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Rationalist explanations for war

  • James D. Fearon (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 May 2009

Realist and other scholars commonly hold that rationally led states can and sometimes do fight when no peaceful bargains exist that both would prefer to war. Against this view, I show that under very broad conditions there will exist negotiated settlements that genuinely rational states would mutually prefer to a risky and costly fight. Popular rationalist and realist explanations for war fail either to address or to explain adequately what would prevent leaders from locating a less costly bargain. Essentially just two mechanisms can resolve this puzzle on strictly rationalist terms. The first turns on the fact that states have both private information about capabilities and resolve and the incentive to misrepresent it. The second turns on the fact that in specific strategic contexts states may be unable credibly to commit to uphold a mutually preferable bargain. Historical examples suggest that both mechanisms are empirically plausible.

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