Political Science, Department of


Date of this Version



American Journal of Political Science (August 1995) 39(3): 760-785.


Copyright 1995, University of Wisconsin. Used by permission.


Theory: This paper reformulates diversionary theory to take into account the effect of domestic structures on the propensity of leaders to use foreign policy to manipulate domestic politics.

Hypotheses: The structure of domestic political institutions and levels of policy resources condition the willingness of leaders to use conflict involvement to manipulate domestic audiences.

Method: Probit analysis of 294 militarized interstate disputes during the period from 1955 to 1976.

Results: Domestic structures have a significant effect on the propensity of leaders to use foreign policy as a vehicle of their personal political ambition.

Explanations of national decisions to use force have traditionally neglected the possible contribution of domestic political processes or institutions. "Domestic political variables," as Levy (1988, 79) observes, "are not included in any of the leading theories of the causes of war; instead, they appear only in a number of isolated hypotheses and in some empirical studies that are generally atheoretical and noncumulative." One reason for this neglect is that realism, arguably the dominant theoretical tradition of those who study international conflict, asserts that the primary factors determining foreign policy are found at the systemic level, often indicated by the distribution of military and economic power (Morgenthau 1967; Waltz 1959, 1979). In the realist view the distribution of power imposes a structure that constrains foreign policy elites to such an extent that domestic political considerations are relatively unimportant in shaping their policy choices.

In recent years, however, the effect of domestic factors on state foreign policy has generated substantial research generally focused on two areas. The first stems from the broadly based empirical finding that while democracies are just as war-prone as other types of states (Small and Singer 1976; Chan 1984; Weede 1984), they simply do not engage each other in conflicts of sufficient severity to be counted as international wars (Maoz and Abdolali 1989).

Second, and coinciding with the research on regime type and war, is a renewed interest in diversionary theory. In its simplest form, diversionary (or scapegoat) theory argues that leaders of nation-states use foreign conflict involvement to divert domestic attention from internal problems (see Blainey 1988 and Levy 1989 for critiques). While the initial exploratory analyses yielded few significant results (Rummel 1963; Tanter 1966; Wilkenfeld 1972), recent studies using different research designs have found a modest link between leader popularity and the diversionary use of force (Ostrom and Job 1986; James and Oneal 1991; Morgan and Bickers 1992).

This paper seeks to expand our theoretical and empirical knowledge of the relationship between domestic politics and foreign policy by specifying the relationships among domestic variables and their consequent effects on foreign policy. In particular, I focus on the effect of domestic structures and systemic forces on the response of leaders to military threats from abroad. Following a discussion of the interrelationships among domestic and international sources of foreign policy, I evaluate their explanatory power using a set of 294 militarized interstate disputes that occurred between 1955 and 1976.