Are Threats More Credible When They Come from Democracies?

Over the last decade, international security scholars have created a cottage industry investigating the role of “audience costs” in coercion, thanks in large part to a theoretical argument first put forward by Monkey Cage blogger, James Fearon. One implication is that democratic leaders will be more likely to have their threats believed than non-democratic leaders, because they will likely have to pay an electoral price for bluster, in the event that their bluff is called. The audience costs approach has the virtues of being interestingly counter-intuitive (democracies are more frightening when they issue threats than dictatorships), more complicated than it appears at first glance (it is difficult to test, because much of the argument involves moves that actors don’t make rather than moves that they do, creating problems of selection bias in analyzing the available empirical evidence and so on). For just these reasons, it is also a mainstay of IR Ph.D. introduction to theory courses – it works very nicely for teaching incoming students how to reason their way through a variety of the common pitfalls of empirical and theoretical research?

But does the democratic credibility bit of the argument hold true? On the one hand, there is a substantial empirical literature arguing that it does. On the other, a new article by Alex Downes (a colleague at GWU) and Todd Sechser argues that much of this literature uses problematic data, and hence is suspect.

we investigate the quantitative data sets most commonly used in tests of this proposition—namely, the Militarized Interstate Dispute (MID) and the International Crisis Behavior (ICB) data sets—and find that most apparent democratic “victories” in these data sets are not actually successful threats. … most cases in these data sets entail minor military skirmishes, border and airspace violations, fishing boat incidents, and other events in which the participants did not actually make any demands. These cases reveal little about the conditions under which target states are likely to submit to a challenger’s coercive threats. … they do not differentiate crisis victories achieved by brute force from those achieved via coercive diplomacy. This distinction is critical because the democratic credibility hypothesis argues that democracies are better able to prevail in crises without having to resort to decisive force. …In short, the democratic credibility proposition rests on a shaky empirical foundation. … We reassess the hypothesis using the Militarized Compellent Threats (MCT) data set, a new collection of more than 200 compellent threats issued between 1918 and 2001. …This analysis yields no support for the claim that threats by democracies are more effective. …Several recent studies have contested the view that democratic institutions confer a unique bargaining advantage on leaders during disputes … their potency has been limited by the apparent weight of quantitative evidence in favor of the theory. Our analysis contributes to this debate by showing that much of the theory’s empirical support does not, in fact, survive close scrutiny.Our findings also carry broader implications for the study of coercive diplomacy, suggesting that two of the most commonly used data sets in international conflict research are largely inappropriate for studying coercion in international relations.

This finding is likely to produce quite a bit of controversy. Some readers are engaged with these questions – I look forward to seeing how the argument goes …

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.