Uncertainty, Network Change, and Costly Signaling: How the Network of Diplomatic Visits Affects the Initiation of International Conflict

Bargaining theories of war emphasize the role of private information as a fundamental cause of conflict. Leaders are uncertain about one another’s military strength, preferences, and trustworthiness and, as a result, can miscalculate the expected costs and outcomes of fighting which may lead to the outbreak of conflict. Thus, a critical step in the onset of conflict is determining what leaders are likely to know and where they get their information from. I argue that what state leaders know is the result of their embeddedness in international networks with other leaders. These networks can serve as an infrastructure for information exchange and, more importantly, as a costly and credible signaling device. First, government agents of states may communicate with representatives of other states to obtain strategic information about potential opponents. Second, state leaders may use their pattern of interactions with other leaders to publicly disseminate costly signals about their preferences and demonstrate trustworthiness and alliances. In other words, international networks can function as direct and indirect communication mechanisms. I argue that states’ positions and changes of positions in these direct, and particularly indirect, international communication structures affect uncertainty and the probability of conflict initiation. Using data on diplomatic visits of government agents from 1990 to 2004 and employing network statistics to measure changes in the similarity of states’ positions in the diplomatic visits network, I show that states’ positions in the diplomatic visits networks are a powerful predictor of conflict initiation.