Security Studies Program Seminar

Unipolarity, Status Competition and Great Power War

William Wohlforth
Daniel Webster Professor and Chair
Dartmouth Government Department

April 8, 2009

Notes on Talk

-The talk is based on recent piece “Unipolarity, Status Competition and Great Power War,” from World Politics, January 2009
-The article is an attempt to investigate a proposition about the relationship between polarity and great power war and analyzes whether or not there is a relationship between polarity and war]

The conventional wisdom:
-The conventional wisdom is that the relationship between unipolarity and propensity of great powers to fight are indeterminate…And if unipolarity ends and we return to mp, that shift isn’t going to make us return to great power war. 
-Reasons this is widespread view: 1) fundamental causes that brought great power wars in the past probably don’t apply to contemporary world - i.e. main reason for realists: nuclear deterrence.  2) spread of democracy 3) new kinds of norms 4) econ interdependence, etc
-People are fundamentally motivated by instrumental material concerns – security and prosperity drives decision-makers

Wohlforth’s position:
-Wohlforth disagrees with conventional wisdom on power shifts not mattering for great power wars. 
-He questions assumptions that people are mainly motivated by material gains and losses and that states’ satisfaction with status quo is relatively unconnected with the distribution of power itself. 
-Organizes the remarks in four sections: 1) puzzles that theories of war face that this research helps address 2) theory and hypotheses 3) evidence 4) conclude

1.  Puzzles
-The problem of status competition and the desire that people have for status in international politics can help to solve two long-standing puzzles: a) why are materially satisfied states still revisionist? (i.e. China today, pre-WW1 Germany) b) why can’t states simply bargain and negotiate peacefully over the international order as the power balance shifts – why can’t they just cut deals to renegotiate the order?  There are a number of reasons given: indivisibility of the issue (but Wohlforth says many issues are easily divisible).  When we look at power transitions in past, states are unable to make issues divisible and reach negotiated outcomes. 

2. Theories and Hypotheses
-Human beings in the world are hardwired to care about their relative position in society.  -Social status is the most important motivator of human behavior – people care about this even apart from the material gains associated with what a rise in status might bring.  --There is much support across fields for this basic point.
-Most recently, in neuroscience literature, show how reward sections of brain are stimulated by success, even without material reward.  Humans value winning and relative gains over absolute material gains. 
-Most of the evidence in the research is on individuals - - so, is there reason to think that these preferences are translated to interactions between states? Wohlforth argues yes.
-Social identity theory shows individual preferences for higher status and favorable social comparisons translates to the groups with which they identify. 
-Wohlforth thinks that we can assume that those in office are acting on behalf of group, which is the state that they represent.  So, if we apply social identity theory, we can translate the findings about individual preferences to statesmen acting on behalf of states.
-Built into a lot of this research is the idea that the groups are of similar status, not differing positions.
-Unclear hierarchies tend to lead to competitive status competing behavior and status seeking behavior is more likely when the relative status of groups is unclear.
-There is no reason for separating the findings from social identity theory from material things as tends to be done in the IR literature (i.e. social identity theory mostly used by constructivists)
-Wohlforth proposes hypotheses that link polarity to the probability of status competition
-he takes standard distributions of power and suggests how these different power distributions may make status comp more or less likely

Wohlforth’s hypotheses linking polarity to propensity for status competition:
a) multipolar:
-suggests situation with 3-7 states more or less equally endowed with equal capabilities and no clear hierarchy
-what is going to happen? states are going to jockey to establish a hierarchy and each state is going to prefer to be higher up. Each state wants to be number one.  And prefer nobody to be number one than another state to be number one.
b) unipolar:
-one state dominates on all relevant material indices of power.  All other great powers have no difficulty identifying who is at the top of the hierarchy. 
-Its dominance precludes strategies that involve direct military conflict because you are not going to win.  So, status politics exist (states care about it), but they do not translate into militarized conflict
c) bipolar:
-falls somewhere in between – there is still a propensity for status comp (less than mp and more than up)

3. Evidence
-Wohlforth posits general and causal mechanisms
A) general patterns: theory predicts up systems should be less war-prone than multipolar and bipolar. 
-in ir studies, the only polar type that has effect on war is up (negative effect)
-dyadic studies – if there is any relationship between power and war the only one that has causal effect is preponderance of power making war less likely
-general historical evidence: statesmen appear to care about their relative standing
-ancient historical international systems: up type systems seem to experience less war
B) causal mechanisms:
-extremely difficult to isolate the concern for social status from the concerns for security or other material gains
-he looked at competition between two leading powers, us and Britain at the top of international systems at the time both which were secure at the time relative to most states in most of history

  1. Crimean war:  mid 19th century mp distribution of power – w/5 basic great powers – 3 of them: France, GB and Russia stand out as the biggest…ambiguous hierarchy.  Different leading powers excel at different things.  Unstable dual hegemony with the two empires GB and Russia trying to see if they can share leadership in some way.  The situation was unstable and underneath it was changing power dynamic with GB industrial revolution giving the relationship a dramatic underlying change.  The case shows the basic causal mechanisms that run from narrow power gaps that were asymmetric in an ambiguous hierarchy and efforts to clarify and revisionism by material satisfied state and conflict over status and ultimately war.  Rights and privileges of great powers are at the center of the conflict.  Went through 11 diplomatic exchanges to try to find solution over the clerical rights, but the Russians would not be satisfied by any agreements.  Failure to reach bargain > war.  Russia loses and status reduced.
    -You do not find insecurities driving states to fight each other.  What brought them to fight was a dispute about status and over who has what rank and what rights. 

  2. Late cold war struggles between us and soviet union: existential security was taken care of by nuclear arsenals and much of the comp behavior in the late cold war is viewed by realists as sub-optimal and is not explained by rational responses to the international system.  Argues we see same kinds of causal mechanisms that we see in the Crimean case.
    -US and Soviet Union clearly above second tier powers and second tier powers aren’t likely to adopt policies that will bring them into direct confrontation with superpowers.  However, superpowers care a lot about their rank. 
    -Soviet leadership saw détente as in their security interest and saw involvement in third world to pursue status, but this would put détente at risk…so, he argues they chose status over security. 

  3. Contemporary international politics: if you look at discourse of elites in other major powers (Russia, China, India, Japan) you see evidence consistent with this argument.  People in these states look to the US as being a level higher in terms of material power. 
    -Overall, it is going to be much harder to manage status disputes in multipolar world than unipolar world.


Q: if status matters, it doesn’t just matter who is going to be #1 (other positions matter) - -in unipolar world, can’t there still be status comp between lower tier powers over who is #2 or #3, etc? 

Q: How do you measure status?
A: Status is non-material, social-psych phenomenon – and it is very hard to measure.  Status concerns manifest themselves in different ways in different social settings.  Status is about relative rank and recognition that is conferred in a mutual social setting. 

Q: Ways to test this theory: 1) speech evidence can be used to see how much status actually drives this…2) what is speech evidence for status concern?  How often is concern over credibility actually a cover for status concern?  3) the concept of honor – does that have to do w/status?  4) is status gendered?

A: Believes that concern over status has varied somewhat but it is always there, but the words we have used to describe it have changes…some countries are more likely to talk about it than others.  Other countries like the US won’t articulate that war is over status
-there is not much variation on the demographics of the decision-makers – question for more research

Q: Your predictions mirror material arguments….and when you use terms like status, you also use terms like rank, position (which tend to be material based)…also, what is the relationship between the material distribution and status? 
A: Separating status from material is very difficult, but necessary.  Traditional explanations center on material motives, but if other motives can drive states to conflict then we need to be concerned about the future of great power politics even if all the other arguments don’t apply.  Theory on status has similar brute predictions, but completely different causal mechanisms.

Q: Can you translate social identity theory from individual to state to alliance in terms of who leaders identify with in terms of status?
A: Have not looked strongly at alliances, but work assumes leaders are identifying with their own state

Q: There are examples where diplomatic bargaining has worked….Asks about the significance of these examples where countries do bargain successfully.
Q: Doesn’t the whole theory of appeasement in Europe work against your argument? 

Q: if status if more than just power and there is something more to it like legitimacy or dominance…..if status is meta-concept of things that other states think about you…different states will weight different components of status differently.  And this will create status conflicts…
A: when capabilities closely matched then status comp most likely to result in war

Q: methodological question – might there be other material explanations at state level or sub-state level that explain what is driving state behavior in these cases
A:  alternative arguments for these cases are security concerns far down the line and not status (so, even if a state is secure they might not be secure 20 plus years from now, so war is worth it).  –domestic interests may lead to over expansionist policies and one way to rationalize this is to trump it up to some sort of ideology or status – need to do a case study testing out these competing hypotheses. 

  1. you argue status exists, but doesn’t translate into mil cause can’t win – or #1 too clear…Can't you gain status by hurting #1 a lot either materially or in terms of its credibility, etc even if actual position is unattainable -
  2. How does terrorism fit into this - - gap is even bigger and less ambiguous

Notes prepared by Tara Maller

back to Wednesday Seminar Sseries, Spring 2009