General research interests

In a hypothetical situation in which Iran is hit in turn by a cyber attack, sanctions, and cruise missiles, would we expect the Iranian leadership to respond using three unrelated strategies?  Phrased another way, are the causes and effects of each act of conflict so different from each other that they demand their own theories and their own empirical tests?  I would argue no.  

My interest lies in the interrelationships between acts of cooperation and conflict.  Specifically, I want to know how state leaders perceive and react to seemingly unrelated actions, such as wars, militarized disputes, sanctions, trade agreements, and membership in international organizations.  With the narrow exception of the foreign policy substitution literature, the field of IR has done a poor job of conceptualizing foreign policy in a manner consistent with how foreign policy-makers conceive of foreign policy.  My goal is to uncover the underlying factors guiding the decision-making process of rulers when they are responding to international events.  In my dissertation, I focus on the role of the cost and discernibility in differentiating how acts of conflict and cooperation are perceived and responded to.  Rulers do not believe that the reason they had sanctions leveled on their state are fundamentally different from the reason they were on the receiving end of a military strike.  The domestic consequences to those actions are different on scope, but not in kind.  The response will thus have more similarities than differences.  The goal of my research is to find out both those similarities and those differences.  

I am also interested in the role of reciprocity in international relations.  Traditionally, scholars of interstate conflict were concerned with military issues, while scholars of cooperation were concerned with economic one. The latter relied on the logic of reciprocity, while the former emphasized the anarchic nature of the international system.  I believe that dichotomy is unnecessary, and reciprocity plays just as important a role in conflict as it does in cooperation.  State leaders that fail to reciprocate to either form of policy risk loser power domestically and becoming a constant victim of aggression internationally.  The question I am interesting in examining is not so much why reciprocate - the answer to that is obvious - but what form that reciprocation needs to take in order to either maintain cooperative relations or deter future conflict.

Interstate political alignment

My dissertation touches upon both issues discussed above; it investigates the causes of interstate political alignment, defined as the stance a state takes on a well-defined proposal that is intended to resolve a stake over which two or more states have conflicting positions.  I argue that alignment, regardless of its form, is a function of the need for future assistance.  State leaders do not have the resources to simultaneously pursue all objectives, and are therefore willing to align with a state today with the expectation of that aid being reciprocated tomorrow.  As a result, much of international relations is a series of responses to past behavior.  This is consistent with my findings showing that states rarely take opposing sides in consecutive disputes between the same combatants.  A second component of my theory is premised on the idea that not all states are equally likely to reciprocate, whether cooperative or conflictual policies.  In particular, states that are unstable or ruled by unrepresentative governments are unreliable alignment partners, being likelier than other states to have their government toppled or pressured into integrating groups that have diametrically opposed foreign policy priorities.  I find that states with these characteristics are indeed less likely obtain positive alignment (cooperation), including from other unrepresentative states.  The final part of my dissertation makes use of a newly-created two-dimensional measure of alignment.  The two dimensions - cost and discernibility - provide mechanisms for states to judge the value of past alignments, and thereby affect their likelihood of reciprocating that past assistance.  Alignments that are more costly and more discernible are more likely to be reciprocated, but other considerations can dissuade states from pursuing these forms of alignment


Over the previous several decades, there has been a near consensus reached on the relevance of militarization when it comes to military conflict.  That near consensus is that militarization is endogenous to military conflict; threatened states build up their militaries to deal with imminent threats, and the resulting statistical relationship between militarization and conflict is spurious.  I argue that the endogeneity angle is overblown; threatened states no doubt militarize in preparation for military conflict, but the militarization exerts an effect on conflict independent of the initial threat.  For instance, the US military build-up during the Cold War was directed at the Soviet Union, but those military resources ended up being used in a plethora of conflicts, many of them only marginally related to the US-Soviet rivalry.  The mechanism through which the militarization increases the likelihood of conflict, both domestic and external, is two-fold.  First, a militarized society is one where interest groups supporting the military gains an upper-hand in domestic discourse, and the public soon follows suit.  Opposing military conflict therefore becomes a poor way for politicians, whether in a democracy or an autocracy, to stay in power.  The second part of the causal mechanism is concerned with the relative cost of using the military option instead of other alternatives.  As a state becomes more militarized, the relative cost of using that military goes down, leading to military conflicts at the margin, where peaceful options would previously be employed.  I am currently testing the broad militarization hypothesis and some of its implication in the context of interstate war and civil war onset.  

Meta-analysis of interstate conflict

Some of the greatest contributions to international relations in the previous few decades were made possible by the Correlates of War Project, in no small part thanks to the operationalization of MIDs and interstate wars.  Now might be the time to rethink those operationalizations and decide whether they are measuring what we want them to measure.  Toward that end, I am working with Konstantinos Travlos to develop a more theoretically informed operationalization of interstate conflict.  As a first step, we have gone over the last thirteen years of interstate conflict articles in the top eight political journals.  We narrowed those articles to a total of 239 studies that used the onset of interstate conflict as the dependent variable.  We are in the process of coding all relevant factors in those articles, including noting the independent variables and datasets that are used.  We plan on using this information to first conduct a meta-analysis of the causes of interstate conflict, seeing which specific variables or sets of variables are most frequently used to explain conflict onset.  We then intend propose an operationalization of interstate conflict that is reasonably objective, quantifiable, and grounded in theory.  Lastly, we want to see whether the variables used to explain the current atheoretical form of conflict are robust with regard to the new operationalization.