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Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy

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Volume 19, Issue 3


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Major Power Status (In)Consistency and Political Relevance in International Relations Studies

Renato Corbetta
  • Corresponding author
  • Government, University of Alabama at Birmingham, HHB 411 1401 University Blvd, Birmingham, AL 35294, USA
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/ Thomas J. Volgy
  • Department of Government and Public Policy, University of Arizona, Social Sciences 330, Tucson, AZ 85721, USA
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/ J. Patrick Rhamey Jr.
  • Department of International Studies and Political Science, Virginia Military Institute, 435 Scott Shipp Hall, Lexington, VA 24450, USA
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Published Online: 2013-12-17 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/peps-2013-0046


Political relevance is frequently used as a sample selection criterion to limit massive data frames in which most dyads have little or no probability of interaction. Because political relevance may introduce bias in both sample composition and empirical findings, several studies have proposed alternative operationalizations. Yet, major power status appears in every definition of political relevance. This practice may be problematic for two reasons. First, authors often use major power status as a proxy for capabilities, while status itself may have an effect separate from capabilities. Second, popular operationalizations of major power status – including the Correlates of War classification – treat all great power states as having equal status and, consequently, as being equally predisposed towards various political behaviors and interactions. We suggest, instead, that the opportunity and willingness for political action vary among great powers as a function of their status consistency. Using the classification developed in [Volgy, Thomas J., Renato Corbetta, Keith A. Grant, Ryan G. Baird, (2011), Major Powers and the Quest for Status in International Politics: Global and Regional Perspectives, Palgrave MacMillan, New York], we propose that (1) major power states differ in their baseline probability for political interaction based on whether they are status consistent, status inconsistent overachievers, or status inconsistent underachievers and, therefore, that (2) politically relevant dyads may differ depending on the status consistency of the major power they contain. Using the 1950–2001 period as our empirical domain, we explore the implications of selecting politically relevant dyads based status (in)consistency for studies on conflict onset, conflict joining, and foreign intervention.

Keywords: status; major powers; political relevance; conflict


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About the article

Corresponding author: Renato Corbetta, Government, University of Alabama at Birmingham, HHB 411 1401 University Blvd, Birmingham, AL 35294, USA, Tel.: +205-934-2336, Fax: +205-975-5712, E-mail:

Published Online: 2013-12-17

Published in Print: 2013-12-01

An unwanted consequence is that researchers drop dyads that experience conflict even if states are neither major powers nor geographically proximate. Some scholars have tweaked the defining traits of political relevance in order to make the concept more flexible (e.g., Bennett 2006; Quackenbush 2006).

For instance, COW considers the People’s Republic of China as having major power status starting in 1950 and through a period of enormous weakness in Chinese capabilities and a lack of assertiveness outside its immediate neighborhood. The same is true of Italy prior to the Second World War (Singer 1988).

The COW measure of major power status is only twice briefly defined (Singer 1988; Small and Singer 1982) and the methodology used in its operationalization remains vague.

Similar to the COW indicator, this approach rests on the assumption that members of the international system observe the same attributes as researchers when they consider which states should be attributed major power status. It differs however in specifying those attributes systematically.

We look at military size, military reach (spending for uniformed unit), size of the economy (GDP), and economic reach (trade as a proportion of global trade). The values of the four capability indicators and the following willingness measures should exceed a threshold of one standard deviation above the annual mean for all states.

We use events data are from COPDAB (Azar 1980), WEIS (Goldstein 1991), and IDEA (Bond et al. 2003; King and Lowe 2003), separated into dimensions of conflict and cooperation using Goldstein’s scale.

Diplomatic contacts data are from COW’s diplomatic exchange data (http://www.correlatesofwar.org/), updated in the DIPCON data (http://www.arizona.edu/~volgy/data.html). State visits are extracted from the three events data sources previously noted.

We again refer readers to Volgy et al. (2011) for further examples and discussion of issues concerning the validity of SAM compared to COW.

MID joining refers to third parties becoming actively involved in an ongoing militarized dispute between two states with the intent to aid one side in the dispute. Foreign interventions apply to outside states’ intervention into a target state’s territory in the absence of an ongoing interstate conflict (Kisangani and Pickering 2008).

The data frame and control variables were produced with EUGene software (Bennett and Stam 2000). Capability ratio refers to the weakest-to-strongest ratio in a dyad and is based on the Correlates of War’s Composite National Capability Index (CINC) (Singer 1988; Singer, Bremer, and Stuckey 1972). Shared alliance is a dichotomous variable capturing whether the two members of a dyad share any alliance pact. Shared democratic ties is a dummy variable coded 1 if both members of a dyad are considered mature democracies, scoring 6 or higher on the Polity Index (see Marshall, Jaggers, and Gurr 2010).

Data on dispute onset are from the COW Militarized Interstate Disputes (MID) project (Ghosn, Palmer, and Bremer 2004; Jones, Bremer, and Singer 1996); data on war onset are from COW’s Inter-State War data set (Sarkees and Wayman 2010); data on MID joining are from Corbetta and Dixon (2005); and data on foreign interventions are from Kisangani and Pickering (2008) and Pearson and Baumann (1993).

As contiguity is operationalized identically in either population of politically relevant dyads, differences between the two groups in the models are due to differences in the operationalization of status. We are mindful that the limited number of controls yields some degree of under specification bias, but our goal is to identify a minimum set of explanatory variables that are commonly associated with all of conflict events under consideration in order to improve comparability across models. Due to space limitations, we refrain from commenting on individual results from Tables 36. A more extensive discussion in included in the full version of the paper available from the authors on request.

In this case politically relevant dyads with a major power overachiever are more likely to experience foreign intervention than those containing an underachieving major power across all values of capability ratio. Recall, however, such a difference is not statistically significant.

Citation Information: Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy, Volume 19, Issue 3, Pages 291–307, ISSN (Online) 1554-8597, ISSN (Print) 1079-2457, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/peps-2013-0046.

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