The Armed Peace: A Punctuated Equilibrium Theory of War


  • We thank Bob Powell for helping frame the issues discussed in the article much more clearly. This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (grants SES-0518222 to Slantchev and SES-0518185 to Leventoğlu). We are grateful to Ken Schultz, Jim Fearon, and participants of seminars at Stanford University, Dartmouth College, Texas A&M University, Columbia University, the Conflict and Cooperation Conference at the Kellogg School (Northwestern University), the Olin Institute (Harvard University), and the Watson Center (University of Rochester) for comments. This article was also presented at the 2005 meeting of the American Political Science Association (Washington), the 2006 meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, the 2006 meeting of the Project on Polarization and Conflict (Córdoba, Spain), and the 2007 workshop of the Center for the Study of Civil War (New York University).

Bahar Leventoğlu is assistant profes sor, Department of Political Science, Duke University, Box 90097, Durham, NC 27708-0097 ( Branislav L. Slantchev is assistant professor, Department of Political Science, University of California, San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA 92093-0521.


According to a leading rationalist explanation, war can break out when a large, rapid shift of power causes a credible commitment problem. This mechanism does not specify how inefficient fighting can resolve this cause, so it is an incomplete explanation of war. We present a complete information model of war as a sequence of battles and show that although opportunities for a negotiated settlement arise throughout, the very desirability of peace creates a commitment problem that undermines its likelihood. Because players have incentives to settle as soon as possible, they cannot credibly threaten to fight long enough if an opponent launches a surprise attack. This decreases the expected duration and costs of war and causes mutual deterrence to fail. Fighting's destructiveness improves the credibility of these threats by decreasing the benefits from continuing the war and can eventually lead to peace. In equilibrium players can only terminate war at specific windows of opportunity and fighting results in escalating costs that can leave both players worse off at the time peace is negotiated than a full concession would have before the war began.