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Diversionary Incentives and the Bargaining Approach to War


  • Author's note: A technical supplement to this article, which is available from the author's website (, contains the proofs of the results presented in this article as well as additional analysis of the formal model. My thanks to Matthew Baum, Vesna Danilovic, Hein Goemans, Brett Ashley Leeds, T. Clifton Morgan, and three anonymous reviewers for helpful comments. I am responsible for any remaining shortcomings.


I use a game theoretic model of diversionary war incentives to help explain the lack of a consistent empirical relationship between domestic conditions and the use of force abroad. I argue that when diversionary behavior is about demonstrating competence rather than creating a short-term “rally round the flag” effect, a leader has incentives to use force against a challenging target, and this may dissuade many would-be diversionary uses of force. I then combine the diversionary model with the bargaining approach to war and show that when war is costly and bargaining is allowed, the diversionary leader can be peacefully appeased short of war as long as the benefit of holding office is not too large compared with the cost of war and other factors. However, when the office holding benefit is sufficiently large, the diversionary incentive emerges as a new domestic politics based “rationalist explanation for war.”