At arm's distance : how states manage escalation with proxies and denials
- This book explores the tools that states use to put armed conflict at arm's distance. The basic principle is simple - reducing attribution can reduce escalation. I focus on two primary ways in which states attempt to obfuscate responsibility for violence. The first is verbal denials. This tool simply requires taking some action against another state and then, if challenged, denying that the state is not responsible. The second tool is using a proxy force. This tool requires sending or supporting an armed group to attack another state. Most frequently, denials and proxies are used together - a proxy makes a denial more plausible, and vice versa. These tools have always been a feature of international conflict and continue today despite information technology's ability to expose covert activities. These distancing tools do not contradict the facts on the ground - the existence of violence - rather they aim to obscure who is responsible, which is much harder to detect. In Chapter 1, I present my theory of distancing in international relations. This follows closely behind similar work in secrecy, but is distinguished from secrecy in that something is known to the public. Principally, I ask: if secrecy can limit escalation by keeping people in the dark, then what happens when much is known to the public, and a state continues to deny responsibility? Do the benefits of secrecy evaporate? I argue that covert action (the use of denials and proxies) creates distance or separation between the state and the armed force acting on its behalf. I use a stylized game tree to illustrate the decision sequence that two states must make regarding covert action. First, a challenger state must decide between inaction, covert action, and public action. Covert action promises lower costs but smaller results because limited forces are used. In Chapter 2, I empirically explore the reasons states choose between covert and public action. Then the defending state must make a decision on retaliation. If the defender exposes the challenger's covert activity, it can gain a tactical advantage by responding with a large, open force against the challenger's covert, limited force. In addition, exposing the challenger's covert attack can increase public support for retaliation, which I explore in Chapter 3. As long as the defender only retaliates against the denied force, escalation can be reduced - a claim I investigate in Chapter 4. In Chapter 2, I investigate why states choose between public action and deniable, covert action. To evaluate this question, I look at state sponsorship of rebel groups. Comparing public and private sponsorship allows me to control for the various types of covert and public action that may exist - gaining traction on a topic that is challenging to research statistically. I find that approximately 25% of the time, states publicly acknowledge their support. States choose to go public about issues that are important to them and to demonstrate high resolve. States that have previously fought one another openly are more likely to publicly support rebels. They are also more likely to provide more support to the rebels, provide support for longer, and to send in their own military to help the rebels - all evidence of increased commitment. In contrast, neighboring states that are relatively weaker than the state they are targeting are more likely to keep their sponsorship hidden - a sign that challengers aim to reduce escalation risks against stronger states. Additionally, I find weaker, but significant, evidence that states may not go public to avoid the appearance of sponsoring terrorists, to prevent damage to trade, and due to the mediating effects of international governmental organizations. In Chapter 3, I test the theory of distancing using a public opinion survey because domestic opinion is a mechanism through with escalation may be managed. I show that a challenger's denial does little to convince people in the defending state, moving public opinion by 5.4%. However, the government of the defending state can increase support for retaliation by 24.5% by blaming the challenger. I also demonstrate that people are more willing to retaliate against a challenger's proxy force than against the challenger directly, but that using a proxy does not significantly reduce support for escalation against the aggressor state in most cases. Attribution strongly mediates the effects of denials, which is the primary mechanism though which public support for escalation can be reduced. These results mostly contradict the theory that denials function as a type of performance or elite framing in which states (the actors) put on a believable show, despite the audience (the public) knowing the truth. In Chapter 4, I use an observational dataset based on the International Crisis Behavior (ICB) project to show that proxy groups reduce violent conflict between states. I find that this is primarily because proxies offer an alternative return address for retaliation. If defending states direct their responses towards the proxy rather than the sponsor, violent conflict will likely diminish. It does not matter if such retaliation crosses a border and occurs inside the defender's territory, as long as it is clear that the retaliation was directed at the proxy forces rather than the challenger state's forces or government. The data demonstrates that states target the proxy rather than the state in 86% of violent responses to a proxy. After this, the challenger only attacks the defender 20% of the time. I further corroborate these results by matching crises to the militarized interstate dispute (MID) dataset, finding that proxy-initiated crises see a 25% reduction in the level of hostilities when the defender retaliates against the proxy (occurs 70% of the time) and fewer fatalities.
|Type of resource
|electronic resource; remote; computer; online resource
|1 online resource.
|Napier, Charles Creed
|Degree committee member
|Degree committee member
|Stanford University, School of Humanities and Sciences
|Stanford University, Department of Political Science
|Statement of responsibility
|Submitted to the Department of Political Science.
|Thesis Ph.D. Stanford University 2023.
- © 2023 by Charles Creed Napier
- This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial 3.0 Unported license (CC BY-NC).
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