Exploring Security Behavior in the International System

Greg Marfleet
Carleton College
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This material was developed as part of the Carleton Teaching Activity Collection and is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


Assignment Objectives: Mainstream IR theory has traditionally focused more on system-determined effects than factors related to the internal process of the actors (states). Trapped in an anarchic system, states must be aware of the threat that the military capabilities of other states present to their survival and cannot entirely trust implied intentions. Consequently, states are faced with a security dilemma: if they arm (for security) they may intimidate other states who may respond in kind.

The purpose of the assignment is to make students aware of two elements of this security dynamic: How dangerous was, or is, the international system (how prevalent is conflict)? and What is patterns of US and global defense spending? Do these two 'match up' in any way?

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

Key Questions for Students to explore- the relationship between state behavior and systemic conditions.

Does the US spend too much on defense? Can we compare the raw number of US dollars with other countries? How can we compare defense spending across countries? What trends have there been in US defense and global spending since WWII? Which countries have similar, higher or lower levels resource allocation? How can we explain these patterns?

How prevalent is inter-state conflict in the international system? How does this pattern differ if we look at full-blown wars versus "militarized disputes" (events short of war)? What does this pattern tell us about how states (leaders? governments) approach the use of coercion in global politics? Is major war obsolete?

Are changes in the international system reflected in the defense-related behavior of states? Was there a 'peace dividend' at the end of the cold war? Did changes in spending differ by country?

Context for Use

Assignment Timing:

The security section of the course is the opening few weeks of class where we encounter dominant approaches to IR like "Realism". This assignment would likely be timed to culminate that brief section as we transition away from Realist thinking to other modes of explanation.

A second quantitative assignment will be implemented for the second half of the term. This one would follow a similar pattern and ask students to explore Aid, Trade or Environmental behavior

Student Preparation Considerations:
Students in a typical IR class range from freshman exploring major options to non-major seniors looking for a fun class. Statistical training can vary widely and it would be unfair to ask untrained first year students to compete with highly trained juniors or seniors so the assignment should be one that doesn't require stats.

Description and Teaching Materials

Teaching Notes and Tips

Question for Assignment Development

Data prep
To what degree should I prepare these data? Should I create a summary table of US and defense spending and that of a selection of other countries for a range of years (like John's energy data table?). Should I create a master Excel spreadsheet and let the students loose to explore?

The conflict data presents more problems because the unit of analysis (each case in the dataset) is a conflict and so to obtain annual conflict frequency or intensity numbers students would be required to count episodes/year or sum battle deaths per year (trival activities with a stats package, tedious without though these could be done by experienced Excel users)

Prompt? Audience?

Possible prompts could include "You landed your dream DC job as a staff support member to a representative on the armed services/foreign relations committee.

Solo or group work?


References and Resources


Key resource for this assignment will be data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Database on Military Expenditure which collects military spending data for 170 countries since 1988. I would like to extend into the 1970s if possible. . The Cross National Times Series Database looks promising in this regard.
In addition to SIPRI the Peace Research Institute of Oslo also hosts datasets tracking incidents of armed conflict in the international system since 1949