In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Game Theory and Interstate Conflict

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews of International Conflict
  • Classic Game-Theoretic Works
  • Textbooks on Game Theory
  • Journals
  • Rationality and Rational Choice Theory
  • Bargaining Models of War
  • Power and War
  • Arms Races and Arms Control
  • Domestic Politics and Conflict
  • Alliances and Intervention
  • International Cooperation
  • Deterrence
  • Crisis Escalation
  • War Outcomes and Termination
  • Recurrent Conflict and Rivalry
  • Empirical Analysis of Game-Theoretic Models

International Relations Game Theory and Interstate Conflict
Stephen L. Quackenbush
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0071


Game theory is the analysis of how decision makers interact in decision making to take into account reactions and choices of the other decision makers. International conflict and other phenomena in international relations occur as a result of decisions made by people. These people may be leaders of states, members of the legislature or military, members of nongovernmental organizations, or just simply citizens of a country. Given this central importance of decisions, many people argue that to explain international conflict we need to focus on explaining decisions. But how do we explain such decisions? To do so, many rely on the assumption of rationality, which opens the door to game theory. This review begins by examining general overviews of international conflict and classic game-theoretic works. It then explores textbooks on game theory, journals publishing game-theoretic work on international conflict, and works on rationality and rational choice theory. Next it brings attention to bargaining models of war and works related to various specific factors affecting the outbreak of international conflict, including power, domestic politics, and alliances. The article then reviews works related to war outcomes and termination before concluding with a look at the empirical analysis of game-theoretic models.

General Overviews of International Conflict

Although many scholars have used game theory to examine particular parts of international conflict, others have examined international conflict more generally. Wagner 2007 demonstrates that realism and other common theoretical approaches are unable to explain international politics and that game theory is useful to better explain it. Nicholson 1989 and Zagare and Slantchev 2010 provide historical overviews of attempts to explain international relations using formal theory. Brams and Kilgour 1988 uses game theory to examine a series of national security issues. O’Neill 1999 uses game theory to examine the importance of honor and symbols in international politics. Kydd 2005 focuses on trust between states. Bueno de Mesquita and Lalman 1992, Slantchev 2011, and Zagare and Kilgour 2000 develop general theories of international conflict.

  • Brams, Steven J., and D. Marc Kilgour. Game Theory and National Security. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988.

    Uses game theory to examine a series of national security issues, including arms races, deterrence, arms control, and crisis stability.

  • Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce, and David Lalman. War and Reason: Domestic and International Imperatives. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

    Develops the International Interaction Game to provide a general explanation of international conflict. Models choices to make demands and, given that demands have been made, whether or not to use force. A series of empirical tests show empirical support for the predictions made by the International Interaction Game.

  • Kydd, Andrew H. Trust and Mistrust in International Relations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

    Uses game theory to examine the role of trust in international politics. Argues that trust plays an important role in the likelihood of conflict and cooperation.

  • Nicholson, Michael. Formal Theories in International Relations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    Reviews a wide variety of explanations of international relations using formal theory, focusing on topics such as conflict, problems of uncertainty, bargaining, alliances, and arms races.

  • O’Neill, Barry. Honor, Symbols, and War. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

    Uses game theory to examine the importance of honor and symbols in international politics. Argues that fighting over honor is a major cause of war.

  • Slantchev, Branislav L. Military Threats: The Costs of Coercion and the Price of Peace. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511778940

    Uses game theory to examine how military threats can be employed in the pursuit of political objectives. Focuses on how military threats can establish commitments and communicate intent.

  • Wagner, R. Harrison. War and the State: The Theory of International Politics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007.

    Uses game theory to examine realism and general theories of international politics. Demonstrates that realism is unable to explain international conflict and international politics more generally.

  • Zagare, Frank C., and D. Marc Kilgour. Perfect Deterrence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511491788

    Develops a new theory of deterrence focusing on the importance of credibility and capability. Because the authors focus on general deterrence, the theory provides a general explanation of international conflict.

  • Zagare, Frank C., and Branislav L. Slantchev. “Game Theory and Other Modeling Approaches.” In The International Studies Encyclopedia, Vol. 4. Edited by Robert A. Danemark, 2591–2610. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    Traces the history of applications of game theory in international relations. Provides a useful historical overview.

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