t)—have at best a mixed effect on the probability of great power war. In other words,
while having won in the court of world opinion is a boon, trying to win in the first place can be especially dangerous.