Backing Out Or Backing In? Commitment and Consistency in Audience Costs Theory

The forthcoming article “Backing Out Or Backing In? Commitment and Consistency in Audience Costs Theory” by Jack S. Levy, Michael K. McKoy, Paul Poast, and Geoffrey P.R. Wallace is summarized by the authors here:

In his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln pledged not to invade the South. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson campaigned on the theme that “he kept us out of war.” Both presidents subsequently violated their public commitments.  Conventional wisdom in the field of international relations holds that domestic publics are concerned about their state’s international credibility.  Political leaders will therefore suffer “audience costs”—or domestic punishment—for making military threats but then failing to implement them.  But what happens if a leader, as in the case of Lincoln and Wilson, promises to stay out of a conflict but then reverses course and decides to intervene militarily?

There is a substantial literature on “audience costs” resulting from leaders’ failure to implement their prior military threats, but a neglect of the domestic consequences of leaders’ failure to honor their prior public commitment to stay out of a military conflict. Although researchers continue to debate many things, they agree that the causal mechanism underlying audience costs involves a high value placed by the public on a consistency between their leader’s words and actions. If consistency between words and deeds is important, however, it should operate not only when leaders fail to implement their prior threats to intervene in a conflict, but also when they fail to honor their prior commitments to stay out of a conflict.

In this study we examine this neglected implication of audience costs theory.  Employing a survey experiment, we examine public responses to a U.S. president’s decision to “back in” to a foreign conflict, and compare those with responses to the much more commonly studied decision of the president to “back down” from a foreign conflict.  The first experimental group is told that the president announces that the U.S. will intervene with military force if the attack continues, while the other group is told that the president announces that the United States “would stay out of the conflict.”  Each of these groups is then told that the attacking country continues to invade. In the second treatment, participants are told either that the president decides to intervene with force or that s/he decides to remain out of the conflict. A third treatment was given only to groups confronted by inconsistent behavior by the president (i.e., either the “back in” or “back out” scenarios). They were told that the president had introduced new information suggesting that intervention was, or was not, in U.S. interests.

We found that subjects punished the president both for backing into military conflicts after publicly saying they would stay out, and for backing out of their prior military threats to intervene.  This confirms that domestic audiences place a high value on the consistency between their leader’s words and actions regardless of the type of commitment. We also found, however, that subjects imposed greater costs on a leader for failing to implement a military threat than for failing to honor a public commitment not to intervene militarily. Thus inconsistency costs are greater for backing down than for backing in. This asymmetry in punishment is explained in part by the role of new information provided by the president to justify his/her change in policy. Justification based on new information generated a greater reduction of inconsistency costs for a president who backs out of a military threat than for one who backs into a military conflict.

These findings reinforce the importance of the consistency mechanism in audience costs theory by demonstrating that it operates regardless of whether a leader’s initial action is to threaten military intervention or to commit to stay out of a conflict. The observed asymmetry of responses to the two kinds of inconsistency raises a host of questions for future research.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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