The Problem of Rivalry Deescalation and Termination
The demise of the Cold War caught many, if not all, observers and participants alike by surprise. For much of the time between the end of World War II and the late 1980s/early 1990s, analysts and policymakers alike assumed that the East-West structural cleavage in world politics would remain unvarying. This cleavage was so paramount that it permeated and influenced world politics at all levels. In fact, for many observers every competition appeared, rightly or wrongly, as if it were a proxy struggle for the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. Then, abruptly, the central cleavage no longer existed. As a consequence, analysts and decision makers alike lost their conceptual anchor for deciphering how the world worked. The "world still worked," but a basic key to unlocking the secrets of how it worked had disappeared for good.
In such periods of fundamental structural transformation, the usual response is to search for new ways to explain events and processes. Although the idea is hardly new, rivalry offers such an avenue. The history of international relations is replete with many examples of states engaged in long and intensive feuds. The Athenians and Spartans would have appreciated the idea of rivalry in the fifth century BCE. So would have the Romans and Carthaginians a few centuries later. The problem—perhaps because the phenomenon has been ubiquitous for so long—is that we have taken rivalries for granted. Therefore, the explicit study of rivalries as generic processes of conflict and cooperation is a relatively recent development. While there has been some effort at looking at nation-state dyads that have fought repeatedly prior to the end of the Cold War, there are still few clues as to why rivalries come and go. The unanticipated and abrupt end of the late twentieth century's "mother" of all rivalries—the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union—highlights this lacuna.
In this study, an expectancy theory pertaining to rivalry deescalation and termination is advanced and tested. The theory contends that rivalries end when four factors come together: shocks, expectational revision, reciprocity, and reinforcement. The examination of a single rivalry can help probe the utility of such a theory, but it can only be a starting point. More cases and more variation in outcomes are essential to testing the argument more comprehensively. Therefore, we examine ten rivalries: Egypt-Israel, Israel-Syria, Palestine-Israel, India-Pakistan, China-United States, China-Soviet Union, China-Taiwan, China-Vietnam, Thailand-Vietnam, and North Korea-South Korea.
This collection provides ample variance in rivalry behavior with four terminations, three significant deescalations, albeit not permanently, and three continuing cases. Within these ten cases, there are also thirty-three episodes of attempted deescalation with successful or failed outcomes in rivalry deescalation/termination. For instance, the Egypt-Israel rivalry generates ten subcases of attempts at rivalry deescalation; the Israel-Syria rivalry yields six; the India-Pakistan rivalry eight; and the North-South Korea rivalry three.
Moreover, some of these rivalries overlap partly as a consequence of their location in similar geopolitical neighborhoods. Hence, the interdependencies among these rivalries make it challenging to analyze them individually or as a combination or sets of cases. The concern is that a case-by-case analysis of these rivalries could overlook some theoretical breakthroughs that could be better observed when the interdependencies of these cases are taken into account via a more macro-investigation. Therefore, we propose to do both types of examination. In Chapters 3-7, we examine rivalries on a case-by-case basis. In Chapter 7, we investigate six rivalries as an ensemble within the Asian subsystem.
Maoz and Mor (2002: 3) capture the heart of much of the motivation for rivalry analysis: "The belief in the pervasiveness of international conflict contrasts with the empirical record. A systematic survey of the last two centuries yields two seemingly striking facts. First, most states were relatively peaceful; only a small group of states was responsible for most interstate disputes and wars during this period. Second, these conflict prone states did not fight randomly—they tended to fight each other. Consequently, a small group of dyads is responsible for a disproportionately large number of conflicts and wars."
More precisely, less than 1 percent of all the dyads in the past two centuries have been responsible for nearly 80 percent of the interstate warfare (Colaresi, Rasler, and Thompson 2007). While there is disagreement about how best to conceptualize these conflict prone states, scholars have begun drawing attention to the distinctive nature of rivalries and rivals—the dyads and states that tend to be most likely to become involved in international conflict.
What constitutes a strategic rivalry? Two important criteria are that states regard each other as competitive and as threatening enemies. States view other states as competitive when they are roughly in the same capability league. For instance, few scholars would argue that the United States and Mexico are able to mobilize capabilities at the same level. This disparity is due partly to the U.S. lead in resource endowment and partly to the seizure by the United States of a large proportion of Mexico's territory—which also ensured and enhanced the future lead of the United States over Mexico. Nevertheless, the United States and Mexico were once competitors of sorts, but they were not after 1848.
However, the stipulation that rivalry is restricted solely to those states that have symmetrical capabilities does not always hold. For example, the United States and Cuba have never been equal in strength, but, for a while, U.S. decision makers perceived Cuban foreign policy as highly threatening and Cuba as an enemy. Cuba reciprocated the favor. In recent years, the rivalry has atrophied, but neither side is willing to admit it.
States are viewed as enemies by the decision makers of a country if they have done physical harm in the past, or project some probability of doing such harm in the present or future. If they have already attacked or done damage to a state's interests, then the probability of inflicting more damage in the future is likely to be all the greater. If this perception is combined with competitive status, then there are four possibilities as delineated in Table 1.1. The most common situation is found in the lower right-hand cell: states that are neither especially competitive with one another nor explicitly threatening to each other. In the upper right-hand cell are states that are competitive but nonthreatening. Normally, this category would encompass states that might become political-military rivals sometime in the future or may have been rivals in the past but no longer perceive mutual threats emanating from each other. Examples of the former type are commercial rivals like Japan and the United States in the early 1990s. The latter type is exemplified by Britain and the United States or Britain and France after 1904, or France and Germany today.
Asymmetrical relationships, the lower left-hand cell, have already been discussed in the context of states that were not in the same league as their rivals but that acted temporarily as if they were. The more common situation is the genuine asymmetrical relationship in which a large and powerful state threatens a weaker neighbor and there is not a great deal that the weaker neighbor can do about it. Most recently, the Russian-Georgian relationship provides a good example. The point is that this type of structured dyad does not usually lead to a rivalry between the two states. At best, the weaker party can seek protection from a rival of the stronger party.
Asymmetrical dyads can become rivalries if the weaker side acts as if it is more powerful than its capabilities would otherwise suggest and the more powerful side reacts as if the weaker side is a threatening competitor. Examples would include Argentina-Paraguay in the mid-nineteenth century, Cuba-United States in the contemporary era, or, for a while, Cambodia-Vietnam. Ordinarily, one would not anticipate asymmetrical rivalries enduring for long periods of time without some sort of fundamental resolution of the dispute.
Strategic rivalries, combining similar levels of competitiveness and perceived threat, are located in the upper left-hand cell. They have not been common affairs. Of the many thousands of possible highly conflictual dyads, less than a couple of hundred have become strategic rivals. Yet their relationships tend to endure and escalate into hostility with some frequency.
Why rivalries begin, why they fluctuate in terms of their hostilities, and why they end are all interesting questions. In some respects, the question about the origins of rivalries may be the easiest to answer. Many rivalries—approximately half of those that began after 1816—came into existence with the independence of one or more of the two feuding states. It is at this time that boundary disputes emerge and adjacent states that contain nationals thought to belong to or have some affinity with another state are subject to unwelcome internal intrusions. Another possibility is that two states in a region may be in contention over central leadership. All of these disagreements lead to threatening behavior and perceived threats that bring about rivalry relationships.
Determining why rivalries oscillate in hostility is undoubtedly the most challenging of the three questions posed above. Existing research has yet to develop a full understanding of rivalry behavior. Questions about how rivalries terminate, in comparison, are far more manageable. The issue is whether the effort to understand how and why rivalries end is worth attempting. We believe the answer is yes. Rivalries encompass dangerous processes. Nearly 80 percent of the wars since 1816 have involved confrontations between rivals. If rivalry is central to war making, then understanding rivalry termination processes should be critical to improving our knowledge about how to lessen substantially the probability of war. At the very least, it should help us to understand why wars break out when they do.
Currently, strategic rivalries are not proliferating at an exponential rate (Thompson and Dreyer 2011). On the contrary, they have become less common. Yet those that remain—rivalries involving the two Koreas, China and Taiwan, India and Pakistan, to name a few of the most salient ones—draw attention to the world's hot spots of interstate tension. As rivals acquire nuclear weapons or drag patrons and allies into confrontations, everyone has a stake in assessing what it might take to de-escalate these problem areas.
Moreover, there is always some potential for new rivalries to emerge or old ones to reemerge. World politics exhibits some continuing propensity for intensifying tensions between large, powerful states. An argument, for instance, can be made for the reemergence of both the Russian-U.S. and Sino-U.S. rivalries—albeit in more constrained hues than had been exhibited in their earlier manifestations. For a decade and a half, Russia had been too weak to seriously attempt regaining some of the Soviet Union's former status. That situation has not persisted. China and the United States have been rivals in the past and agreed that they both had incentives in the 1970s to deescalate their conflict. But conditions have since changed. At the moment, China and the United States have declined to acknowledge formally the full extent of their incompatibilities over goals and preferences, but their interactions frequently flirt with strong overtones of rivalry intensification. Meanwhile, China also finds itself in protracted and at least intermittently hostile relationships with India and Japan. Therefore, the revival of terminated rivalries between China and Vietnam or Russia are not out of the question.
Rivalries are not the exclusive property of large, powerful states. Some regions remain highly rivalry prone. The Middle East has long been a leader in this respect. Even if Egyptian-Israeli hostility has been defused for some time, the rivalry between them persists. The defeat and occupation of Iraq in 2003 put some rivalries in abeyance (for example, Iraq-Syria, Iraq-Kuwait, Iraq-Saudi Arabia, and Iraq-Iran), but that is not likely to be a permanent situation either. Other rivalries in the region (such as Iran-Israel or Egypt-Sudan) possess some likelihood of becoming more intense than they have been. Parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia also appear to be potential places for rivalries to dominate the international political landscape.
While regions exhibit differences in the presence and intensity of rivalry relationships, we have no reason to expect that strategic rivalries will disappear in the near future. In fact, we anticipate that interstate rivalries will be renewed nearly everywhere as environmental problems (global warming and water), energy issues (petroleum), and/or economic difficulties (world depression) grow worse in the twenty-first century.
Therefore, since rivalries have been important in the past, continue to be important in the present, and are likely to remain important in the future, we need to decipher why they come and go. In this book, we concentrate on why rivalries end. When one side defeats the other side overwhelmingly, this question is not difficult to answer. In these cases, rivalries disappear because one or both sides are no longer competitors. But why do some strategic rivalries end even when neither participant in the rivalry has been defeated?
The Rivalry Termination Record
If strategic rivalries eventually terminate, then it follows logically that there are several possible ways in which this might come about. The two fundamental paths, however, can be derived from the definition of strategic rivalry. They include situations when (1) one or both states in the rivalry lose their competitive status, and/or (2) one or both states cease to be perceived as a threatening enemy. In the first causal pathway, the loss of competitive status occurs when (1) one side is defeated decisively and acknowledges defeat; (2) one side acknowledges defeat without war; (3) one or both sides experience political-economic exhaustion and/or intensive civil war.
The loss of competitive status is reasonably common in rivalry cases. Table 1.2 lists the rivalries that have terminated through decisive defeats or exhaustion in the past two centuries. Roughly a third (48 of 139 or 34.5 percent) of the rivalries in the past two centuries have terminated when one side was forced to yield or withdraw from its dyadic contest. Table 1.3 lists another fifteen cases of rivalry that ended as a result of non-externally related war changes with one side acknowledging its inferiority to the other. Adding these cases (fifteen) to those in the last table (forty-eight) indicates that sixty-three, or 45 percent, of the termination cases are associated with endings along realist lines. In short, one side came to the realization that it lacked the ability to continue the competition. Whether it dropped out willingly or otherwise is not our immediate concern.
The main alternative pathway—the downscaling of enemy threat perception—can be realized on one or both sides through such noncoercive processes as
- shifts in strategic priorities (as in emphasizing domestic development versus external competition)
- changes in domestic leadership (presumably more critical in situations in which the leader is a principal source of foreign policy orientations)
- alterations in regime (and thereby leading to a redefinition of who constitutes friends and enemies)
- negotiations in a mutual effort to lesson tension, hostility, and threat without any structural changes in the adversary's orientation
Table 1.4 lists the seventy-six cases that fall within the noncoercive pathway to rivalry termination. These cases are grouped together without making a distinction about the reasons for how and why enemy status was revised.
Meanwhile, Table 1.5 summarizes all the 139 cases along the two causal pathways of rivalry termination: competitive status changes and erosion of enemy status. Forty-five percent of these cases were related to the loss of competitive status, while 54 percent of the cases are associated with the loss or erosion of enemy status. In fact, seventy-six of the cases represent rivalry termination that occurs through noncoercion. Of the sixty-three coercion-related cases of rivalry termination, one or both rivals lost their ability to continue the competition and were forced to yield, either by their adversary or by circumstances. These latter cases are less interesting to study because the reasons for rivalry termination are obvious and less puzzling.
However, the remaining seventy-six cases depict rivalry terminations that occurred without either side being able to claim an obvious victory. The reasons for their endings are less obvious and therefore more interesting to explain. There is no certain guarantee that the advent of internal shifts in domestic conditions or the presence of negotiations will automatically lead to rivalry termination by both sides. Once a rivalry forms, both sides develop highly negative images of their adversaries. Decision makers expect their rivals to engage in undesirable activities. They have little reason to trust one another. A domestic change in priorities, leadership, or regime may signal genuine changes in foreign policy intentions by one party. But the other side may choose to ignore signals or view them as part of a deceptive strategy. As for negotiations, they can drag on forever without any breakthrough unless both sides are genuinely interested in deescalation. The obvious question is whether we can develop a relatively parsimonious explanation for occasions in which domestic priorities/leader/regime changes and/or negotiations are more likely to lead to rivalry termination.
The approach adopted here involves the construction and testing of a theory that focuses on decision makers changing their strategies toward rivals. The probability of strategic changes are predicated on antecedent changes in expectations about rivals, external and internal shocks, the presence or absence of policy entrepreneurs (leading decisionmakers with specific agendas to change the way governments operate), third-party pressures, reciprocity, and reinforcement. Not all of these factors are necessary to bring about rivalry deescalation and termination. Nor are they all likely to be of equal significance. Existing theories about rivalry termination are limited to a large extent by their uncertainty about how these factors interact consistently across cases as well as their inability to map all the possible combinations of factors that were present as rivalries ended. Therefore, one of our goals in this study is to explore how these factors do interact and which combinations seem to be the most important ones for explaining how rivalries end.
Once we elaborate our theory of rivalry termination, we will test its applicability in a number of cases encompassing Eurasia. Specifically, we will examine three Middle Eastern rivalries, one South Asian rivalry, and six East and Southeast Asian rivalries in Chapters 3-7. The ten rivalries under investigation generated thirty-three cases of attempts—some successful— at significant rivalry deescalation—all of which are also examined in Chapters 4-7. Chapter 8 assesses the aggregate outcomes of the rivalry termination cases in terms of our expectancy theory, which is elaborated in Chapter 2. We find ample support for our explanation of rivalry deescalation and termination. The pattern is quite clear: shocks, expectancy revision, reciprocity, and reinforcement are necessary ingredients in bringing about reduced conflict in antagonistic dyads. Policy entrepreneurs and third-party intervention may facilitate movements toward less rivalry conflict, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient.