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The Secrecy Gambit: Clandestine Power Shifts and Preventive Conflict

Brandon Merrell and Alexei Abrahams

Military power shifts can both deter and provoke fighting. Existing research overlooks this dynamic and therefore cannot explain how countries should calibrate their military development to minimize the overall risk of war. We resolve this issue with a formal model in which states first decide whether to pursue a power shift and then whether to announce or conceal their decision. The results show that several popular conclusions about crisis behavior should be qualified. First, whereas popular models suggest that incomplete information and credible commitment problems can cause war independently, we demonstrate that the combination of these mechanisms can facilitate peace. Second, we distinguish between two forms of preventive conflict that create opposing incentives for rising states. While the possibility of wars of discovery can deter countries from pursuing risky military development, the threat of wars of suspicion encourages actors to mobilize by forcing all states to either prepare for war or appease their adversaries by offering costly concessions. Finally, we derive novel predictions for empirical research on arming, allying, and cooperation between civilians and counterinsurgents during civil wars.

Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the 2017 APSA Annual Meeting and the 2018 SPSA Annual Meeting. Copy available upon request.