Home > Faculty, International Relations, Scholarship, University of the Pacific > Pacific@MPSA: From Territorial Dispute to War

Pacific@MPSA: From Territorial Dispute to War

Ed. note: This is the second of several entries on our faculty’s presentations at the recent Midwestern Political Science Association annual meetings in Chicago, IL. Prof. Susan Sample presented her paper, “From Territorial Dispute to War:  Timing, Causation, and the Steps-to-War.”

One of the most influential theories about the causes of war over the last couple of decades is the steps-to-war theory, first articulated in The War Puzzle by John Vasquez in 1993.  The steps-to-war theory argues that wars tend to emerge from conflicts over territorial issues, which are then “negotiated” with power politics policies, like making alliances and building up your arms in order to demonstrate how important the issue is to you, and to make fighting easier if war comes.  Rather than making war less likely through deterrence, these things lead to step increases in the probability of war.  Empirical testing of the relationships has demonstrated that the variables embedded in the theory, individually and collectively, do in fact increase the probability of war.

This paper takes the next step in testing this theory by asking whether there are patterns in the sequence in which the various steps emerge?  Sequence matters because it gets to the underlying theoretical mechanism of how these processes work–others have argued, for instance, that taking the steps isn’t increasing the chance of war, but rather, states make a decision to go to war, then do all of these things in order to prepare to fight it.  In other words, the things are correlated, but the steps-to-war theory is getting the causes and consequences backwards.  There are other critiques that are similar:  they argue that the correlations between the variables and war may work, but the real causal mechanism is different from what the steps-to-war theory argues.

This paper tests this by looking at sequencing of the steps.  I find that all territorial claims are not alike.  The causal path of some certainly fit the steps-to-war theory quite well, but many are clearly following paths that are likely better explained by other theories.  By looking at the historical records of actual conflicts, we can test these theories and figure out what they have to offer our explanations of the causes of war. The next step is likely to be moving from this article to a book-length project that does process-tracing of particular historical case studies to try to trace the particular causal mechanisms at work in the different categories of cases.

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  1. Nick Rishwain
    April 5, 2011 at 9:34 am

    This is excellent information. I really appreciate the Pacific Political Science blog. The steps-to-war-theory info discussed in this post was fantastic. I miss my political science studies during my undergrad. I’m glad UOP makes this information available online. Keep it coming and I’ll continue to read.

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