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Rational Deterrence Theory and Comparative Case Studies

  • Christopher H. Achen and Duncan Snidal (a1)
Abstract

Several recent books have argued that comparative case studies of crises demonstrate the failure of rational-deterrence theory; they have offered certain empirical generalizations as substitutes. This paper shows that such contentions are unwarranted. First, the empirical generalizations are impressive as historical insights, but they do not meet the standards for theory set out by the most sophisticated case-study analysts themselves. Second, the “tests” of rational deterrence used in the case studies violate standard principles of inference, and the ensuing procedures are so biased as to be useless. Rational deterrence, then, is a more successful theory than portrayed in this literature, and it remains the only intellectually powerful alternative available.

Case studies are essential to theory building: more efficiently than any other methods, they find suitable variables, suggest middle-range generalizations for theory to explain, and provide the prior knowledge that statistical tests require. Their loose constraints on admissible propositions and suitable evidence are appropriate and even necessary for these tasks. These same characteristics, however, inevitably undermine all attempts to construe case-study generalizations as bodies of theory or tests of hypotheses.

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References
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Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein , “Beyond Deterrence-Building Better Theory,” Journal ofSocial Issues 43 (1987), 571

Arend Lijphart , “Comparative Politics and the Comparative Method,” American Political Science Review 65 (September 1971), 682

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Terry M. Moe , “On the Scientific Status of Rational Models,” American Journal of Political Science 23 (February 1979), 215

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita , “Toward a Scientific Understanding of International Conflict: A Personal View,” International Studies Quarterly 29 (June 1985), 121

Paul Huth and Bruce Russett , “What Makes Deterrence Work? Cases from 1900 to 1980,” World Politics 36 (July 1984), 496526

James Heckman , “Sample Selection Bias as a Specification Error,” Econometrica 47 (January 1979), 153

Harvey Starr and Benjamin A. Most , “A Return Journey: Richardson, ‘Frontiers’ and Wars in the 1946–1965 Era,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 22 (September 1978), 441

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World Politics
  • ISSN: 0043-8871
  • EISSN: 1086-3338
  • URL: /core/journals/world-politics
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