As if there was not enough trouble around the world as it is, Nicolas Maduro, the autocratic president of Venezuela, has kept us at the edge of our seats for the last couple of weeks after calling for a referendum to incorporate Guayana Esequiba—two-thirds of neighboring Guyana—into Venezuelan territory, issuing new maps, announcing plans to drill oil from the territory, and exercising a fiery rhetoric.
The reactivation of this territorial dispute is particularly puzzling in a region with a strong territorial integrity norm. Pessimists raised some alarm about the influence of new extra-regional challenges to these norms. Optimists noted that Maduro’s saber-rattling probably attempted to rally Venezuelans around their flag in a context of declining support for the government and a return of US sanctions.
In the ensuing debate about whether Maduro was bluffing or not, some resorted to analogies with the Malvinas/Falklands crisis. Getting this comparison right seems key to understand the chances of further escalation. Are similar conditions in place in Venezuela now, as they were in Argentina then? Can this turn into a diversionary war? Our research suggests not.
DIVERSIONARY WARS ARE NOT A THING
Wars are a very rare event because they are extremely costly and risky. It is unfeasible that any government trying to distract the public or generate a rally ‘round the flag effect will go as far as throwing the dices of war. Historically, there are few instances of alleged diversionary wars, and the Malvinas/Falklands War is one oft cited example. However, our research demonstrates that this narrative is wrong: the Argentine Junta had decided on a landing when the economy was performing well, support for the military was still high, and Leopoldo F. Galtieri was in his honeymoon phase. Furthermore, the Argentine government at the time did not generate a fuss and invaded quietly with little plans to rally domestic support. They were expecting widespread opposition instead. Nationalistic rhetoric can certainly be useful—and could generate crises with a certain risk of escalation—but diversionary wars are not really a thing as a close look at the few alleged instances of it demonstrates.
TWO KEY CONDITIONS FOR WAR ARE NOW ABSENT
Given the extremely high costs and risks of war, states can only prefer war to a negotiated solution under very specific conditions. According to established scholarship, wars require that states are either wary that their counterpart will use the deal to get stronger and renege on it in the future—i.e., the commitment problem—or are unable to figure out the costs and risks that war entails—i.e., the private information problem. Both of those problems were present in the Malvinas/Falkland War. The Argentine military perceived their country to be in decline, and the window of opportunity to retake the islands to be closing. Furthermore, the tiny decision-making group in the Junta was small and impermeable to debiasing information. Secrecy was such that few people knew of the plans before Argentina troops were on the ground. It was under that exceptional situation that the Junta came to believe risks were acceptable. In the Venezuelan case, Maduro made his intentions known openly, losing first mover advantage. Thus, while Ronald Reagan could only phone Galtieri when the ships were already on their way to the islands, this time the United States could send clear signals by conducting drills with Guyana, and Brazil followed suit, deploying forces to the border. All this straightforwardly reveals abundant information about the costs of war to Venezuela, a country that is not in relative decline vis-à-vis tiny Guyana and is therefore also not phasing a closing window of opportunity. Wars simply do not happen under these conditions.
THE STRENGTH OF PEACE IN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE
As if all of this was not enough, we are talking about the Western Hemisphere, where the norm of territorial integrity and non-intervention, and conflict management mechanism are far more developed than anywhere else in the world. No severe war has happened in the Western Hemisphere since the Chaco War of 1932—if we believe 1,000 battle deaths to be a relevant threshold, as mainstream political science does, then the Malvinas/Falklands conflict was 96 battle-deaths short of a 1,000 battle-death war. Research suggests that the enforcement of those norms through diplomatic means in the Western Hemisphere will quickly lead to the de-escalation of disputes, specifically over territory, and this is precisely what we are seeing now with the negotiations under the auspices of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).
For all those reasons, while fiery rhetoric is likely to resurge driven by Maduro’s domestic consideration, it is fair to assume this one is bluffing and turn our attention back to others that might be not.