In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Diversionary Theory of War

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Domestic Unrest and Its Interaction Effects

International Relations Diversionary Theory of War
Sung Chul Jung
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0265


What causes war? Among others, domestic unrest has been regarded as one of the factors contributing to interstate war. Many scholars, pundits, and policymakers have emphasized internal troubles to account for the occurrence of international wars, including the Falklands War, World Wars I and II, the Russo-Japanese War, and the Imjin War (Japan’s invasion of Korea in the late 16th century). Especially since the end of the Cold War, following the theoretical and methodological suggestions in Levy 1989 (cited under General Overviews), international relations scholars have paid increasingly more attention to domestic unrest and its interaction with other factors such as regime type and strategic rivalry to explain interstate and intrastate conflict. By taking different methodologies, such as quantitative statistical analysis, in-depth case study, and formal modeling, they build causal processes linking domestic unrest to international conflict, identify various factors at the levels of the individual, state, and dyad affecting the onset of a diversionary conflict, and provide empirical evidence supporting or disproving their theories.

General Overviews

The main idea underpinning the diversionary theory of war is that domestic unrest is one of the major causes of war. When faced with domestic challenges to their leadership, political leaders tend to initiate interstate conflict, diverting domestic attention to foreign affairs and staying in power. How does this work? As Haynes 2017 suggests, at least two rationales can be identified for the embattled leaders’ choice of diversionary conflict to ensure political survival. The first derives from the rally-round-the-flag effect. Many social psychologists have insisted that an individual favors in-group members to out-group members irrespective of prior interaction and that an external threat strengthens the in-group/out-group bias. Indeed, Theiler 2018 shows that political leaders’ domestic popularity increases as the imminence of foreign threat and international conflict rises. The second rationale highlights the political opportunity to prove leadership competence. Richards, et al. 1993 points out that that leaders who lose domestic support due to their policy failures or unjust behaviors need an opportunity to prove their leadership capability. Winning an international conflict offers such an opportunity to restore domestic support and save their political lives.

  • Haynes, Kyle. “Diversionary Conflict: Demonizing Enemies or Demonstrating Competence?” Conflict Management and Peace Science 34.4 (2017): 337–358.

    DOI: 10.1177/0738894215593723

    The author contrasts and tests two explanations of diversionary incentives: (1) creating rally effects and (2) proving leader competence. He provides more empirical support for the latter by indicating that the leaders of states in deeper domestic disorder are likely to target stronger states to manifest their ability to punch above their weight.

  • Levy, Jack S. “The Diversionary Theory of War: A Critique.” In Handbook of War Studies. Edited by Manus I. Midlarsky, 259–288. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

    An influential and widely cited work in diversionary war studies. Levy reviews extensive research on the correlational and causal relationship between domestic unrest and international conflict, finds some discrepancy between theoretical/historical studies and quantitative analyses, and suggests more sophisticated approaches in order to answer when and which internal unrests lead to which external outcomes.

  • Richards, Diana, T. Clifton Morgan, Rick K. Wilson, Valerie L. Schwebach, and Garry D. Young. “Good Times, Bad Times, and the Diversionary Use of Force: A Tale of Some Not-So-Free Agents.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 37.3 (1993): 504–535.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022002793037003005

    The authors develop a formal model taking the diversionary conflict as a principal-agent problem and thus emphasize political leaders’ incentives to use diversionary conflict as an opportunity to prove their competence to the public, who decide whether they remain in office.

  • Theiler, Tobias. “The Microfoundations of Diversionary Conflict.” Security Studies 27.2 (2018): 318–343.

    DOI: 10.1080/09636412.2017.1386941

    After distinguishing two steps of how an international conflict buttresses in-group identity and supports the incumbent leadership, the author seeks to derive empirical support from a case study of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.