Relative Asymmetry

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Power is often the go-to solution for many puzzles in international relations, but it also presents as many questions as it seems to answer, if not more.  One of the enduring puzzles in international relations deals with the relationship between powerful actors in the international system and weak actors; for many of our theories, this power asymmetry drives the stock of international behavior. Scholars and instructors alike often trace back the pivotal lesson of power asymmetry to Thucydides with the idea that the powerful do what they want and the weak suffer what they must.  This is the realist lesson for the modern state system that neorealism strongly echoes.  However, even in the foundational text of the Melian Dialogue (as over-analyzed by scholars from several disciplines), we ostensibly learn a lesson about rational actors: the weak should submit or else face destruction; therefore, rationally they should submit.  Melos does not.

The Parthenon illuminated

The neorealist world of stability is ultimately one of predation: the world system is most stable when there is power balancing and, without balancing, the unchecked powers will use their position to prey upon weaker actors—or go to war if their demands are not met. Power Transition Theorists offer an alternative world in which war outcomes are known via power asymmetry and that produces stability. That is, when everyone knows the outcome of a prospective war, there is no inherent gamble in fighting and it is more efficient to accept settlements short of war; it is only when the outcomes are more of a gamble that war may seem profitable (in systems of parity).  Melos is troubling for similar reasons, then, for even in large disparity with Athens, they refuse settlement and gamble against a siege.  They lose.

When we conceptualize and operationalize asymmetry, the standard practice is to get some measure of state power/capacity (typically the Correlates of War CINC measure) and construct a dyadic measure of the ratio of the most powerful state in relation to the sum of the power of the two states:


This is a fine measure for us to get at the surface level of day-to-day power relations between states and is something that we would absolutely include if we were looking at asymmetry between states, but there are several other dimensions that we may want to look at as well.  There are other dimensions, including the balance or symmetry/asymmetry of interests, power, and resolve that all influence the initiation, duration, and conclusion to conflicts.  A few other axes to asymmetry include, but not limited to, the following:

Recalculating power – A common tactic for re-examining asymmetric conflict is to find out whether or not the power asymmetry between sides is actually genuine. In several cases, in both intra- and inter-state conflict, what may look like a disparity in CINC scores is bolstered by factors that CINC cannot take into account.  T.V. Paul’s work on this looks at initiation and finds a few patterns where seeming asymmetrical pairings are not actually that: weak states can be bolstered by having strong allies that bring balance to their side of the power or they could have a surprise strategy or weapon that fundamentally alters who we think as weak and strong.  These are important avenues to explore, but they also tell us that we were wrong to think of the pairing as asymmetric in terms of power.

Distance – Another factor that influences power is distance.  Power is not universal and the use and projection of power (projection is usually dependent upon potential use) degrade with distance.  Doug Lemke’s work on applying Power Transition Theory to microcosms adds a unique tool of recalculating power relationships based on how credible states are at deploying military assets in another states territory.  He uses distance to degrade the reach of power to calculate what regions of meaningful political interaction are and to determine if PPT trends occur in those regions (he does find support for this).  The farther away a state is from its target, the weaker it could be especially if the state does not have substantial networks to support the deployment of forces.

Resolve -This is a classic unmeasureable variable in international relations, but it is an important dimension to determine symmetry: how willing are the concerned actors to fight for a particular outcome or issue.  While two actors may be mismatched in relative strength, if the powerful actor is unwilling to fight for an issue, they are less likely to prevail over a weaker, more determined actor.  Leaders and states attempt to signal resolve through sinking costs (e.g. testing new weapons, mobilizing forces, etc.) and tying hands (binding future action), but both of these instruments can be unreliable in really knowing how resolved a state is.   Attempting to find proxy variables to measure resolve is an ongoing research project, but sometimes we can make assumptions to help guide us in assuming resolve.  For example, fighting for survival usually begets higher levels of resolve than a state fighting to acquire material resources.  In Mack’s classic examination of asymmetric conflict, he argues that resolve is the pivotal variable that may explain when the weak beat the strong.

Political Willingness – This is related to resolve, but offers institutional concreteness to determine another level of asymmetry.  We perceive political institutions as placing various constraints on actors dependent upon how their interests (usually political survival) intersect with the institutions they are interacting with as well as how other actors and their interests (the “national interest” or particularist interest) influence decision makers. Typically, we see democratic states as being more bound than their autocratic peers; wars become increasingly unpopular as they endure due to increase costs (human, economic, and political) and autocratic states are more capable to absorb the costs of public costs by being institutionally insulated.  Public costs hurt democratic leaders more as the public can respond to those costs by threatening the political survival of leaders. Private costs in an autocracy can be threatening to the tenure of an autocrat as well if they cannot compensate those who help keep the autocrat in power.

This ability for some decision-makers to absorb or attenuate the costs of engaging in war exists for conflicts between states and non-state actors as well.  Rebel groups are often non-democratic and the provision of private and public goods can enable them to endure through the costliness of conflict.  Kissinger remarked about US-Vietnamese negotiations “…we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.”  This maxim becomes more acute for democratic states.

Strategy – Along the political willingness lines, but in a distinct conversation, there is also an issue of the strategies various actors can pursue.  Toft convincingly argues that what happens on the battlefield between asymmetric actors is a strategic interaction of tactic selection and the weak can overcome their numerical and military inferiority with a selection of strategies that negate the efficacy of power.  The strong, due to either political, institutional, or goal constraints, are unable to engage in strategies such as guerrilla warfare or terrorismboth strategies are better adept at inflicting costs and less useful for holding long-term objectives.  Thus, a companion dimension to power parity would be tactic parity.

State Capacity/Effectiveness – Equally powerful states are not equally capable; at least, not always.   While states may draw from a similar base of power, they may not be able to utilize their resources (human and material) equally.  States with more effective institutions, that can raise revenue efficiently, borrow money cheaply, mobilize more willing people into conflict, and better assert the rule of law domestically may very well be much more powerful than a state that has the same resources, but is less efficient.  State capacity is another difficult variable to measure, but scholars do try to proxy it by looking at variables such as economic wealth (GDP per capita), tax rate or revenue, mountainous terrains (natural barriers to state capacity), etc.  States that are less able to exploit their population and resources only utilize a fraction of their potential power.

Mobilization – Both states and non-states engaged in conflict must be able to deploy individuals to the battlefield to contest their opponent.  The ability to mobilize people to take up arms and risk their life against another armed actor is not an easy task and is a fundamental vein of research in studies of civil war.  Typically, groups and states being able to both point to a public good as well as providing selective goods for participation provides for more effective mobilization, but even public and private goods vary in their capacity to mobilize.  Mobilizing for self-defense and survival will garner more interested recruits than mobilizing for colonization.

Measuring asymmetry across multiple poles of dyadic interactions gets increasingly difficult as some of the concepts are difficult to measure (such as resolve) or may not be visible (for measurement purposes) until a crisis or conflict resolves, which may make our definition useless truisms: If we think war is determined by who had more resolve and we measure such resolve by success in war, then we are providing an falsifiable hypothesis. These data become sparser when we do with actors that are difficult to really track information on (How do you measure a terrorist group’s power relative to a state or do we just assume that they are necessarily weak? Are all terrorist groups equally weak?). However, ignoring relevant measures of asymmetry is worse than attempting to incorporate more poles of symmetry in studies of asymmetry.   

Michael A. Allen

About Michael A. Allen

Michael is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at Boise State University with a focus in International Relations, Comparative Politics, and Methodology (quantitative and formal). His work includes issues related to military basing abroad, asymmetric relations, cooperation, and conflict. He received his Ph.D from Binghamton University in 2011.

One thought on “Relative Asymmetry

  1. Professor Allen,

    Would you care to share your thoughts on the concept of asymmetrical political relationship being proposed in the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law of the Philippines relative to the right to self determination, self governance, and self preservation of Filipino Muslims in Mindanao?

    Thank you.

    Best Regards,

    Lyra Stella Campos Valera

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