Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2012

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Political Science

First Advisor

Steve Chan

Second Advisor

David Bearce

Third Advisor

Jaroslav Tir

Fourth Advisor

Anand Sokhey

Fifth Advisor

Thomas Zeiler

Abstract

This dissertation develops a theory that is explicitly cognitive in nature to explain why and when strong states retrench from ongoing conflicts with weaker opponents. The theory's fundamental premise is that states take seriously not only what they are fighting for, but also who they are fighting against. Specifically, the theory proposes that prior to militarized engagements states evaluate their power, measured primarily in terms of the number, sophistication, skill, and resilience of military assets, in relation to that of a prospective opponent and, on this basis, establish an expectation of the losses it likely will incur in a fight. The theory’s central contentions are that this expectation operates as a reference point, and that states therefore will make the choice to decrease their level of commitment by scaling back objectives, circumscribing operational activity, reducing troop levels, or even effecting a full and rapid withdrawal when this reference point is violated. That is, strong-states will choose to lose asymmetric conflicts when the level of cost realized exceeds the level of cost anticipated ex-ante.

These dynamics explain not only individual cases of strong-state loss, but also the upward trend in a particular type of strong-state loss -- great power loss -- over time. Specifically, the theory suggests, rather counterintuitively, that great power loss should be both more frequent and more likely under low-polarity structures -- that is, during periods of bipolarity and unipolarity. This proposition is tested using quantitative analysis, while the theory's hypotheses about the formation of the reference point and the salience of its violation are tested directly through the use of a survey-based experiment fielded to a sample population of roughly 400 U.S. elites. These methods, coupled with illustrative studies of three post-Cold War U.S. interventions, produce results that are largely supportive of the theory's central argument: that the fact and the timing of strong-state decisions to retrench are determined by the violation of ex-ante expectations of the costs of conflict.

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