Skip to main content

Goliath's Curse: Coercive Threats and Asymmetric Power

  • Todd S. Sechser (a1)

States typically issue compellent threats against considerably weaker adversaries, yet their threats often fail. Why? Expanding on a standard model of international crisis bargaining, I argue that a theory of reputation-building can help shed light on this puzzle. The model casts reputation as a strategic problem, showing that challengers issuing compellent threats have incentives to anticipate the reputation costs that target states incur when appeasing aggressors. If challengers can recognize these costs and offset them with side payments or smaller demands, then even reputation-conscious targets will acquiesce. I argue, however, that military strength contributes to information problems that make challengers more likely to underestimate their targets' reputation costs and insufficiently compensate them. In this way, military power can undermine the effectiveness of compellent threats. The logic is illustrated by the 1939 Russo-Finnish crisis, and the argument's implications for the study of coercive diplomacy are explored.

Hide All
Albertini Luigi. 1953. Origins of the War of 1914, 2, The Crisis of July 1914 from the Sarajevo Outrage to the Austro-Hungarian General Mobilization. Edited and translated by Massey Isabella M.. London: Oxford University Press.
Alt James E., Calvert Randall L., and Humes Brian D.. 1988. Reputation and Hegemonic Stability: A Game-Theoretic Analysis. American Political Science Review 82 (2):445–66.
Arreguìn-Toft Ivan. 2005. How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Art Robert J., and Cronin Patrick M.. 2003. The United States and Coercive Diplomacy. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace.
Axelrod Robert. 1984. The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books.
Biddle Stephen. 1996. Victory Misunderstood: What the Gulf War Tells Us About the Future of Conflict. International Security 21 (2):139–79.
Biddle Stephen. 2004. Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Blainey Geoffrey. 1973. The Causes of War. London: Macmillan.
Blechman Barry M., and Kaplan Stephen S.. 1978. Force Without War: U.S. Armed Forces as a Political Instrument. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.
Blücher Wipert von. 1951. Gesandter Zwischen Diktatur und Demokratie: Erinnerungen aus den Jahren 1935–1944. Wiesbaden, Germany: Limes.
Brooks Stephen G., and Wohlforth William C.. 2008. World Out of Balance: International Relations and the Challenge of American Primacy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Cable James. 1994. Gunboat Diplomacy, 1919–1991: Political Applications of Limited Naval Force. 3d ed.New York: St. Martin's.
Carr William. 1991. The Origins of the Wars of German Unification. New York: Longman.
Chuev Felix. 1993. Molotov Remembers: Inside Kremlin Politics. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.
Clare Joe, and Danilovic Vesna. 2010. Multiple Audiences and Reputation Building in International Conflicts. Journal of Conflict Resolution (forthcoming).
Crescenzi Mark J. C., Kathman Jacob D., and Long Stephen B.. 2007. Reputation, History, and War. Journal of Peace Research 44 (6):651–67.
Dallin David J. 1942. Soviet Russia's Foreign Policy, 1939–1942. Translated by Dennen Leon. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
Danilovic Vesna. 2001. The Sources of Threat Credibility in Extended Deterrence. Journal of Conflict Resolution 45 (3):341–69.
Danilovic Vesna. 2002. When the Stakes Are High: Deterrence and Conflict Among Major Powers. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Documents on German Foreign Policy, Series D, VIII: The War Years, September 4, 1939–March 18, 1940. 1949. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Ellsberg Daniel. 1968. The Theory and Practice of Blackmail. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND.
Fearon James D. 1992. Threats to Use Force: Costly Signals and Bargaining in International Crises. Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley.
Fearon James D. 1995. Rationalist Explanations for War. International Organization 49 (3):379414.
Fearon James D. 1997a. Bargaining over Objects That Influence Future Bargaining Power. Paper presented at the 93rd Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, August, Washington, D.C.
Fearon James D. 1997b. Signaling Foreign Policy Interests: Tying Hands Versus Sinking Costs. Journal of Conflict Resolution 41 (1):6890.
Fearon James D. 1998. Bargaining, Enforcement, and International Cooperation. International Organization 52 (2):269305.
Filson Darren, and Werner Suzanne. 2002. A Bargaining Model of War and Peace: Anticipating the Onset, Duration, and Outcome of War. American Journal of Political Science 46 (4):819–37.
Fordham Benjamin O. 2004. A Very Sharp Sword: The Influence of Military Capabilities on American Decisions to Use Force. Journal of Conflict Resolution 48 (5):632–56.
Gartzke Erik. 1999. War Is in the Error Term. International Organization 53 (3):567–87.
George Alexander L., and Simons William E.. 1994. The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy. 2d ed.Boulder, Colo.: Westview.
Gleditsch Kristian Skrede. 2004. A Revised List of Wars Between and Within Independent States, 1816–2002. International Interactions 30 (3):231–62.
Hopf Ted. 1995. Peripheral Visons: Deterrence Theory and American Foreign Policy in the Third World, 1965–1990. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Howard Michael. 1961. The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France, 1870–1871. New York: Dorset.
Huth Paul K. 1988. Extended Deterrence and the Prevention of War. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
Huth Paul K. 1997. Reputations and Deterrence: A Theoretical and Empirical Assessment. Security Studies 7 (1):7299.
Huth Paul K., and Russett Bruce. 1984. What Makes Deterrence Work? Cases from 1900 to 1980. World Politics 36 (4):496526.
Jakobson Max. 1961. The Diplomacy of the Winter War: An Account of the Russo-Finnish Conflict, 1939–1940. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Jakobson Max. 1987. Finland: Myth and Reality. Helsinki, Finland: Otava.
Joffe Josef. 1999. A Peacenik Goes to War. New York Times Magazine, 30 May: 30–33.
Karnow Stanley. 1983. Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking.
Kreps David M., and Wilson Robert. 1982. Reputation and Imperfect Information. Journal of Economic Theory 27 (2):253–79.
Kulkov E. N., Rzheshevsky O. A., and Shukman Harold. 2002. Stalin and the Soviet-Finnish War, 1939–1940. London: Frank Cass.
Kydd Andrew. 2005. Trust and Mistrust in International Relations. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Lauren Paul Gordon. 1972. Ultimata and Coercive Diplomacy. International Studies Quarterly 16 (2):131–65.
Lukacs John. 1992. Finland Vindicated. Foreign Affairs 71 (4):5063.
Mack Andrew. 1975. Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars: The Politics of Asymmetric Conflict. World Politics 27 (2):175200.
Mannerheim Carl Gustav Emil. 1954. The Memoirs of Marshal Mannerheim. Translated by Lewenhaupt Count Eric. New York: Dutton.
McQuarrie Christopher. 1995. The Usual Suspects. Directed by Bryan Singer. Los Angeles: Blue Parrot Productions and Bad Hat Harry Productions.
Mearsheimer John J. 1983. Conventional Deterrence. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Mercer Jonathan. 1996. Reputation and International Politics. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Milgrom Paul, and Roberts John. 1982. Predation, Reputation, and Entry Deterrence. Journal of Economic Theory 27 (2):280312.
Nalebuff Barry. 1991. Rational Deterrence in an Imperfect World. World Politics 43 (3):313–35.
Nevakivi Jukka. 1976. The Appeal That Was Never Made: The Allies, Scandinavia, and the Finnish Winter War, 1939–1940. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen's University Press.
Organski A. F. K. 1958. World Politics. New York: Knopf.
Paasikivi Juho K. 1958. President J. K. Paasikivis Minnen, 1939–1940. Stockholm, Sweden: Bonnier.
Pelc Krzysztof J. 2010. Constraining Coercion? Legitimacy and Its Role in U.S. Trade Policy, 1975–2000. International Organization 64 (1):6596.
Posen Barry R. 1996. Military Responses to Refugee Disasters. International Security 21 (1):72111.
Powell Robert. 1999. In the Shadow of Power: States and Strategies in International Politics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Powell Robert. 2006. War as a Commitment Problem. International Organization 60 (1):169203.
Press Daryl G. 2005. Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Reed William. 2003. Information, Power, and War. American Political Science Review 97 (4):633–41.
Reiter Dan. 1995. Exploding the Powder Keg Myth: Preemptive Wars Almost Never Happen. International Security 20 (2):534.
Reiter Dan. 2009. How Wars End. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Reiter Dan, and Stam Allan C.. 2002. Democracies at War. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Sartori Anne E. 2002. The Might of the Pen: A Reputational Theory of Communication in International Disputes. International Organization 56 (1):121–49.
Sartori Anne E. 2005. Deterrence by Diplomacy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Schelling Thomas C. 1960. The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Schelling Thomas C. 1966. Arms and Influence. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
Schultz Kenneth A. 2001. Democracy and Coercive Diplomacy. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Sechser Todd S. 2009. Military Power and the Effectiveness of Coercive Threats: An Empirical Analysis. Paper presented at the 105th Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, September, Toronto.
Selten Reinhard. 1978. The Chain Store Paradox. Theory and Decision 9 (2):127–59.
Singer J. David, Bremer Stuart A., and Stuckey John. 1972. Capability Distribution, Uncertainty, and Major Power War. In Peace, War, and Numbers, edited by Russett Bruce M., 1948. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage.
Slantchev Branislav L. 2003. The Principle of Convergence in Wartime Negotiations. American Political Science Review 97 (4):621–32.
Smith Alastair, and Stam Allan C.. 2004. Bargaining and the Nature of War. Journal of Conflict Resolution 48 (6):783813.
Smith James D. D. 1995. Stopping Wars: Defining the Obstacles to Cease-Fire. Boulder, Colo.: Westview.
Snyder Glenn H., and Diesing Paul. 1977. Conflict Among Nations: Bargaining, Decision Making, and System Structure in International Crises. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Spring Derek W. 1986. The Soviet Decision for War Against Finland, 30 November 1939. Soviet Studies 38 (2):207–26.
Tanner Väinö. 1957. The Winter War: Finland Against Russia, 1939–1940. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Tillotson H. M. 1993. Finland at Peace and War, 1918–1993. Dorset, England: Michael Russell.
Treisman Daniel. 2004. Rational Appeasement. International Organization 58 (2):345–73.
Upton Anthony F. 1974. Finland, 1939–1940. London: Davis-Poynter.
Van Dyke Carl. 1997. The Soviet Invasion of Finland, 1939–1940. London: Frank Cass.
Van Evera Stephen. 1999. Causes of War: Power and the Roots of Conflict. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Vehviläinen Olli. 2002. Finland in the Second World War: Between Germany and Russia. Translated by McAlester Gerard. New York: Palgrave.
Wagner R. Harrison. 1992. Rationality and Misperception in Deterrence Theory. Journal of Theoretical Politics 4 (2):115–41.
Wagner R. Harrison. 1994. Peace, War, and the Balance of Power. American Political Science Review 88 (3):593607.
Walter Barbara F. 2009. Reputation and Civil War: Why Separatist Conflicts Are So Violent. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Wawro Geoffrey. 2003. The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870–1871. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Wittman Donald. 1979. How a War Ends: A Rational Model Approach. Journal of Conflict Resolution 23 (4):743–63.
Woodward E. L., and Butler Rohan. 1953. Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919–1939. Third Series, Vol. VI. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office.
Wuorinen John H. 1965. A History of Finland. New York: Columbia University Press.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Organization
  • ISSN: 0020-8183
  • EISSN: 1531-5088
  • URL: /core/journals/international-organization
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 6
Total number of PDF views: 239 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 722 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 20th January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.