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Article Breaks New Ground in Study of International Conflict

Research shows decreasing uncertainty can increase the probability of war

Posted: May 1, 2012

A new article by Scott Wolford, assistant professor of government, challenges longstanding orthodoxies in the study of international conflict. Foremost among these, Wolford demonstrates that decreasing uncertainty about an opponent’s military strength can increase the probability of war.

Key to the finding is that a state’s prior beliefs about their opponent determines the effect that intelligence gathering has on the probability of war. “Arms, Intelligence, and War” reveals that the relative impacts of intelligence and arms on war and peace are conditional on the interaction between prior levels of uncertainty and the distribution of power. The article is coauthored with Philip Arena, an assistant professor at SUNY-Buffalo, and will soon be published in “International Studies Quarterly.”

To date, a large body of research has argued that the revelation of new information decreases the likelihood of war, as pervasive uncertainty is one of the primary factors driving international conflict. Because states are uncertain about opponents’ military strength, they may increase spending on arms or invest in intelligence in an effort to reduce this uncertainty. Investing in arms increases the likelihood of winning a war, and investing in intelligence improves a state’s estimate of its ability to win a war.

Wolford and Arena present a formal model in which a state chooses levels of spending on military capabilities and intelligence gathering. The state then receives information about its opponent’s strength, the accuracy of which depends on how much the state invested to gather intelligence. Finally, the state gives its opponent an ultimatum which leads either to a peaceful settlement or war.

Based on prior research, the expectation is that revealing new information promotes peace. However, Wolford and Arena demonstrate that this is not necessarily the case. If the state initially believes their opponent is strong, but their intelligence gathering reveals that the opponent is actually weak, the state will subsequently make more aggressive demands than it otherwise would have, and, while the absolute probability of war may be small, the information revealed introduces a previously non-existent risk of war.

Just as the effect of intelligence on the probability of war is conditional on prior beliefs, the effect of increasing military capabilities is conditional on previous levels of armament. This stands in contrast to longstanding research that assumes the relationship is unconditional. Wolford and Arena find that when beginning from a position of relative weakness, increasing military capabilities increases the probability of war, but doing so when beginning from a position of parity or relative strength decreases the probability of war.

The article’s findings are highly significant, as much energy within international relations revolves around the study of mechanisms for revealing information and decreasing uncertainty, under the assumption that doing so always increases the likelihood of peaceful outcomes. Wolford and Arena have shown the relationship to be more complicated than assumed.

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