Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Political Science

First Advisor

Avery Goldstein


Recent tensions on the Korean peninsula and in the South China Sea have led to concerns that provocative actions, such as harsh rhetoric and low-level violence, might embroil the United States in an unwanted war. The international relations literature, however, does not offer a coherent theory of provocation and crisis escalation. Instead, scholars and policymakers rely on intuition or other mechanisms of escalation, such as those based on accidents, threat perception, or imperfect signaling to explain the dangers of provocation in crises. Drawing on recent insights in social psychology and the study of resolve, this dissertation advances a novel theory of provocation that explains how provocative rhetoric and military actions can distinctly lead to unwanted crisis escalation and conflict. I test my theory at the individual level with a survey experiment and use the findings to develop three game-theoretic models that analyze how provocation affects crisis dynamics in different strategic contexts. To show that these mechanisms can significantly impact real crises, I closely examine the Sino-IndiaWar of 1962 and Sino-Soviet Border Conflict of 1969 using primary Chinese sources, and briefly review three additional cases of more recent crises. In the conclusion, I discuss the implications for coercive diplomacy and crisis management.

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