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Building Reputation: Why Governments Fight Some Separatists but Not Others


  • I am grateful to Rui de Figueiredo Jr., Hein Goemans, Zoltan Hajnal, Andrew Kydd, Bob Powell, Kenneth Schultz, and participants at seminars at Yale, Columbia, University of Southern California, Dartmouth, and UCSD for very helpful comments and suggestions. This project was funded through the generous support of the National Science Foundation Award #0351670.

Barbara F. Walter is associate professor of international relations and Pacific studies, Mail Code 0519, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093 (


This article attempts to show that future players and future stakes—two factors generally ignored by political scientists—strongly influence government decisions to cooperate or fight at least against ethnic minorities seeking self-determination. Data on all separatist movements between 1956 and 2002 reveals that governments are significantly less likely to accommodate one challenge if the number of ethnic groups in a country and the combined value of the land that may come under dispute in the future is high. Governments that refused to accommodate one challenger were also significantly less likely to face a second or third challenge down the road. This provides some of the first systematic evidence that governments invest in reputation building a least in the domain of domestic ethnic relations.