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The House Is On Fire, Should We Go To War? 

It is often believed that when things aren’t going well domestically, political leaders might initiate war abroad to shift attention away from the problems at home. This so-called “diversionary foreign policy” is popular in foreign policy analysis. Diversionary foreign policy theory suggest that governments try to generate public approval, for example, by undertaking war at a time of domestic difficulty. During wartime, citizens often refrain from criticizing common policy issues such as healthcare or education, since soldiers’ lives are on the line. This theory is hard to prove, since governments would never admit to such diversion of public attention[1]. Studies have shown, however, that diversionary conflict is highly conditional. In other words, not all leaders respond to domestic pressure by launching conflicts abroad, but many do.

Two main explanations are considered most plausible to explain the diversion. First, “rallying around the flag” suggests that during conflict with an out-group, the in-group becomes more unified. Patriotism and support for leadership increases in the population, thus strengthening the leader’s hold on power. The out-group in question cannot be a friendly state, as that would only further increase the domestic pressure on the leader. A vilified and easily recognizable out-group, however, is expected to cause the population to rally behind the leader. According to this explanation, it can be convenient for a leader to manufacture a crisis. Second, “gambling for resurrection” suggests that leaders can initiative a risky conflict to show that they are competent and strong when under pressure. If the leader is already on the verge of losing office, this is a low risk and high reward pursuit. Losing a conflict comes at low costs, since the leader is already likely to lose office, but ‘wining’ a conflict might enable the leader to remain in power.

Both explanations of diversionary conflict suggest that the goal is to strengthen a leader’s popularity, and with that, his/her hold on power. Citing lack of evidence, the author of this study assesses mechanisms that motivate embattled leaders to create diversions. More specifically, the author seeks to examine the types of states that are targeted in diversionary conflict.

Correlates of War: is an academic project that traces the history of warfare. “COW seeks to facilitate the collection, dissemination, and use of accurate and reliable quantitative data in international relations. Key principles of the project include a commitment to standard scientific principles of replication, data reliability, documentation, review, and the transparency of data collection procedures.”

The author proposes four factors that should have an effect on a leader’s conflict initiation during domestic unrest. To “rally around the flag” there needs to be: (1) an enduring rivalry; (2) geographical proximity; and, (3) geopolitical incompatibility. When “gambling for resurrection,” (4) the target needs to be more powerful. Data from the Correlates of War project is used to inspect conflict initiation. Domestic unrest like riots, strikes, and public demonstrations are derived from a dataset consisting of country-specific unrest over time.

By examining the four factors listed above, the author could not find support for the “rally around the flag” explanation. In fact, the results show that “diverting” leaders are more likely to shy away from traditional adversaries instead of engaging (factor 1). It is unclear if this avoidance is strategic. Leaders are more likely to initiate conflict with targets that are distant, although only to a small effect (factor 2). Domestic unrest has an effect on targets that are geopolitically compatible (factor 3). Finally, there is evidence that diversionary conflicts during domestic unrest are more likely to target more powerful states (factor 4). This proves that such conflicts are more driven by a leader’s desire to demonstrate competence when under attack from his/her constituents.  Even limited victories will usually translate into increased perception of a competent leader.

This research provided valuable insights into systematically examining targets of diversionary conflict. In doing so, the author was able to not only add further insights into previous studies, but also offer practically relevant knowledge to help us challenge some common assumptions on diversionary conflict.

 Talking Points:

  • Diversionary conflicts during domestic unrest are more likely to target more powerful states
  • There is no evidence that diversionary conflicts during domestic unrest target traditional enemies.
  • There is no evidence that diversionary conflicts during domestic unrest are aimed at geographically close targets.
  • There is no evidence that diversionary conflicts during domestic unrest are aimed at geopolitical incompatible targets.

Contemporary Relevance:

In the United States context, one cannot view this study without making a plausible, direct connection to the current administration and its foreign policy. Since taking office, the approval rating for President Trump has been under 50%, for the last six months it has been consistently under 40%. Simultaneously the 2017 Women’s March, a day after Trump’s inauguration, launched what is now a broader and more mainstream resistance movement on social issues including women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, immigration, healthcare, education, and taxes. Adding the investigation on possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to the picture, it is safe to suggest that the current administration is facing severe domestic pressure. Not surprisingly, a Google internet search with the terms “diversionary war” and “Trump” provides more than 1,000 results.

More specifically, there are three foreign policy issues, and the ways they are being dealt with, that give credence to the “gambling for resurrection” and “rally around the flag” theories. First, the Trump administration is outspoken in its claim that Iran (a traditional adversary) is willfully violating the terms of the Iran Nuclear Deal. Second, the administration is promoting a hard-fist, military might approach with regard to combating ISIS as the only solution to combat terrorism. Moreover, the terrorism threat is exaggerated to justify these approaches. Third, the ongoing conflict with North Korea (a traditional adversary) has been escalated, leading many experts across the political spectrum to conclude that the administration seeks war with the nuclear armed nation. The Trump administration certainly did not create the conflict with North Korea, yet we can observe how narrative of the threat of nuclear missile attacks on the U.S. mainland is pushed as a menace to the entire population of the U.S. The existing rivalry between the U.S. and the demonized North Koreans—the “other” we should be afraid of—plays into the administration’s narrative and provides a needed diversion from poor performance and low approval ratings. Especially in an era where an unpopular U.S. administration is pushing nationalist sentiment to discriminate against immigrants and “otherness” under the cover of “Make America Great Again”, we must not fail to consider foreign policy saber rattling in the context of “rallying around the flag” and “gambling for resurrection”. At the same time, the results caution us not to assume that these are (sole) explanatory factors.

Considering this context, both the “rallying around the flag” and the “gambling for resurrection” theories are intuitively plausible. The author suggests in his review of related research, that diversionary conflict is highly conditional. In other words, the contextual factors that go beyond an embattled leader and diversionary conflict need to be included into the analysis. Wars always have many contributing factors. Diversion from domestic lack of leadership certainly can be one, but we must not fall into the trap of providing simple causal relationships for complex social phenomena. Therefore, in the “Practical Implications” we make the argument for a systematic and ongoing conflict assessment.

Practical Implications:

The first and arguably most important step toward constructively resolving a conflict is to understand the conflict and its context. In the U.S. context, the insights from this study help us challenge the administration’s handling of the conflicts with Iran and North Korea, as well as the responses to terrorism.

This study does not tell us that there is diversionary conflict, nor does it tell us there is not. This study allows us to consider diversionary conflict as a possible contributing factor to already existing foreign policy issues. Conflict analysis can suggest that diversion indeed is a factor in conflict escalation, even if it falls short of war. Conflict analysis, the structured inquiry into the causes and potential trajectory of a conflict, is an invaluable practical tool to determine the contributing factors, and thorough analysis is an absolute prerequisite for conflict resolution and transformation.

One possible conflict analysis framework is structured as follows:

  1. Short summary description
  2. A conflict history
  3. Conflict context (geographical boundaries, political structures, communications networks, etc.)
  4. Conflict parties (primary, secondary, interested third parties), including power relations (symmetrical or asymmetrical), main goals of the parties and potential for coalitions
  5. Conflict issues (facts-based, values-based, interests based, non-realistic)
  6. Conflict dynamics (precipitating events, issue emergence, polarization, spiraling, stereotyping)
  7. Alternative routes to a solution of the problem(s)
  8. Conflict regulation or resolution potential (internal limiting factors, external limiting factors, interested or neutral third parties, techniques of conflict management)

Peace and conflict resolution practitioners and advocates need to use their skills and toolsets, conflict analysis frameworks, as well as theoretical lenses such as “diversionary conflict” to get the most accurate picture of the conflict at hand.

(List from: Wehr, P. (1979). Conflict Regulation. Boulder, CO: Westview Press)



Haynes, K. (2017). Diversionary conflict: demonizing enemies or demonstrating competence? Conflict Management and Peace Science, 34(4), 337-358. 

Continued Reading

[1] Pevehouse, J. C., & Goldstein, J. S. (2016). International Relations. New York: Pearson Education.
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