John Vasquez, Territoriality, and Staying Ahead of the Game

15 April 2014, 2000 EDT

by Brandon Valeriano and Andy Owsiak

What follows is a dialog between us on John Vasquez’s contributions to the field of IR based on a recent roundtable honoring his work at the Annual Meeting of the International Studies Association in Toronto in March, 2014.  Our remarks are cribbed from our statements on the panel.  vasquez

Brandon-  Sometimes it is so hard to find a picture of a Duck that looks like your mentor…

For many scholars, the cap on their career might be a roundtable covering the contributions they have made to the field and the scholars they have ushered into our community.  For John Vasquez, this event at the recent ISA conference was more notable for the fact that he almost missed it.

You see, John Vasquez is not the most technically adapt of academics.  These sorts of things miss his notice. Moving him from SPSS to Stata was a struggle comparable to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

Even through all this, John has remained ahead of everyone else, shaping academic opinions rather than being shaped by them.  His work on territoriality is even more relevant today with the invasion of Crimea and the continued territorial disputes in the South China Sea.  Therefore, it was fitting that ISA held a roundtable about the contributions of this work at the conference.

Through his time in the field, John has made many major contributions including working hard to point out the inadequacy of realism, the degeneration of neorealism, the importance of the issue based perspective, and articulating an inductive comprehensive theory of war.  Yet, his most enduring contribution might be the Territorial Explanation of War.

For a long time, many were skeptical of territory as a cause of war.  Some thought it was over determined; others felt the finding was driven by how the MID project coded territorial disputes and therefore a selection effect. Now opinion has moved to the point where territory as the primary cause of war is an obvious conclusion and it is tough to remember there was such doubt and skepticism early on.

Andy-  As a graduate student, I was constantly amazed by the fact that senior scholars seemed to have the world figured out. Students would ask these scholars a question – for example, why does war occur? – and the answer always came quickly and clearly. In John Vasquez’s case, the answer always involved territory. In fact, someone once quipped that John would always answer “territory,” even before the question was asked (actually this is probably from my story about how I used to sit in on his classes and when the younger grad students paused at an answer, I would blurt out territory and John would make it right –Brandon). This obviously is a slight exaggeration – albeit one with an element of truth behind it. Given the strength of his convictions, however, I think it is important to think about how John reached such answers (and the confidence in them).

John’s territorial explanation of war did not emerge suddenly with The War Puzzle in 1993. Rather, one can see that the territorial explanation of war built slowly in John’s work – beginning (at the latest) in 1981. In In Search of Theory, John (and co-author Richard Mansbach) proposed an issue paradigm, in which politics is defined as “the raising and resolving of public issues” (68-9; other seeds of the War Puzzle, a book he wrote for seven years). Furthermore, the issue paradigm derived from the shortcomings that John saw in the realist paradigm. Viewed from this angle, two things become immediately clear. First, John’s work clearly built – from the origins of an issue paradigm to critiques of realist theory and the advancement of the territorial explanation of war. Earlier work always informed later work. Second, and most intriguing from a (former) student’s perspective, John’s work was truly visionary.

The territorial explanation of war emerged at a time during which the field did not have the data to test all of its propositions. Yet the predictions John made then continue to receive strong empirical support. For example, data on Militarized Interstate Disputes (MIDs) did not originally contain information on the issues over which the MIDs began. These data were added around 1996 (Jones, Bremer, and Singer 1996), and they confirm John’s early predictions that territorial disputes and power politics go hand-in-hand. Another illustration – currently playing out in contemporary research (including my own work) – involves interstate borders. John writes in the War Puzzle that: a) border territory will be the locus of most interstate conflict, and b) that reaching an agreement on the delimitation of interstate borders will fundamentally change the relationship between neighboring states over all issues. Recent research by Doug Gibler, David Carter and H. Goemans, Kenneth Schultz, and myself all work in some way or another with these premises. To me, that fact is astonishing; John predicted the current research agenda twenty years ago.

More than this, however, John has influenced scholars in a number of ways – direct and indirect, overt and covert. Many scholars, for example, have made entire careers out of studying territorial disputes specifically, including their management. Research on interstate rivalries incorporated issues into the explanations for how rivalries emerge, persist, and settle. And we now have an Issue Correlates of War project doing path-breaking research on territorial claims, which has been extended to river and maritime claims as well.

Finally, I would note that John’s influence on the field is not likely to wane. As with the first edition, The War Puzzle Revisited contains an appendix filled with yet-untested propositions derived from the territorial explanation of war. Graduate students or faculty searching for inspiration might (re)visit these pages to see where someone that has carefully digested and integrated scholarly research might recommend we go next.

Brandon-  Having John Vasquez as a mentor was an experience I gather most would be envious of.  When others complain about their mentors and the lack of interest they have shown in their career, I feel proud to know that John was as close as anyone will come to being a second father to me.  He still remains deeply interested in my work, my life, and my well being.  During the roundtable, he even managed to bring up a long forgotten paper that I have no interest in really completing.  He continues to both encourage and nag me to do better.

I learned many things from John; possibly the most important was how precise he was about his work.  It is a lesson I still need to learn today.  All too often scholars privilege quickness and multiple publications over quality and precision.  Doing our work on the Classification of War, I will never forget sitting at his house for a series of days, going over each line of data to make sure it was right.  I learned from him to dive into the data, to work with your data till it is ready.

I also learned the lessons he choose to teach in silence.  He never insisted I do something; he would make his point of view clear and leave me to my own devices, often failing when I choose to ignore his advice. Through this process I learned the importance of having a mentor, but even more important, the critical need for having a mentor who is more often than not, right.

Andy –  Everyone has a distinct mentoring style, and John is no different. I could speak at length about this style or the many things I learned while working with him, but I will focus on two points here – both of which echo what Brandon said.

First, John offered insight and direction while giving me space to grow personally. I saw this most in how he encouraged my research. My first published paper began as a seminar paper written for one of John’s courses. I remember a few things about that project and its subsequent development. First and foremost, I began the project curious, but confused. I suspect many graduate students exist in this mindset. Nonetheless, at that time, I remember being unsure about where to find ideas and inspiration for research papers, and John saved me from this mental fog by offering a suggestion. There was no pressure to adopt his suggestion – only advice about research direction if I wanted it. Second, after the course ended, I remember John encouraging me to continue working on the topic. As before, there was no pressure to do so. In fact, he permitted me to develop the project (at my pace) for another two years without making much headway. He occasionally asked about the project, but without implying that I needed to move faster.

The second thing I learned from John’s mentorship is how to conduct careful research. This (broadly) involves two steps: researching and conveying the findings. On the researching end, John taught me to always ask: “if this argument is true, what should I see?” This not only encouraged me to think about an argument’s implications from multiple angles, but also never to set aside an implication because the analysis would not be “sophisticated enough.” In other words, at a time when I was learning a great many quantitative methodological tools, he reconfirmed the importance of bivariate analysis and “simpler” statistics as additional tools through which to test my arguments; I have never forgotten the value of using a “simpler” analysis when it makes the point I want to make.

On the conveyance end, John taught me the importance of expressing oneself clearly. I still, for example, remember the day we discussed the “national interest” in his course. I wrote a critical paper for that day, in which I maintained that the “national interest” was ambiguous. John and I later had a conversation about that paper, and in that conversation, he said something to the effect of “the word you want is ‘elastic’.” After he explained why, I saw his point; ‘elastic’ better captured the substantive point I was trying to make. Interactions like these helped me understand that precision and clarity in academic writing are essential assets. You can have great ideas, but if you cannot convey them well (or chose the wrong words), they may never realize their full potential.

In the end, then, John taught me that, in order to succeed, I had to: enjoy what I studied, motivate myself, and think and write clearly. As a (now junior) faculty member, he also taught me two valuable lessons about mentoring. First, mentors often see in their mentees what the latter have not yet seen in themselves. Second, mentors cannot want something for their mentees more than the latter want it for themselves. Perhaps this is why he allows his students the space to explore their interests and pursue research at their own pace. Regardless, to the extent that lessons like these carry forward in John’s students, he continues to influence the field in non-substantive ways as well.

Brandon-  So where do we go now?  Vasquez has done a mighty amount of work in our community and he has much more to do.  Territoriality obviously remains important, but the modern territorial disputes show a renewed connection to resource disputes, the importance of ethnicity, and territorial safe havens for rebel groups.

We know very little about how territorial disputes are settled.  Two strands of work need to be conducted, the first being greater attention to the preferences of leaders and the public during the settlement of disputes.  Our community has done well to examine the macro processes inherent in territorial questions, but there is much more work to do on how preferences are shaped once negations start.  We also have to do more work on first image revisited, the biological bases of territoriality.  As John often says, territorial questions are both hardwired and soft wired into our brains.  Most animals fight territorial battles.  There is a biological impulse to territorial question.  There is also a software question to territory in that the use of force is the conditioned responses we have to environmental inputs.  We need to do more work to understand the biological and environmental factors that inhibit territorial settlements.  There is much more to do and John will continue to be the guide.

If only I could get him to blog…