Many studies have examined the formation of interstate rivalries, but few provide a theoretical mechanism capable of explaining why some neighboring states experience protracted conflict while others do not. To address this question, we theoretically link bargaining theories of conflict with issue-based explanations of conflict to offer a novel application of the commitment problem mechanism. We argue that when neighboring states disagree over border territory endowed with a potential source of power (i.e. strategic or economic value), it is difficult for either side to commit credibly in the future to comply with agreements made today. Consequently, neighboring states may be reluctant to make concessions that could enhance their adversary’s future bargaining power. This reluctance, in turn, increases the likelihood of bargaining failure, thereby also increasing the likelihood that the dispute festers and the relationship evolves into a rivalry. Using recently reported data on border settlement and three measures of rivalry, we find systematic evidence for our theoretical expectations. Unsettled borders increase the likelihood of rivalry onset. This relationship, however, seems driven by border territory containing strategic and economic endowments – the exact type of territory that theoretically drives commitment problems. We therefore conclude that not all territory matters for the onset of contiguous rivalries.
- bargaining model
- commitment problems
- international border agreements
- interstate rivalry
- territorial disputes