Turbulent Times: Volatility in Foreign Policy

Turbulent Times: Volatility in Foreign Policy

By Eleonora Mattiacci, Amherst College

In 2015, two momentous rapprochements took place on the international stage. In July, the United States and Cuba restored diplomatic relations. In December, Pakistan hosted a surprise visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who, for the first time in more than a decade, met with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif. Both events came at the heels of decades of hostile relations within each pair of countries. Yet recent interactions between India and Pakistan displayed much greater volatility than those between Cuba and the United States. India’s policies toward Pakistan fluctuated, often inconsistently, between co-operative and conflictual, and vice versa.

The first half of 2011 provides a useful example of these dynamics. In January 2011, Pakistan officially demanded that India desist from its nuclear program. A mere week later, India forcibly accused Pakistan of harbouring terrorists who had made attacks on Indian soil. Shortly afterwards, the two countries managed, with great difficulty, to resume negotiations on military and economic bilateral issues and finally to institute a joint working group to enhance trade ties in April of that same year. Yet, at the beginning of May, India began conducting military exercises at the border, catalyzing violent protests in Pakistan, and de facto bringing those painfully achieved bilateral negotiations to an end. These dynamics, in turn, raise this question: Under what circumstances do states pursue their grand strategies combining, often counterproductively, conflict and co-operation?

My research advances a theory about how such incongruent behaviour — what I call volatile foreign policy — comes about. Volatility, it seems, is an outcome of the interaction between the dynamics unfolding at both the domestic and the international levels; in other words, unbridled competition among domestic groups vis-à-vis the state’s relative power superiority. As seen with most bullies, superior power permits volatility. Power against a neighbour expands the strategies at a state’s disposal to include more combative options, as well as co-operative ones, making it possible for the stronger state to act inconsistently towards its weaker rival.

Yet superior power alone does not explain volatility. Volatile behaviour is catalyzed by competition among rival domestic groups. Whether the government chooses co-operative or conflictual options will have redistributive implications for these groups. In other words, those consequences will advantage some groups and disadvantage others. Each group, therefore, will attempt to pursue its preferred foreign policies, co-operative or aggressive, over others. When there is no overlap in the interests of domestic groups — that is, when domestic cleavages are reinforcing, and not overlapping — domestic competition between groups to affirm their foreign policy preferences will result in inconsistent shifts between co-operation and conflict in the foreign policy of one country toward another.

The results of my research — using originally collected data — support this theory: the probability that a country will engage in volatile foreign policy behaviour toward another will increase when that country displays superior power vis-à-vis its opponent, and when its domestic sphere is characterized by competing interests.

These findings have several implications, both theoretical and policy-related. First, they show the importance of relative power superiority in determining foreign policy behaviour by showing how it offers states more options. In this regard, these results make sense of the continuous concerns with power even in our day and age when conflict between states appears to be declining. Second, these results suggest the role of redistributive politics in the international arena. The struggle between domestic groups can shape not simply single policies (such as specific trade agreements or military budget choices), but rather the very (volatile) trajectory of foreign policy itself.

Taken together, these results support a more sophisticated understanding of volatility that can help reduce its most dangerous consequences. Oftentimes states that face a counterpart displaying volatile foreign policy behaviour interpret it as capricious and provocative, and might react by reducing responsiveness to co-operative overtures or even by escalating hostilities. Recent shifts in US foreign policy toward Russia between co-operative and assertive stands — from the START agreement, to the Syrian and Libyan civil wars, to issues of Russia’s WTO access, to the economic sanctions over Ukraine — have frustrated Russia, thus breeding dangerous resentment and mistrust. Instead, uncovering how such inconsistent behaviour is rooted in the struggle between competing domestic interests can help reframe such volatile behaviour as merely provocative and rather inscrutable. In doing so, perhaps we can tame the dangerous by-products of distrust and fear that led the world to the brink of nuclear war in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.




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