When Do Power Shifts Lead to War?
Transitions in and of themselves are not dangerous. The Relative growth rates of rising and declining powers and the transitions themselves (when they are precisely equal) do not affect the probability of war. What matters is the risk acceptance of rising powers, the risk adverseness of declining powers, the rising power’s dissatisfaction with the status quo, the expected costs of war, and rough equality.
Some power transitions (shifts) lead to war and others pass peacefully. Additionally, war does not only or necessarily occur at transition points; it can occur at any point during a relative growth in power by a rising (challenging) state in relation to a declining (dominant) state. As a rising state’s power increases, war becomes more attractive to it and less so to the declining state. At some point the declining state will yield to the rising state and submit its role as the dominant state in shaping the status quo. Before this occurs, there is the potential for the outbreak of war, but only if both sides see the benefits as outweighing the costs. How the states see the cost-benefit analysis is dependent not only on the relative capabilities of the states and the weaker states dissatisfaction with the status quo; but also on how risk acceptant the rising state is and how risk adverse the declining state is. Risk acceptant rising powers are more likely to go to war sooner to transform the status quo quicker; while risk adverse declining states are more likely to resist in order to preserve the status quo longer. Both states must be at points on their relative power curves where they agree to fight or transitions will pass peacefully. Also, the study breaks from traditional power transition canon by theorizing that transitions and capability growth rates are unrelated to the onset of war. Finally, this relationship applies not only to transitions between the hegemon and its most immediate challenger; but to all shifts in power among all major powers.
Findings: Risk acceptant, dissatisfied rising states are more likely to use force to challenge the status quo and risk adverse declining states are more likely to use force to forestall change in the status quo. The equality of capabilities increases the probability that both sides will be willing to go to war. The relative power growth rates of the two states and the actual transition do not increase the probability of war onset. Finally, alliances play an important role in state capabilities and the probability of war onset.
Conclusions: The traditional view of power transitions that relies heavily on relative growth rates and transition points as predictors of war onset needs to be adjusted, as these variables do not increase the probability of war. However, rough equality of capabilities and challenger dissatisfaction do matter. In addition to these variables, power transition theory also needs to take into account the strong role that the risk attitudes and alliances play in the probability of war.