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Evaluating Escalation: Conceptualizing Escalation in an Era of Emerging Military Technologies

Escalation is central to many international relations theories. Despite its cornerstone role, conceptualizing and measuring escalation has become increasingly complicated as technologies like cyber and drone warfare proliferate. Existing escalation research often fails to account for emerging technology, and studies that do are often technology specific, comparing a single “new” technology to “traditional” forces. This siloed approach overlooks variation in the means by which states use force and their relative ordering on the escalation ladder. To address this shortcoming, I introduce a means-based framework for characterizing escalation on the basis of the degree to which actions are physically present and visible. Drawing from an original survey fielded on a cross-national sample of foreign policy experts, I construct a more complete escalation ladder in which more physically present and visible actions fall at higher rungs. This ladder suggests the need for coding schemes more precise than those found in widely cited militarized dispute data sets.