College of LAS « Illinois


Enduring Rivalries

There are clues for predicting which military conflicts will fade and which will endure for generations.

Paul Diehl

LAS political science professor Paul F. Diehl doesn't have any supernatural prognostication tools when it comes to predicting where the continuing saga of the United States and Iraq will end. He has something better.

Diehl forecasts the future through his studies of what he calls enduring rivalries—ongoing militarized conflicts that define a relationship between two states over at least a generation. Prime examples of enduring rivalries are India and Pakistan since the partition of 1947, the United States and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, and France-Germany before World War II.

Beginning with the year 1816, widely considered the beginning of the modern state system, Diehl has examined almost 100 enduring rivalries and 1,000 "lesser" rivalries. He investigates how some conflicts mature whereas others are resolved in their early stages.

"In a sense what we're looking for are not unique solutions that are peculiar to one rivalry but broad patterns across history that we can generalize across rivalries," says Diehl. "Part of that is for analysts to understand not only how rivalries operate, how they develop, and how they end—but also the policy implications and the kinds of interventions by decision makers that would work, and at what point in the rivalry they're most effective."

Enduring rivalries are important, Diehl says, because they include a "wildly disproportionate number" of wars in the international system. He likens them to career criminals—they commit the most severe kind of "crimes" with the most frequency and repeatedly over time.

"In many cases decision makers pay much more attention to those kinds of rivalries than they do other kinds of problems, both international and domestic, because the enduring rivalries are so pressing," he says. "So to look at their importance is to understand what the world would be like for a state if it didn't have enduring rivals. Well, it would have additional resources to address a variety of concerns—health, education, welfare."

Diehl initiated the project on enduring rivalries more than a decade ago. In collaboration with Gary Goertz, a University of Arizona political science professor, the pair has collected thousands of pieces of data. The research tracks instances of a threat, such as a display or use of military force. Examples are a military seizure of a fishing boat or a belligerent aerial encounter. Each episode is broken down by how long it lasted, how many people died, whether other states joined in, and how much it cost. Their analysis of data from 1816 to 1992 is compiled in their 2000 book, War and Peace in International Rivalry.

The two researchers have found that the most virulent rivalries concern competing territorial claims—especially if the territory has symbolic or intangible value for the participants.  An example of this is the religious significance associated with Jerusalem, which divides Israel and its Arab neighbors.  Also, third-party mediation and diplomacy has little influence in the long term for enduring rivalries, but they may help defuse crises and individual conflicts.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Diehl and Goertz have re-evaluated their data set and extended it to 2001. The extension probed the effect on rivalries from globalization and the end of the Cold War.

The termination of the Cold War is the kind of political shock that Diehl says can end enduring rivalries. Several rivalries in Africa that were tied to the superpower conflict did cease when the two superpowers ended political, economic, and military support in that continent.

"There are others, though, that continue even with the end of the Cold War," Diehl says. "Those are the rivalries such as those between India and Pakistan or Israel and Syria, even though they may have been client states of the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

"We also forget that the end of the Cold War creates new opportunities for rivalries, such as between Armenia and Azerbaijan and other former Soviet republics, as well as new opportunities for the U.S. with a rivalry against Iraq."

His extensive research allows him to point out trends that may give insight into the future of Iraq and its rivalries with the U.S., Kuwait, and Iran. Diehl concludes that defeating a state through war or regime change is not the only factor in the termination of a rivalry. It also depends on what form of government emerges.

"Merely getting rid of Saddam Hussein doesn't necessarily mean that the rivalry is over," he says. "If you have a fundamentalist regime taking power in Iraq, that may be particularly threatening to its neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. So it may intensify the rivalry with Kuwait and create a new military rival for Saudi Arabia. If you have a regime there that shares the same Islamic philosophy with Iran, you may see closer relationships with a new Iraqi regime, which would really mute what's left of that rivalry."

Diehl says that if the new Iraqi government is truly democratic, peace is a more likely outcome—especially with rivals that share those values, such as the United States.

"One can make optimistic predictions about the end of a rivalry with a new Iraqi government," he says.  "But until you see that government develop and see what happens over time, we really can't be sure that all the vestiges of a rivalry are gone."

By Laura Weisskopf Bleill
Fall/Winter 2005-06