The Prestige Dilemma of States


Thucydides argued that states fight for glory, gain, and fear. This suggests that scarcity is a driving motive of interstate conflict.

However, gain is not scarce over time. Growth is not zero-sum. Although Grieco has suggested that scarcity competition will apply somewhat in a concern for relative gains, this is disputed.

But the case is clearer for security and prestige. Jervis has famously described a security dilemma in which an improvement for A automatically means a decrease for B. Security is a zero-sum game.

The same should be said of prestige, but there is little literature on this. The role of prestige is undertheorized in IR. Perhaps because it feels too ideational, it does not seems to appeal to the materialist/empirical bent of realism especially.

But the emergence of peace studies, a normative sub-branch of IR, has made this gap problematic. Peace studies frequently asserts that prestige and questions of political will are the driving force behind conflict (Barash and Webel, 166). Peace researchers are posting, implicitly, a prestige dilemma. Not all states may be equally esteemed, so prestige, like security, is zero-sum. Hence states may use compellance and coercion to advance in the status hierarchy.

A turn toward to prestige as a cause of war would serve the field. It emanates from the second image, and this serves the general move by the field away from structural explanations. As Schweller and Priess have noted (1997), Waltz’ work has become something of a straightjacket now on IR. They argue for nuanced explanations that draw from the state level. A focus on prestige answers that call.

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