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Contentious Issues as Opportunities for Diversionary Behavior


  • Sara McLaughlin Mitchell

    (University of Iowa,

  • Clayton L. Thyne

    (University of Kentucky,


Scholars have long been fascinated by the potential for leaders to engage in diversionary behavior, where leaders use militarized force abroad to distract their publics from various forms of domestic economic and political turmoil. While there is some evidence that diversionary behavior depends on contextual factors such as regime type, opportunities to use force, and interstate rivalry, we do not know whether and how diversionary strategies are used by states to resolve contentious issues. In fact, most diversionary studies compare the initiation of militarized disputes or crises to non-initiation cases, without considering the slew of interstate interactions in between these extremes, where states have an ongoing contested issue that gets managed with both peaceful and militarized conflict management tools. In this article, we extend theories of diversionary behavior to the context of issue claims, including competing claims to territory, maritime areas, and cross-border rivers as coded by the Issue Correlates of War (ICOW) project. Thinking about an ongoing issue claim as a potential diversionary opportunity, we examine the empirical effect of domestic turmoil on the militarization of issue claims. We consider whether issue diversionary behavior is conditioned by the salience level of the issue, previous wars over the issue in question, and whether the disputing states are involved in a broader rivalry. In a broad sample of directed dyad-years, we find that states are more likely to initiate militarized disputes if they are involved in contentious issues claims. We also find that states involved in issue claims are more likely to initiate a militarized dispute if they have high levels of inflation and if they are contesting over highly salient and previously militarized issues.

Suggested Citation

  • Sara McLaughlin Mitchell & Clayton L. Thyne, 2010. "Contentious Issues as Opportunities for Diversionary Behavior," Conflict Management and Peace Science, Peace Science Society (International), vol. 27(5), pages 461-485, November.
  • Handle: RePEc:sae:compsc:v:27:y:2010:i:5:p:461-485

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    Cited by:

    1. David A. Welch, 2017. "The Justice Motive in East Asia’s Territorial Disputes," Group Decision and Negotiation, Springer, vol. 26(1), pages 71-92, January.


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