Sigma: Journal of Political and International Studies


Drew Horne


Gulf War, international relations


Whether and to what degree internal threats could indeed lead to external conflict has been the focus of great swaths of International Relations scholarship. In their seminal work on International Relations, Haas and Whiting (1956) argue that state leaders “may be driven to a policy of foreign conflict—if not open war—to defend themselves against the onslaught of domestic enemies” (62). The default explanation for this connection, it seems, has been the widely touted diversionary war hypothesis, which supposes that domestically embattled leaders will seek to divert the public’s ire from their failures by provoking foreign conflicts (see Levy 1989; Oakes 2006; Haynes 2017; Theiler 2018). Such explanations have been used to explain many historical cases despite little consensus on even the most straightforward of these (Fravel 2010). This hypothesis has been perhaps most recently applied to explain Russia’s aggressive foreign policy, including the 2021 military buildup on the Ukrainian border (Theiler 2018; Beliakova 2019; Haass 2021). However, this deeply divided literature fails to provide a cogent examination of the mechanisms behind a supposed diversionary war. Is it the case that citizens will be inclined to support a failing leader whenever she provokes a war when war itself tends to be so profoundly unpopular? (See Myrick 2021)