May 29, 2024

Book Review: Volatile States in International Politics

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By: Yash Gajmal

Volatile States in International Politics: source Internet

In the realm of international relations, where stability is often considered paramount, the book “Volatility in International Politics” challenges conventional wisdom by focusing on a critical yet overlooked aspect: the inconsistency in states’ behaviours toward one another. Authored by Eleonora Mattiacci, the book seeks to unravel the complexities surrounding why certain countries exhibit more volatile behaviour in specific moments, introducing a nuanced perspective to the study of international relations.

Traditionally, international relations studies have predominantly explored consistent patterns of change, such as escalation or reconciliation. However, “Volatility in International Politics” ventures into uncharted territory by investigating the origins of inconsistencies, shedding light on instances when states become more unpredictable in their interactions. By doing so, the book prompts scholars to move beyond simplistic classifications of states’ relations as either conflictual or cooperative, stable or unstable.

The central premise of the book lies in understanding volatility as a unique form of change in states’ behaviours, with profound implications for the international arena. Volatility introduces uncertainty, making it challenging to predict future events based on historical behavior or major events. This unpredictability, the authors argue, induces fear and irrational behaviors among actors in the international system, ultimately impacting decision-making and strategies.

Volatility can provide an important missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to current explanations of states’ behaviours. It captures important nuances in behaviors within the international arena that are not well explored in present conceptualizations. In essence, “Volatility in International Politics” offers a compelling departure from the status quo, providing a fresh lens through which to examine the inconsistencies in states’ behaviors.

The author argued that the exploration of factors influencing increased volatility in states’ behaviors unfolds in a three-step argument. Firstly, the theory identifies the permissive condition for volatile behavior, positing that a country’s relative power in comparison to its counterpart is a critical determinant. As relative power increases, states gain more options, both cooperative and conflictual, enabling them to shift between behaviors more effectively.

The second step introduces the catalysing condition for volatile behavior: the presence of a diverse set of domestic interests competing for control over foreign policy definition. In a context of rising relative power, the involvement of competing domestic interests augments a state’s volatility towards its counterpart. This dynamic arises from the potential for each foreign policy decision to impact the distribution of material and symbolic resources among diverse domestic groups, leading to varying consequences.

The final step emphasizes the interaction between a heterogeneous set of domestic interests and an increase in relative power. The simultaneous presence of these factors enhances a country’s volatility in its behaviours toward others. As clashing domestic interests gain representation, a country with greater relative power possesses more options to satisfy these interests, thereby increasing volatility.

In contrast to episodic notions of foreign policy, where international relations are viewed as discrete events, this argument provides a comprehensive explanation for volatility, addressing gaps left by alternative theories centred on mixed signals, leaders, coalitions, and issue-based explanations. The chapter thus enriches the understanding of the intricate dynamics governing states’ behaviors on the international stage.

In chapter, ‘Measuring Volatility’ the author introduces a methodology for measuring volatility in states’ behaviors, challenging conventional approaches prevalent in other fields. Rather than adopting “one solution fits all” methods like standard deviation, the chapter advocates for the Box-Jenkins procedure. This approach, when applied to the time series of states’ behaviors, uniquely overcomes challenges associated with noise and inflation, consistently isolating volatility across diverse cases and time periods. Its flexibility allows for the derivation of patterns directly from empirical records, making it versatile. Moreover, this innovative procedure extends its applicability to studying volatility by other international actors. It highlights the potential of the Box-Jenkins procedure to enhance our comprehension of international politics by revealing the diversity within conventional classifications such as rivalries and alliances. The focus on transitions between cooperation and conflict, rather than merely examining conflict incidence, unveils rich facets of state behaviors. The recognition that volatility varies over time and across cases underscores the importance of explaining this variation and the unique contribution of volatility to the broader understanding of international relations. In recognizing volatility as a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, the chapter underscores the necessity of adopting a comprehensive, diverse approach to its study. This involves combining various data sources and triangulating across different methodologies. Overall, the chapter lays the foundation for a well-rounded measurement of volatility.

In chapter, ‘Volatility and Rivals’ the author explores the relationship between power, interests, and the occurrence of volatile behavior in international rivalries. The findings suggest that having more power alone doesn’t necessarily lead to more volatility unless there are divided interests within a country. This challenges theories that solely rely on power to explain erratic behavior in foreign policy, like hedging strategies. The research indicates that when a country holds low relative power, having multiple and diverse domestic interests doesn’t significantly impact foreign policy volatility. However, as a country’s power superiority increases, the presence of varied domestic interests significantly boosts volatility.

In simpler terms, when a powerful country deals with diverse internal interests, it’s more likely to behave unpredictably in international relations. Both factors, power, and interests, are crucial and work together to increase volatility. The varying levels of volatility in how one rival behaves towards another highlight the complexity of these relationships, urging us to look beyond mere conflict. These results open new research avenues. Firstly, they question the assumption that states always act as unified entities in international politics. The chapter suggests that without considering a country’s internal dynamics, predicting volatile behaviour becomes challenging. This raises the question of when assuming states as unitary actors is a valid simplification. Secondly, the findings underscore the importance of delving into the role of leaders in international politics. The analysis hints that change in states’ behaviors might not solely be attributed to leaders, prompting further exploration of how leaders systematically influence these changes. Lastly, the chapter provides mixed results on the impact of contentious issues on volatility, inviting more investigation into this aspect. In essence, this chapter unveils the intricate dance between power, domestic interests, and volatile behavior, challenging conventional wisdom and paving the way for deeper exploration of these dynamics in international relations.

The author also focused how the dynamics of volatility played out in the alliance context, specifically between the United States and France from 1954 to 1966. Three key findings emerge. First, when France’s relative power increased, and a diverse set of interests influenced its foreign policy decisions, volatility between the allies rose. Second, despite relative power not reverting to pre-1954 levels, a decrease in diverse interests’ influence after 1961 led to a reduction in France’s volatility toward the US. Third, explanations cantered on leadership changes failed to account for the shifts in volatility during this period.

The chapter digs into the complexities of alliances, unlike previous studies, this research zeroes in on a shorter timeframe, offering a detailed analysis of how volatile behavior unfolded and its consequences. Notably, the chapter explores how decision-makers perceive and react to volatility in alliance interactions. Statistical tests comparing issues pre- and post-1962 reveal no significant difference in the number of present issues. The chapter emphasizes that issues like communism, European integration, the German question, nuclear weapons, NATO, and French colonialism persisted despite decreased volatility. France and the US dynamically created and reshaped issues, aligning with their political goals.

In 1966, US-France relations were described as reaching a low point, with some scholars even considering France a greater threat to Western unity than Communism during the Cold War. The chapter offers in-depth evidence on the evolution of volatility between allies. It highlights how an increase in relative power became a condition allowing volatility, and diverse interests catalysed it. Importantly, the chapter demonstrates how the proposed theory applies not only during crises but also in everyday foreign policy, emphasizing the interconnectedness of various aspects in international relations.

The thing that I personally found interesting is that; this book breaks new ground by offering the first comprehensive exploration of volatility in how countries behave on the global stage. It not only puts forward a compelling explanation for why nations sometimes act inconsistently but also supports its claims with empirical evidence. Understanding volatility, as emphasized in this concluding chapter, carries multiple benefits. It can help mitigate the negative impacts of unpredictable behavior, fill gaps in existing international relations puzzles, and pave the way for further investigations into volatility across various aspects of global politics.

The study prompts a re-evaluation of our assumptions about international politics, urging a nuanced understanding of how change unfolds. By viewing cooperation and conflict as a continuum with diverse dynamics, the book challenges traditional perspectives. It highlights how the uncertainty bred by volatility often leads decision-makers to engage in counterproductive actions, emphasizing the need to break free from cyclic historical understandings. Instead of instinctively fearing volatility, the book argues that a proper understanding of its origins can prevent dangerous aversions, fostering a more informed approach to navigating the complexities of international relations. In essence, the book takes a crucial first step toward unravelling the complexities of volatility in global politics.

The author fails to explore the potential benefits of creative diplomacy, which prioritizes negotiation, compromise, and cooperation to counteract volatility in global relations. Diplomacy, an integral part of statecraft, works to minimize power politics, enabling nations to pursue their interests without resorting to force. It establishes a stable transaction network, reducing the inconsistent shifts in foreign policy linked to volatility. The author overlooks current research on the “security dilemma,” a key factor causing fear, uncertainty in cooperation, and a lack of trust in international relations. This dilemma is the primary, conflict-driven context, where volatility is just a symptom. Understanding the broader context is crucial to grasp the exact role of volatility in the cycle of power competition, escalation, and armed conflict.

Despite shortcomings; in essence, “Volatility in International Politics” provides a fresh perspective, urging scholars and policymakers to navigate the complexities of global interactions with a more nuanced understanding of volatility.


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1 month ago

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