Key Factors in Crisis Escalation

March 2024 No Comments

Author: Egle Murauskaite (University of Maryland)

Publication Preview

Over the past decade, the nature of international conflict has increasingly turned away from state-versus-state warfare becoming, instead, typified as relatively low-level crises. Different authors and institutions
have characterized this as gray zone warfare, hybrid warfare, or competition-short-of-war. The tools (i.e.,
courses of action) used in this deliberately ambiguous space between war and peace have ranged from trade restrictions to information operations to the use of proxies in attempts to overthrow a government or aggressive maneuvers of military assets at or around contested geographic areas.3 In such crises, it has been quite common for both conflict parties to view themselves as victims responding to an affront, referring to different events they each perceived as crossing the threshold of unacceptable competition. The early events and/or early stages of a crisis have frequently been the most volatile,4 with escalation most likely to occur. The adversaries are only just starting to learn about each other, based on a variety of signals, and the red lines are yet to be established (and verified). What tends to drive a crisis towards greater or lesser violence (i.e., escalation) during these early stages? What determines the choice to use gray vs. conventional tools in adversarial relations? This paper reviews the impact of four key factors commonly considered in classic deterrence and escalation management literature: (1) power disparity between the adversaries, (2) regime type (i.e., level of democratization according to the Polity scale), (3) domestic state capacity of parties (e.g., the level of regime consolidation, institutional capabilities to collect taxes and hold elections, etc.), and (4) proxy involvement. These insights are based on quantitative data analysis of 360 foreign policy crises recorded in the International Crisis Behavior (ICB) dataset, covering the period from 1963 to 2015.5

It is helpful to consider a schematic representation of action options as adversarial competition inches gradually towards escalation, turning into crises of various intensities. Any given act could be violent or not, within or outside of the gray zone (see Figure 1, left). For instance, using a proxy would commonly
constitute a violent gray zone act due to the intentional ambiguity it creates in attribution, whereas using economic sanctions would be an example of a classic non-violent, non-gray state tool, with no attempt to obscure the sanctioning party.

Download Publication


Submit A Comment