Battles and Bargains: Escalation, Commitment, and Negotiations in Civil War

Elizabeth J. Menninga, Alyssa K. Prorok

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Why do some civil war peace processes stall, while others build momentum? This paper examines how combatant behavior surrounding previous negotiations influences future talks during civil war. We argue disputants learn about the severity of the commitment problem based on whether their opponent escalates or de-escalates violence immediately after negotiations. While de-escalation reveals the opponent is willing and able to negotiate in good faith, escalation reveals the commitment problem to be severe. Post-negotiation escalation is perceived as a sign of bad faith or dissent within the opponent's ranks over the decision to negotiate. We hypothesize, therefore, that escalation after prior negotiations reduces the likelihood of subsequent talks relative to de-escalation. As a consequence, reviving a peace process after post-negotiation escalation may require external pressure to bring the disputants back to the table. We expect third-party involvement to mitigate the negative effect of prior escalation by providing incentives to revive talks or alleviating fears of defection. We test our expectations on monthly data on civil conflicts in Africa, finding post-negotiation escalation decreases the probability of subsequent negotiations, conditioned by third-party involvement. These findings are robust to a variety of operationalization and model specification choices.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)406-422
Number of pages17
JournalInternational Studies Quarterly
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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