This article addresses the effect of political instability and domestic conflict on the probability of militarized interstate disputes. Existing research on the subject has produced inconsistent findings. I hypothesize that the effect of political instability on international disputes is conditional on states’ involvement in civil conflict. More specifically, I argue that while political instability provides leaders with the willingness to use force, civil war creates the necessary opportunities for initiating conflict abroad. A directed-dyad analysis of international rivals for the 1816–2000 time period shows that instability coupled with civil war increases the probability of militarized interstate dispute initiation among rival states. Results are consistent for alternative indicators of political instability and civil war.
We have argued in Electing to Fight and other writings that an incomplete democratic transition increases the risk of international and civil war in countries that lack the institutional capacity to sustain democratic politics. The combination of increasing mass political participation and weak political institutions creates the motive and the opportunity for both rising and declining elites to play the nationalist card in an attempt to rally popular support against domestic and foreign rivals. Vipin Narang and Rebecca Nelson, in their critique of Electing to Fight, agree that incompletely democratizing countries with weak institutions may be at greater risk of civil war, but they are skeptical that this extends to international war except when opportunistic neighbors invade failing states. Whereas we argue that nationalism is a key causal mechanism linking incomplete democratization to both civil and international war, they conjecture that weak institutions and state failure are probably sufficient to explain why such countries may be at greater risk of armed conflict. In contrast, we have found that weak political institutions generally have little effect on a state’s risk of involvement in external war when considered separately from incomplete democratization. We welcome the opportunity to advance this important debate by highlighting relevant portions of our previous research and summarizing some new findings on international and civil wars. Support for our argument rests on statistical tests and extensive case studies that trace causal processes in detail. We have presented statistical results showing the greater likelihood of war involvement for incompletely democratizing states with weak political institutions between 1816 and 1992, the greater propensity of democratizing states to engage in militarized interstate disputes, and the increased risk of civil war in incompletely democratizing states. We have also published case studies of all of the democratizing great powers since the French Revolution, all the democratizing initiators of interstate war in our statistical study, all the post-Communist states, paired comparisons of postcolonial states, and several wars involving democratizing states in the 1990s. Since we published Electing to Fight in 2005, elections have heightened identity politics and fueled cross-border violence in weakly institutionalized regimes in Georgia, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. To try to advance the debate, we will address the main points on which Narang and Nelson have criticized our evidence and methods, and then we will discuss issues for further research.
This article compares Britain’s failed attempt at building a stable, liberal state in Iraq from 1914 to 1932 with the USA’s struggle to stabilise the country after regime change in April 2003. It sets out a template for endogenous state-building based on the evolution of the European state system. It then compares this to exogenous extra-European state-building after both World War I and the Cold War. It focuses on three key stages: the imposition of order, the move from coercive to administrative capacity and finally the evolution of a collective civic identity linked to the state. It is this process against which Iraqi state-building by the British in the 1920s and by the USA from 2003 onwards can be accurately judged to have failed. For both the British and American occupations, troop numbers were one of the central problems undermining the stability of Iraq. British colonial officials never had the resources to transform the despotic power deployed by the state into sustainable infrastructural capacity. Instead they relied on hakumat al tayarra (government by aircraft). The dependence upon air power led to the neglect of other state institutions, stunting the growth of infrastructural power and hence state legitimacy. The US occupation has never managed to impose despotic power, having failed to obtain a monopoly over the collective deployment of violence. Instead it has relied on ‘indigenisation,’ the hurried creation of a new Iraqi army. The result has been the security vacuum that dominates the south and centre of the country. The article concludes by suggesting that unsuccessful military occupations usually end after a change of government in the intervening country. This was the case for the British in May 1929 and may well be the case for the USA after the next presidential election in 2008.