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WVU research reveals patterns behind armed conflicts, bolstering national security

West Virginia Press Association

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia University research is strengthening national security by ensuring policymakers, military institutions, think tanks, academics and journalists have access to substantial, up-to-date information on international conflicts when they need it.

A $555,647 grant from the National Science Foundation supports the three-year expansion of the Correlates of War Project’s Militarized Interstate Dispute Data, led by Vito D’Orazio, associate professor of political science and data sciences at the WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences.

In a militarized interstate dispute, or MID, one country or nation-state directs the threat, display or use of armed force toward another state. These international interactions invoke the military but fall short of war. For example, in December 1994, an American helicopter was shot down by North Korea. This incident was part of a larger dispute involving North Korea, South Korea and the United States in the 1990s. Despite this and many incidents involving the military, the dispute did not escalate to war.

“Insight into militarized disputes between states is critical, given the reemergence of long-term strategic competition between the U.S. and other global powers, along with the rapid dispersion of new technologies into domains of confrontation,” D’Orazio said.

“Data on these events allow interested parties to analyze when low-hostility incidents, such as border fortifications or troop mobilizations, are likely to escalate to higher levels of hostility or to be managed short of that point. Understanding patterns of conflict escalation and de-escalation is critical for informed decision-making.”

The Correlates of War Project began compiling data on these disputes in the 1980s, and the dataset’s fifth edition was released in 2020. D’Orazio called the scope of the data “massive,” explaining that it currently incorporates all MIDs worldwide from 1816 to 2014.

The sixth update will add data spanning 2014-2024 and will launch a new component called MID Live, an early detection mechanism for interstate hostilities. MID Live uses near real-time incident detection to identify militarized interstate disputes as they happen and publicize them via the X account @mids_proj.

According to D’Orazio, the early release of information about potential militarized disputes can improve conflict forecasting models and monitoring systems even when the information is not perfect or fully vetted.

“Our work reveals evolving patterns of conflict and competition between states as well as opportunities for cooperation,” he said. “It helps to lay the basis for effective and informed security policies and strategies.”

Before the first collection of MID data in the 1980s, researchers had very little data to study the militarized disputes that didn’t escalate to war. Since then, MID data have been used to answer questions and guide policies relevant to natural resource competition, territorial disputes, arms races, crisis escalation, conflict contagion, nuclear weapons, domestic protest, regime transitions, peacebuilding and climate change, among other issues.

“One way MID data have been used is to study a theory called ‘the democratic peace,’ which proposes that democratic countries do not go to war against each other,” D’Orazio said. “U.S. presidents commonly support the democratic peace, with Bill Clinton stating, ‘Democracies don’t attack each other,’ and George W. Bush saying, ‘Democracies don’t go to war with each other.’ MID data have provided academics with much of the quantitative evidence for evaluating those statements.”

The data categorizes disputes with information about participants, dates, fatalities and military action. The dataset also indicates information such as the dispute’s outcome — a win or yield by either side, a stalemate or compromise, the release of people or objects, or an unclear resolution — and whether any settlement was negotiated or imposed.

The researchers will work with students in England, Arizona and West Virginia, as well as U.S. Air Force cadets in Colorado. They will identify militarized disputes from a wide range of international news sources, classify the incidents, and document them according to the dates, fatalities, types of action and motivations involved.

At WVU, PhD students are already participating in the project, which offers research opportunities to WVU undergraduates as well. 

“Because of the students’ and cadets’ participation in this project, members of the next generation of scholars and Air Force leaders will become deeply familiar with the intricacies of interstate hostilities,” D’Orazio said.

“Currently, we’re seeing a resurgence of major power competitions and interstate hostilities across the globe. With our new militarized interstate dispute data, researchers and leaders will have a nuanced look at the elements that contribute to decision-making and the design of national security policy and strategy.”

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