Since the periods of decolonization and the Cold War, Africa has been the site of numerous protracted conflicts. Some countries have experienced repeated cycles of violence and civil war, while other countries have headed off major conflict and maintained relative peace. What factors account for these differences? In a clear, compelling, theoretically innovative study, Philip Roessler argues that civil wars often emerge from power struggles among political elites. In fragile, ethnically divided states, powerholders have greater fear of coups d’état staged by rivals at the core than civil wars waged by excluded minorities on the periphery. As a result, powerholders in weak states are likely to incorporate potential rivals at the center in a system of ethnic power sharing and to exclude regional and ethnic minorities on the margins. While such tactics may work in the short term, ongoing rivalry at the center, compounded by political exclusion elsewhere, may eventually lead to the coup–civil war trap. In such cases, rival power aspirants may mobilize marginalized groups, with civil war as an outcome.

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In this article, Michael Beckley makes an important contribution to how scholars measure state power, arguing that net rather than gross indicators of a state’s military and economic resources better capture a state’s capabilities. The question of how to measure state power is central to both theoretical and policy debates. In theoretical terms, power lies at the center of any effort to understand how states can influence one another in the international arena. Arguably no outcome in international affairs can be properly understood without attention to the relative power of the actors involved. Likewise, some of the most important policy debates hinge on perceptions of relative power, including those over the rise of China and the strategic posture the United States ought to adopt as a result. Advocates of U.S. retrenchment tend to argue that China is rapidly closing the gap in capabilities with the United States and will soon eclipse U.S. capabilities.[1] Beckley and others who advocate a strategy of deep engagement argue that the United States still enjoys, and will likely continue to enjoy for the foreseeable future, a sizeable advantage over China. It is an ambitious objective to take on such a core question, and Beckley should be applauded for challenging widely established approaches to using power as a variable and suggesting ways to improve those approaches that are both promising and parsimonious.

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JoGGS coverWithout saying so, Andrej Krickovic’s “Catalyzing Conflict” makes a compelling case that state power is a function of legitimacy.  And legitimacy, in turn, is driven by a state’s ability to generate some combination of military capability (that, among other things, allows it to monopolize coercion within its borders), economic development, cultural unity, and political stability.  Unquestionably, there is an issue of endogeneity at play in analyzing the relationship between legitimacy and power.  But through his discussion of the security dilemma Krickovic effectively raises the importance of domestic vulnerabilities for the construction of foreign policy.

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