The End of Hierarchy and the Global Outbreak of Civil War, [pdf]

In contrast to the many studies of civil war onset that take a country-level or region-level approach, this paper provides a systemic theory of civil conflict. I argue that the retrenchment of great powers who have underwritten political institutions across the globe generates commitment problems within the polities they formerly supported. Using data from two time periods — before and after decolonization, I demonstrate that shocks to individual great powers’ economic growth rates generate waves of civil conflict throughout the polities they control. This effect persists during both periods. Causal mediation analysis rules out the possibility of an indirect effect of great power economic growth mediated by subordinate polity economic conditions. The link between the end of hierarchy and civil conflict explains why civil wars are often clustered both temporally and spatially.

Threats and Promises: Why Democracy Promotion Sometimes Leads to Civil Conflict, [pdf]

The experience of several Arab countries during the 2011 “Arab Spring” offers strikingly different lessons for democracy promotion. While Tunisia appears to have successfully liberalized, Syria remains mired in civil conflict. This paper argues that scholars have neglected the strategic incentives of autocrats in their evaluation of democracy promotion abroad. Successful democratization requires the mobilization of groups within a country — which can be facilitated by external actors — but autocrats can respond to this mobilization either with concessions, leading to democratization, or repression, leading to civil conflict. I analyze a theoretical model in which democratization can occur either as a unilateral concession by an autocrat or as the result of a stochastic conflict. Peaceful democratization is more likely when external states are able to both promise support to nascent opposition groups and can successfully threaten autocrats. Conversely, I show that civil conflict is an equilibrium outcome of democracy promotion when external states can promise support to opposition groups but are unable to successfully threaten autocrats. I demonstrate support for the model through statistical analysis and a cross-sectional case study of Arab countries during the 2010s. The findings shed light on the ability of great powers to promote democracy as a function of their existing ties to autocratic regimes. This paper also cautions that democracy promotion may exist uneasily with a commitment to peacekeeping, and provides conditions for an ex ante evaluation of democracy promotion’s likelihood of success.

Strategic Aid and Foreign-Induced Regime Change, [pdf]

This paper considers the relationship between foreign aid and leader security. I argue that while the presence of aid increases leader security, the expectation of aid in the future can cause domestic instability. Through analysis of a formal model, I establish conditions under which the promise of foreign aid in the future generates incentives for political competition. This mechanism depends on the existence of domestic institutions that allow the private expropriation of rents from foreign aid. I derive a measure that captures potential leaders’ expected opportunity costs to not challenging their state’s current government and show that higher opportunity costs increase the risk of both leader turnovers and coup attempts, but only in states that are relatively undemocratic.

Hierarchy and the Unit of Analysis Problem in International Relations [with Patrick McDonald]

The new literature on hierarchy poses multiple, relatively unacknowledged challenges to empirical research in international relations.  All of them stem from what might be thought of as a units of analysis problem created by the traditional focus on states or their dyadic derivative.  Such a choice is not theoretically neutral.  Instead, the number of states in the international system, and a whole host of common covariates which are in turn linked to that quantity, is intimately related to the rise and fall of hierarchical or imperial systems.  We explore at least five of these challenges through a reexamination of common empirical models of conflict.  First, the statistical independence of individual observations is often violated by the presence of international hierarchy because legally sovereign states regularly delegate important components of foreign policy decision making to dominant states like the United States or the Soviet Union.  Second, the number of observations in a given time period is non-random and increases non-linearly with new state entry, itself a function of important omitted variables like international peace settlements and the reconfiguration of hierarchical orders.  As political hierarchies unwound over the course of the twentieth century, the number of observations increased at several key junctures.  Consequently, coefficient estimates for prominent explanatory variables display “recency” effects, potentially obscuring important variation over time, as they are derived predominantly from the latter years of a sample in which there are more states.  Third, many regressors in the conflict literature–including the number of great powers, political contiguity, systemic democracy, and time counters measuring the duration since the last conflict–are endogenous to political independence and its conceptual converse—imperial collapse.  Fourth, we show that political independence and the third party constraints imposed by hierarchy are both associated with peace.  Empirical models that fail to include such concepts can suffer from significant omitted variable bias.  Fifth, an acknowledgment of the existence of hierarchical systems among putatively independent states complicates the operationalization and measurement of many standard variables in empirical research including military conflict and the distribution of military power.