Dissertation Project:
“Power Vacuums in International Politics”

Despite the frequency with which power vacuums appear in both scholarly and public discourse, students of international relations have so far largely failed to specify what power vacuums are, let alone discuss their implications for international politics. In my dissertation project, I first address the foundational question of how to conceptualize this phenomenon. I argue that power vacuums are best understood as political spaces in which an organization’s absolute authority – at either the national or international level – has collapsed and no actor has yet successfully laid renewed claim to it. I then develop a theory explaining variation in great powers’ responses to the emergence of such power vacuums. When do they launch military interventions to assert authority? When do they intervene only remotely by providing military and economic aid to favored political actors from afar? And when do they abstain from involving themselves in the struggle for authority altogether?

My central argument is that great powers compete for authority over power vacuums when they fear that 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. Not being able to turn to a higher authority for help, great powers realize that they have no choice but to take matters into their own hands. Caught in what Herbert Butterfield aptly labeled an “irreducible dilemma,” great powers thus end up inserting themselves in the struggle for authority over strategically relevant spaces not to opportunistically increase their own power but solely to prevent their adversaries from increasing theirs. Which particular strategy a great power employs towards a given power vacuum primarily depends on the interaction of two factors: first, whether a vital, important, or no strategic interest is at stake; and second, whether a great power identifies what I call a “dependable instrument” within the power vacuum, i.e., an agent that can serve as its reliable subordinate.

I support my theory through in-depth case studies of how the U.S. responded to several crucial episodes of authority dissolution, namely the collapse of the German and Japanese empires after World War II as well as the collapse of state authority in Afghanistan and the Dominican Republic during the Cold War. In addition, to corroborate the external validity of my findings, I present the results of a large-N qualitative analysis (LNQA), i.e., qualitative assessments of every single case that occurred within the temporal boundaries of this study (1945-1989).

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 dissolve, my project is focused on the consequences, not causes, of their dissolution. It thereby illuminates the international implications of imperial retrenchment and collapse, which are the subject of much debate in the current literature on U.S. grand strategy. By simultaneously investigating the collapse of authority at the national level, the project also speaks to the international consequences of state failure and the determinants of foreign powers’ involvement in domestic disputes. The project thus informs two current policy debates: what are the costs and risks incurred by great powers who engage in retrenchment? And do failed states always become international conflict-triggering “black holes,” or do they sometimes defy this gloomy conventional wisdom?

Working Papers

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

“A Tale of Two Pressures: Islamic Law States and the Timing of Litigation” with Emilia J. Powell and Benedikt A. Graf

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