World Politics

The Rational Deterrence Debate: A Symposium

Rational Deterrence Theory and Comparative Case Studies

Christopher H. Achen and Duncan Snidala1*

a1 University of Chicago


Several recent books have argued that comparative case studies of crises demonstrate the failure of rational-deterrence theory; they have offered certain empirical generalizations as substitutes. This paper shows that such contentions are unwarranted. First, the empirical generalizations are impressive as historical insights, but they do not meet the standards for theory set out by the most sophisticated case-study analysts themselves. Second, the “tests” of rational deterrence used in the case studies violate standard principles of inference, and the ensuing procedures are so biased as to be useless. Rational deterrence, then, is a more successful theory than portrayed in this literature, and it remains the only intellectually powerful alternative available.

Case studies are essential to theory building: more efficiently than any other methods, they find suitable variables, suggest middle-range generalizations for theory to explain, and provide the prior knowledge that statistical tests require. Their loose constraints on admissible propositions and suitable evidence are appropriate and even necessary for these tasks. These same characteristics, however, inevitably undermine all attempts to construe case-study generalizations as bodies of theory or tests of hypotheses.

Christopher H. Achen is Professor and Chair in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Statistical Methods for Quasi-Experiments (1986).

* This article is a revised version of a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Chicago, IL, September 1987. The research was carried out under the Program in Arms Control and International Studies at the University of Chicago, and funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and under the Program on International Politics and Security (PIPES) supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts project on Economics and National Security. The order of the authors' names was determined by a coin toss.

For their comments on an earlier draft, we wish to thank Henry Brady, David Collier, Ernst Haas, Christopher Holoman, Peter Katzenstein, David Laitin, Jack Levy, Richard Mansbach, James Morrow, John Padgett, Robert Pape, Bruce Russett, Daniel Verdier, Harrison Wagner, and Stephen M. Walt. Raymond Duvall and John Mearsheimer gave particularly detailed suggestions in spite of profound disagreements with the argument. Our critics have saved us from numerous errors, but our opinions are our own, as are any remaining blunders.