Strategic Rivalries in World Politics: Position, Space, and Conflict Escalation

  • Published

Strategic Rivalries in World Politics: Position, Space, and Conflict Escalation by Michael P. Colaresi, Karen Rasler, and William R. Thompson. Cambridge University Press, 2007, 314 pp.

Conflict has been one of the most enduring topics in the study of world affairs. In fact, many claim that it is the reality of conflict and the desire to overcome it that animates the theory and practice of international relations. In this respect, the examination undertaken by Michigan State assistant professor of political science, Michael P. Colaresi; Indiana University professor of political science, Karen Rasler; and the Rogers Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, William R. Thompson indicates that the understanding of conflict demands an engagement with the strategic rivalries that provoke it. These researchers claim that the analysis of rivalry in global politics bears “considerable potential for revolutionizing the study of conflict” (p. 21). Strategic Rivalries in World Politics, therefore, provides a much-needed and thorough engagement with the contestations that presage conflictual international behavior.

The authors have divided their volume into five parts. The first engages with the contexts and analytical frameworks of strategic rivalries. In particular, Colaresi, Rasler, and Thompson outline the issues related to the definition and identification of strategic rivalries. In this respect, they conclude that a central problem associated with the designation of strategic rivalries relates to their interpretation. The difficulty relates to the need “to codify decision-making perceptions [to make them legible for strategic analysis] without ever expecting to have direct access to these perceptions” (p. 29). Exploring the maze of conceptual and methodological quandaries leads the authors to develop six identifications of strategic rivalries in world politics. This classification, in turn, assists them in systematizing the distinct trends animating the dynamics of confrontation. What emerges is a quantifiable distribution of strategic rivalries across time and space. The datasets provided depict a vivid picture of such conflictual behavior. Yet, the authors acknowledge that despite such sophisticated analysis it is still difficult to address the question of “whether rivalries are more likely to escalate to higher levels of conflict—militarized disputes and war—than non-rivalry dyads” (p. 87).

Part 2 of the volume zooms in on the potential dangers emanating from strategic rivalries. The analysis concentrates on the relationship between protracted conflict and crisis escalation. What emerges from this engagement is perhaps an unsurprising picture of international politics which, however, many commentators have chosen to ignore. As Colaresi, Rasler, and Thompson point out, their investigation provides empirical evidence that most actors in world politics do not engage in conflictual behavior; yet, the study of international affairs remains framed by the perception that “all state actors are equally likely to engage in conflict (or cooperation) with all other actors” (p. 130). In this respect, they demonstrate that rivalry matters to the extent that it is “very important in differentiating states that are likely to engage in conflict from those that are much less likely to do so” (p. 158).

In the third part, Colaresi, Rasler, and Thompson delve into the issues relating to the effects of space and positioning on the dynamics of strategic rivalry. While in the first part they suggested the difficulties associated with the identification and interpretation of “perceptual pathologies or misperceptions” (p. 24), here they demonstrate the fairly straightforward and well-established conflict emanating from the relationship between contiguity and policy attitudes. The inference then is, “not only is the existence of a rivalry a useful predicator of consequent conflict behavior, so, too, is the type of rivalry” (p. 162). In this respect, they observe that spatial and positional factors are mutually constitutive and one contributes to the conflict-propensity of the other. Thus, while the spatial component is a central feature of bilateral wars, “multilateral conflicts may depend on the constellation of positional rivalries and alliances that surround each territorial conflagration” (p. 215).

However, as part 4 of the volume reveals, geographic and ideological factors cannot encompass the full spectrum of issues that inform the escalation of a rivalry into open and all-out war. Instead, as Colaresi, Rasler, and Thompson outline, arms buildups, territorial contestations, and the formation of military alliances all play important roles in process of conflict escalation. It is the notion and nature of hostility underpinning these trends that contributes to the outbreak of war. In this respect, the fifth and final part offers a careful summation of the main propositions put forward and presents their conclusions on the relationship between strategic rivalry and conflict. The authors outline the various inducements, facilitators, and suppressors that contribute to either the intensification or weakening violent international behavior. In terms of policy making, the main conclusion proposed by Colaresi, Rasler, and Thompson is the continuation of efforts encouraging “democratization and interdependence” (p. 284). In this respect, their analytical endeavor contributes to the further validation of the democratic peace thesis.

Thus, with their comprehensive overview of the context and process of strategic rivalry, Colaresi, Rasler, and Thompson have illuminated the dynamics of conflict and cooperation in world politics. Such a valuable contribution to the study of international security would benefit both the student and practitioner of international relations. The authors’ ability to gather such a wide range of perspectives, data, and experiences and, at the same time, to reflect critically on their implications makes their effort extremely worthwhile. Strategic Rivalries in World Politics will therefore be very useful to anyone dealing with or keen to learn more about the complex dynamics animating strategic rivalries in global life.

Emilian R. Kavalski, PhD

University of Western Sydney (Australia)

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."