Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name


Degree Program

Political Science


Political Science

Major Professor

Huelshoff, Michael G.

Second Advisor

Day, Christine

Third Advisor

Lektzian, David

Fourth Advisor

Prins, Brandon

Fifth Advisor

Rosenblum, Marc


This dissertation investigates how political instability is related to the probability of civil war. According to the literature in comparative politics, regime breakdown is caused by critical events such as economic decline, defeat in interstate war, death of a leader in office, or changes is the international balance of power. Drawing on Powell (2004, 2006), I conceptualize such critical events as shifts in the domestic distribution of power that can lead to a bargaining breakdown and, in consequence, military conflict. Following a shock to government capabilities, current leaders and the opposition are bargaining for a share of authority. The government has incentives to grant concessions to other groups within the state, yet such promises are not credible given that the leadership may regain its strength. Similarly, opposition groups lack the ability to make credible commitments as they expect to be more powerful in the future. Both the government and opposition groups could benefit from striking bargains, but cannot credibly commit because of incentives to renege on agreements in the future. Unable to commit, both actors may use force to achieve their preferred outcome. The dissertation then shifts the focus to solutions to such commitment problems. I expect that (1) the institutional structure of government and opposition groups and (2) the distance between groups have important consequences on the range of feasible agreements during this bargaining process. The arguments are tested in a statistical study of all countries for the 1960-2004 time period and in a small-sample analysis of democratization processes in Algeria and Chile. Findings show that critical events increase the probability of civil war as hypothesized and empirical evidence also provides strong support for the proposed solutions to the commitment problem.


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