Published ResearchPublic ScholarshipWorking ManuscriptsOther Projects

Managing international security dilemmas – such as contentious interstate disputes, violent non-state actors, and even economic shocks – appears to increasingly fall under the authority of international institutions. Evidence of this trend emerges as the UN Security Council authorizes binding resolutions more frequently, international courts decide against major powers’ claims, and international regulations provide the principal guidance through severe migration crises. Through these actions, organizations claim to be efficient and legitimate centers for coordinating multiple interests and complex networks that advance international peace and security.

Yet, it is not always the case that “institutions push states away from war” (Mearsheimer, 1994/1995: 7). A string of recent abuses and insufficient enforcement, combined with great powers’ typical avoidance strategies, reveals limitations in multilateral conflict management institutions.

The task of reconciling the conflicting evidence about the effectiveness of international institutions for security, however, should not cause a return to research silos that entirely reject the material importance of institutions, interests, or power politics. Rather, it should look for syntheses among these variables. Through my research I take this alternative approach. I argue that resolving conflict and insecurity poses a strategic optimization problem created, in part by the authority of international institutions relative to countries’ ability to exercise leverage using their own capabilities. The broader implications of this research help answer how institutions affect international security.

Published Research

Lai, Brian (University of Iowa) and Vanessa A. Lefler. 2017. Examining the Role of Region and Elections on Representation in the UN Security Council. Review of International Organizations. 12(4): 585-611. Download .pdf Download .pdf

Do United Nations Security Council (UNSC) members represent states in their geographic regions? Drawing on literature in legislative politics and regional similarities, this manuscript links classic notions of representation – descriptive and substantive – to geographic representation of UN members in the UNSC. However, we argue that the process of getting elected to the UNSC leads to the election of states that are not likely to represent their regions. Using UN General Assembly voting patterns as a proxy for preferences, two sets of analyses test 1) whether, in general, states within the same region have higher levels of General Assembly voting similarity, and 2) if UNSC members possess similar voting patterns with states in their region. The results show that while regional groupings do tend to have higher patterns of vote similarity, this effect is not present when comparing the states voted onto the UNSC with states in their region.

Lefler, Vanessa A. 2016. Experiments. Oxford Bibliographies in International Relations. Patrick James, editor. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Download .pdf Download .pdf

Experiments, broadly defined as any research design in which “the researcher intervenes in the [data generating process] by purposely manipulating elements of the environment” (Morton and Williams 2010, 30), occupy a small but growing place in international relations (IR) researchers’ methodological toolboxes. This bibliography introduces the reader to the opportunities for experimental research in international relations. Many of the authors featured in this bibliography cite Alvin Roth (1995, 22), who writes that experiments may serve three research goals: 1) “searching for facts,” 2) “speaking to theorists,” and 3) “whispering in the ears of princes.” More specifically, experiments give researchers the opportunity to uncover processes that are difficult to observe because of selection effects or spurious correlation. Experiments also isolate explanatory variables and perform direct tests of formal models and other theories. Furthermore, as some of the scholarship in this review will demonstrate, policy and non-profit organizations are welcoming collaborations with scholars to use experiments to more systematically assess their programming. While experiments are not appropriate for investigating all research questions, international relations scholars should become more familiar with them as they provide specific advantages for making causal inferences and, contrary to many common criticisms of experimental methods, help bridge political science and policy.

Lefler, Vanessa A. 2015. Strategic Forum Selection and Compliance in Interstate Dispute Resolution. Conflict Management and Peace Science, 32(1): 76-98. Download .pdf Download .pdf

This paper investigates strategic forum selection approaches and compliance with interstate dispute resolution settlements. Research shows that (a) management design features, like decision control and international organizations, affect compliance, (b) states strategically select among bilateral and third-party fora, and (c) anticipated settlement outcomes and enforcement inform pre-negotiation stages. A skeptical perspective suggests that states only select management approaches when they are confident in their ability to fully cooperate. Using Issue Correlates of War data, I test an endogenous model of forum selection and compliance. Statistical analysis finds that states strategically select management approaches in two cases: state-led mediation and ad hoc arbitration. Closer analysis suggests that, rather than tempering the promotion of mediation’s and arbitration’s pacifying benefits, conflict management scholarship should investigate more comparisons across dispute resolution approaches. This project’s multidimensional framework reveals that mediation and arbitration share similar foundations that logically link their selection and inclination toward compliance.

Public Scholarship

Quick Facts on the United States’ Dues Assessments to the United Nations. 2017. Report prepared for the UNA-USA Nashville Cordell Hull Chapter, Nashville, TN. Download .pdf Download .pdf

This document presents an overview of the United States financial obligations the United Nations’s Regular Budget. The Regular Budget funds all UN operations apart from Peacekeeping Missions and the US obligations to it are often a point of political contention. To demystify some of the rhetoric about the UN budget and the United States’s contributions to it, this report provides a concise overview of the facts. The report, furthermore, presents data that illustrates the exaggerations of some claims about the UN budget and also highlights some facets of the UN’s fiscal health that are troublingly understated.

Working Manuscripts

The (Dis)Use of Formal International Organizations in Interstate Conflict Management. In preparation for submission.

Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) are important actors in the settlement of contentious, interstate disputes. An increasing number of IGOs include peaceful dispute resolution provisions, and when states turn to IGOs the effort is more likely to produce a settlement with which both parties comply. But countries typically do not submit their disputes to international organizations. Instead, most negotiate bilaterally or through other states. Why do states avoid institutional solutions to interstate conflict? A side-by-side test of the advantages of institutional management given the nature of rational choice strategies, Kantian norms, and dispute contingencies answers this question. The results find support for rationalist and Kantian approaches, but not the contingency framework. Altogether, the results suggest that rather than favoring IGOs for their direct efficacy as conflict managers, states look to IGOs and other management strategies to clarify procedural issues and commitment.

Dimensions of Forum Selection in Interstate Conflict Management: Transparency, Decision Control, and Distributional Bias. In preparation for submission.

The study of bargaining, mediation, and legal dispute resolution in interstate conflict management enjoy vibrant, but largely separate, traditions. This independence is puzzling, though, for practical and theoretical reasons. First, pre-negotiation or procedural phases of conflict resolution are likely to take into account the wide variety of bilateral and third-party choices rather than focus solely on one strategy. Second, as conflict management scholars incorporate strategic bargaining problems into theories about management efficacy, comparisons across approaches on these problems are infrequent or inconsistent. This paper presents a three-dimensional framework of a conflict management forum that permits comparisons between bilateral negotiations, mediation, and legal dispute resolution. These three dimensions, transparency, decision control, and distributional bias, unify the existing literature’s explanations for management effectiveness and acceptability so that scholarship may advance on questions of management demand and supply and institutional design.

Other On-Going Projects

Bargain Shopping for Peace? A Formal Bargaining Model of Conflict Management Forum Selection.

Featuring the first of two game-theoretic bargaining models from my dissertation research, this projects models the impact of third-party intermediaries on dispute resolution. The central equilibrium solution from this bargaining game suggests that having the option to submit to third-party dispute resolution alternatives encourages countries to alter their demands in negotiations. For international relations, this result implies that international norms and laws substantively influence countries’ expectations about what are acceptable solutions to conflict.

Systemic Conditions of Alliance Commitments: Norms, Market Volatility, and Investment, with Kelly M. Kadera (University of Iowa).

One of two papers with Kelly M. Kadera (University of Iowa) that asks whether shifts in the dominance of opposing international treaty norms — pacta sunt servanda and rebus sic stantibus — affects military alliance behavior. This part of the project establishes that countries’ behavior toward treaty responsibilities varies over time, rather than consistently behaving either as though treaties imply binding obligations or that they represent temporary rules so long as conditions remain the same. These shifts become important pieces of information in countries’ decisions to join and leave military alliances: Countries are more likely to leave alliances when alliances represent weak signals of military capabilities due to widespread treaty volatility and join when it appears that military alliances are stable security instruments.

Investment and Alliance Formation: The Signaling Role of Systemic Conditions for Alliance Commitment and Reputation, with Kelly M. Kadera (University of Iowa).

Volatility within global military alliance treaty norms signals that alliances, in general, might not be as reliable of security instruments as generally assumed. Still, some countries may prefer to share the burdens of security costs through alliances rather than adopting solely domestic defense strategies. In a weak market for alliances, who are countries more likely to align with? We find that a potential ally’s reputation matters: While countries with good reputations for consistently supporting their allies are always attractive security partners, countries with poor reputations are punished in weak and volatile alliance conditions as potential partners seek to avoid proven bad investments.

The Electoral Politics of United Nations Security Council Non-Permanent Membership, with Brian Lai (University of Iowa).

This project tests logic derived from spatial voting models and economic campaign effects arguments in the context of United Nations Security Council non-permanent member elections. On one hand, countries sitting on the Security Council should have both a capacity and reputation for upholding international peace and security. On the other hand, Security Council membership is highly valuable and competition for these seats can be intense and expensive. Which factors tend to predict a country’s election to the Security Council? We find evidence for both arguments, however prevailing norms and procedures at the United Nations suggest a stronger preference for the a country’s commitment to the UN’s mission in selecting non-permanent Security Council members.