David and Goliath: Power Politics and Military Conflict in the Backyards of Major States
War and military conflict between states have decisively shaped modern history. This is particularly the case for so-called unequal neighbors, where states with globally preponderant economic and military strength – great powers – clash with vastly weaker states in their neighborhood. For example, the proximate cause of the Second World War was the German invasion of Poland in 1939.
Conflict between unequal neighbors remains a significant threat for human security, economic welfare, and strategic stability across the globe. For instance, experts, diplomats, and politicians regularly warn that conflict could escalate between China and its various small neighbors, and that such a conflict could drag the United States into the unfolding confrontation.
Previous research has not explained why unequal neighbors sometimes co-exist amicably and sometimes choose to clash in these globally significant conflicts. The latter is particularly puzzling as doing so threatens the weak neighbor’s survival and diverts the powerful neighbor’s attention and resources away from seemingly more important issues.
In his thesis, Jonas J. Driedger shows that specific dynamics of domestic power politics of one or both neighbors can fuel power politics between unequal neighbors, which ultimately leads to conflict. As the sociopolitical and strategic affairs of neighboring states are strongly interlinked, specific shifts in either side’s domestic and external power politics can inadvertently threaten assets relevant to leadership survival on the other side. Consequently, leaders on both sides use militarized policies to stay in charge, externalizing the costs of conflict both to the other state and politically weak groups in their own state.
Driedger tests and empirically supports this argument with a wide array of methods and evidence, showcasing his argument’s ability to explain conflict dynamics in radically different settings. Using statistical analysis on all pairs of unequal neighbors between 1816 and 1989, Driedger demonstrates that military conflict between unequal neighbors is typically preceded by pre-existing threat perceptions between the leaders, by increasing domestic pressures on leaders to adopt hostile policies, by perceived windows of opportunity to use force now rather than later, and by worsening threat perceptions due to emerging alliance ties between the small neighbor and external great powers.
Complementing these statistical tests, Driedger also uses process-tracing for in-depth analyses of the relations between Serbia and Austria-Hungary (1878-1914) as well as between Ukraine and Russia (1992-2014). Data stem from primary historical sources of leadership deliberation and original policy documents and interviews conducted in Russia and Ukraine. In both cases, he uncovers how leaders’ drive for their own political survival explain why these relations were variously marked by peace, low-scale conflict, and war.
Driedger’s research on military conflict between unequal neighbors also adds to our understanding of other forms of conflict, such as economic sanctions, and relations between other kinds of states, like equally powerful neighbors. Furthermore, the dissertation provides insights into the dynamics of deterrence and alliance politics and the interconnections of domestic and international policy.
Politically, the findings allow to identify, anticipate, and better manage situations prone to conflict onset, such as powerful nationalist pressure groups, regime changes, great power security crises and certain kinds of extended alliance policies between small neighbors and distant great powers.
Jonas J. Driedger is a political scientist from Germany, specializing in international security cooperation, deterrence, the causes of armed conflict, and international security policy, especially of NATO, the EU, Germany, and Russia. He defended his thesis in December 2020, while also being a DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow for Transatlantic Security Cooperation at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (Johns Hopkins University) in Washington DC. He was an Alfa Fellow and Visiting Researcher at the Moscow Higher School of Economics. He taught and did fieldwork in Germany, Italy, Ukraine, and Russia. Jonas’ academic publications include an article at the European Journal of International Security and chapters in edited volumes published by Springer and Columbia University Press. Jonas also contributed analyses and policy advise in German, Russian, and English, including to the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the Oxford University Changing Character of War Centre, Politico Europe, The National Interest, EUIdeas, EUObserver, and EurActiv.