Dissertation Project:
“Power Vacuums in Great Power Politics”

Despite the frequency with which power vacuums appear in both scholarly and public discourse, students of international relations (IR) have so far largely failed to specify what power vacuums are, let alone systematically assess their implications for international politics. In my dissertation project, I therefore first address the foundational question of how to conceptualize power vacuums, arguing that they are best understood as political spaces in which an organization’s absolute authority has collapsed and no organization has yet successfully laid renewed claim to it. I show that, in the context of international politics, authority relations can dissolve at two levels of interest – the national and the international level – and that there thus exist two types of power vacuums relevant to the study of IR: national and international vacuums. While the former has received some attention in the literature on the international consequences of state failure and civil war, the latter has largely eluded explicit scholarly attention.

I thus develop a theory explaining variation in great powers’ responses to the emergence of international vacuums. Why do great powers seek to assert authority in some vacuums but not others? And what determines their choice of strategy when they decide to compete for them? My central argument is that great powers compete for authority over international vacuums when they fear an adversary could assert control over the respective space and thus shift the geopolitical balance of power – which is a function of material resources and geography – in its favor. Which particular strategy a great power employs towards a power vacuum in which it has a strategic interest primarily depends on the interaction of two factors: first, whether a vital interest or an important interest is at stake; and second, whether the collapse of international authority coincides with the collapse of national authority in the respective space. I support my argument through in-depth case studies of how U.S. policymakers responded to several crucial episodes of international authority collapse, including the collapse of Germany and Japan after World War II as well as the end of the British Empire in the Middle East.

The project directly contributes to the burgeoning research program on authority and hierarchy in international politics. While existing research on the subject has largely focused on explaining why international authority relations emerge and collapse, my project is focused on the consequences, not causes, of their dissolution. It thereby illuminates the international implications of great power decline and retrenchment, which are the subject of much debate in the current literature on U.S. grand strategy and the question of what effect the end of U.S. hegemony will have on international politics.

Working Papers

“Concepts in Context: Ontological Coherence in Social Science Theorizing” with Marcel Jahn

“Power Vacuums in International Politics: A Conceptual Framework"

“How Rare Are Rational Thinkers in International Politics? Revisiting the ‘Guilty Men’ of Interwar Britain”