Thomas Christensen and Jack Snyder, “Chain Gangs and Passed

Thomas Christensen and Jack Snyder, “Chain Gangs and Passed Bucks: Predicting
Alliance Patterns in Multipolarity,” International Organization, vol. 44 (1990), pp.
General Argument:
Chain-ganging and buck-passing are pathologies of alliance behavior that impede
efficient balancing to prevent war. Neither can arise in bipolarity, because superpowers
do not need to chain themselves since they are not dependent on anyone else for survival,
nor do superpowers pass the buck, since smaller allies can’t possible confront the
opposing superpower alone.
These two pathologies arise in multi-polarity when there is misperception of the
OD (Offense-defense) advantage. Misperception is crucial to causing war – if the OD
balance were correctly perceived, the two types of corresponding alliance behavior do not
lead to war. Thus, the ACTUAL OD balance matters as much as the PERCEIVED OD
balance – war happens when there’s a mismatch between the two.
State A chains itself
to state B, and
though B is reckless,
B’s survival is seen
as indispensable to
the security of the
alliance as a whole
Free-riding, failure
to balance:
State A passes the
costs of sustaining
the balance of
power to other states
in the system
Offense is
perceived to
Systemic factors:
-Polarity (multipolarity means
states have
relatively equal
Defense is
perceived to
Domestic factors:
- civil-military
- war
WAR, Conditional
Spiral into war –
alliance dynamics
magnify local
disputes, conquest is
seen as easy, so if
you don’t defend or
support an ally right
away he’ll be
Deterrence failure,
aggressors to risk
Main Hypothesis:
Patterns of civil-military relations + lessons from history Misperception of OD
balance Alliance Choice War
1. Military autonomy AND/OR offensive lessons from history cult of the offensive chain ganging Spiral into War
2. Civilian control AND/OR Defensive lessons from history cult of the defensive buck passing Deterrence failure and War
Empirics: (skip as necessary)
(1) WWI: In Germany, Schlieffen and his successors greatly exaggerated France’s
offensive power and somewhat exaggerated their own. Therefore Germany
adopted a war plan ensuring that a limited war in Eastern Europe would
immediately escalate to a decisive showdown involving all of Europe’s great
powers. This plan also increased Germany’s dependence on Austria because
German war plan put most of its divisions in the West, leaving Austria to face
Russia in the East. France exaggerated the advantages of the attacker and thus
concluded that a tight alliance with Russia was needed to offset the threat posed
by Germany. Russia was needed to bog down German troops in the East. French
military also had an ideology of the offensive and presumed that a decisive
victory or defeat would be achieved with great speed on the Franco-German front.
Russia also believed in the importance of the offense and of the need to quickly
attach Germany. This was why they rushed to attack Germany leading to their
defeat at Tannenberg. They assessed German offensive advantage and thought
that France could be knocked out quickly if they did not come to French aid and
then they would have had to face Germany alone.
(2) WWII: Stalin thought that the French could put up a fight and therefore did not
try to actively deter German threat. He thought that French defense would be able
to hold off Germany sufficiently and was genuinely surprised when France fell so
quickly. This bias explains why despite the fact that Russian strategic position
was similar in 1914 and 1939, Russia rushed to war in 1914 and why they were so
cautious in 1939. French position was in the middle. They lacked faith in defense
so they were heavily dependent on GB. They were not confident enough in
offense so were not willing to challenge Germany in 1938 since GB was not
committed. GB trusted French defenses and thought that they did not have to
actively deter Germany; they did not believe the Germans would try to go to war
with France since they imagined the defensive balance to favor France.
Thus, given a choice, states prefer to pass costs along to others, but when offensive
advantages were believed to make states extremely vulnerable and wars short, buck
passing was seen as too risky.
What does the work in explaining war – alliance behavior or the things that causes
alliances, such as threat misperception or misperception of the OD-balance? Alliances
don’t seem to have causal primacy.
The authors want to explain outcomes by combining only Balance of Power theory and
Security Dilemma theory, but invoke second and first image factors at will to explain
what realists don’t. Yet it’s not clear when these non-systemic factors will matter, how
much they will matter. So what good is this theory?
External validity issues – Causes of misperception, like lessons learned from history are
NOT generalizable. Will an unrestrained military always cause cult of offensive? Will
civilian control always lead to misperception? What won’t lead to misperception? Does
this apply to any other wars? A theory of what causes misperception more generally
needs to be formulated and tested. No such theory exists, thus no theory of foreign policy
exists, and a history of two wars is not a rigorous test of a general theory.
Where this fits in the literature:
(1) The key is perception, so complements work on perception by Jervis and Van
Evera. Also, it fits into the discussion on the OD-balance being a critical
component of explanation.
(2) Anarchy is a constant. Variation is primarily explained by Waltz’s polarity and
the additional variable (from Jervis) of the perception of the OD balance. It is a
way of explaining variation in a systemic theory where the system is a constant.
This adds on to Waltz, who doesn’t predict what alliance decisions states will
make in particular situations.
(But of course they also problematically invoke other explanatory variables like
(3) The other way this fits into the literature is that chain-ganging contributes to the
spiral model and buck-passing to the deterrence failure debate.