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SIS PhD Grad Wins Award at Munich Security Conference

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From left to right: Cindy McCain, Balazs Martonffy, and Eugénia da Conceição-Heldt.

International relations scholars have long maintained in their research that a rising threat brings multilateral alliances closer together—in other words, members of an alliance rally against a growing, common adversary. But there is historical evidence that shows this isn’t always the case. For instance, between 2010 and 2014, while Russia was increasing its military capabilities, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance was experiencing decreased cohesion. Members were divided on how to respond to Russia’s resurgence.

SIS PhD graduate Balazs Martonffy focused his dissertation on this phenomenon. For his work, he received this year’s John McCain Dissertation award at the Munich Security Conference, the world's leading forum for debating international security policy. We caught up with Martonffy to learn more about his award-winning research.


Q: For your dissertation, you researched what drives apart alliances like NATO during peacetime. You focused on how alliances perceive threats, making the distinction between general threat perception and specific threat perception. What is the difference between the two?

Conceptually, general threat perception is an alliance’s feeling that something’s wrong. There’s something going on out in the world that’s threatening in the general sense, like general deterrence. For the alliance, general threat is the perception of a major enemy’s increases in capabilities and capabilities only.

Perception of threat by an alliance changes from general threat to specific threat when it can perceive not just an increase in capabilities, but also a clear sign of malicious intent by the enemy.

Q: By analyzing 325 decisions NATO made between 1960 and 1980, you found that an alliance loses cohesion when general threat perception rises. Your answer as to why this happens is “analysis paralysis.” What happens when an alliance undergoes “analysis paralysis”?

“Analysis paralysis” is the temporary decrease in cohesion or the increase in decohesion when there’s a clear sign within the alliance that something is going on. So it’s clear that the general threat is rising, but member states perceive this very differently and have very different proposed reactions to it. And these not only offset each other but also decrease cohesion. They bicker about what should be done, and that gets them into a gridlock.

I used a policy case study in my dissertation to illustrate this principle. Between 2010 and 2014, the Russians were increasing their military capabilities somewhat significantly, but NATO was blocked—they were demonstrating lots of incohesion. Members of the alliance on the Eastern front wanted to do one thing and members of the alliance on the Western front wanted to do another. They could not agree on what the threat was and what the threat needed.

The increase in general threat drew them apart up until Crimea happened in 2014 when the intent was added to the mix. And since 2014, the alliance has demonstrated, over the next couple of years at least, a clear sign of cohesion with the creation of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, the enhancement of the Response Force, the deployment of the Enhanced Forward Presence, and a number of other NATO-specific actions where you can see that cohesion actually kicked in.

Q: There are a number of multilateral alliances in the world. Why did you focus your research on NATO specifically?

The first reason is that I knew how NATO functions fairly well because I interned with the headquarters in Brussels, and I was a former civilian defense official at the NATO desk in Hungary, so I knew how the internal mechanics worked. And the whole consensus decision-making rule, which means that any one member can block any decision from NATO, made it relatively easy to study.

The second reason is data availability. Between 1960 and 1980, NATO kept meticulous records of what it does, how it does it, and who said what and where. And up until ’83, which was the last year of declassification that I was able to obtain records for, I was able to gather over 20,000 index cards and over 2,000 documents. This led to the clear identification of over 300 North Atlantic Council decisions that had ample data and enough additional evidence that I could actually construct my own data set to run a statistical analysis.

Q: In your dissertation, you mention that you’ve been thinking about this phenomenon since 2012, when you were interning in Brussels. What about your internship sparked your interest in your future research pursuits?

It was a very interesting experience. I spent parts of 2012 and 2013 at NATO HQ, and they were kind enough to let me sit in on a number of committees—in North Atlantic Council deliberations—and it was fairly clear why individual states, out of national interest, would act a certain way. But there was something that was unclear to me: was there any sort of overarching reason as to why some council proposals get accepted at the alliance level?

I was always mystified by the fact that it was always possible to explore what drove national interest and why each state would do what it would do—domestic politics or some sort of foreign policy goal. But I wasn’t sure if there was anything we could say that was a larger reason, which went above the state level, as to why the alliance, as an actor, would behave the way it would behave.

Q: Do you think your dissertation’s findings can help inform an alliance’s strategies? If so, how?

That’s the million-dollar question: how to translate IR scholarship into policy decision making. One of the ideas I had for this would be to force NATO to come up with a joint threat assessment—not just a threat assessment of individual nation states. Make it clear where the fault lines are and try to come up with some sort of alliance-level threat assessment, which will make it easier for NATO to create possible responses to it. This is not an easy task; it’s just one possible idea.

Q: As you look back on your time in the SIS PhD program, what were the most valuable aspects?

Honestly, the entire program is valuable. My curiosity for NATO’s behavior continued when I began the doctoral program at SIS in the fall of 2014. I didn’t really know how to phrase [this research focus] until I came under the tutelage of Professors Boaz Atzili, Jim Goldgeier, and Aaron Boesenecker, my committee members. We were able to push this into an alliance cohesion framework, which is where it fits in the IR literature.

I loved the input we got from Atzili, who is the PhD program director, and how Professor Sharon Weiner helped each individual candidate a lot, including myself, even though she was not part of my committee. So that is a huge additional benefit, gaining additional expertise and insight of a non-committee member.

The methods courses were very helpful, and the “TA-ing” aspect was something that I really enjoyed because it turns out I love teaching. I think that’s a great benefit for the PhD students.