Audience Costs and the Dynamics of War and Peace

Author Summary by Casey Crisman‐Cox and Michael Gibilisco

AJPS Author Summary - Audience Costs and the Dynamics of War and PeaceAudience costs—or the costs leaders pay from backing down before their opponents in interstate disputes—have a prominent place in international relations. Researchers use them to explain crisis bargaining, war duration, economic sanctions, and the democratic peace. After 20 years of research, conventional wisdom suggests we cannot measure audience costs: if they were indeed large enough to be observed, then leaders would rationally anticipate their application and never back down in a dispute. This strategic foresight has led some researchers to label audience costs “dark matter” of political science (Schultz 2012).

How can we measure audience costs? Previous work proxies audience costs with democracy measures or other regime type information based on a priori expectations (e.g., Partell and Palmer 1999). In our paper, we directly consider the strategic anticipation of leaders by modeling audience costs as a country-specific parameter in an infinitely repeated dynamic game of crisis escalation. Given fixed audience costs, the model predicts a specific distribution of conflict outcomes, e.g., initiation, backing down, standing firm, and escalation, between countries over time. We select the audience costs, along with other parameters, that best fit these predictions to observed data on interstate disputes, producing estimates for 125 countries. This approach allows us to then test the long-held conjecture that democracies have higher audience costs and analyze the substantive effects of audience cost on equilibrium behavior.

Contrary to previous intuition, our results demonstrate that increasing a country’s audience costs encourages it to initiate disputes. After disputes erupt, audience costs serve as a commitment device: they tie the hands of their respective countries, thereby encouraging them to stand firm and coercing their opponents to back down in disputes. Thus, countries with enhanced audience costs more freely initiate disputes to capitalize on these advantages, a result that does not emerge in reduced-form regressions (Clark and Nordstrom 2005; Prins 2003; Weeks 2012).

We find that previous proxies overlook important international and domestic factors that determine audience costs, although democracy measures positively correlate with our estimates. Interstate rivals attenuate audience costs within democracies. Democracies with rivals have, on average, audience costs that are roughly similar to autocratic regimes with legal provisions for executive removal (e.g., China), suggesting that voters may provide leaders leeway when escalating disputes with rivals. A free press can strongly increase audience costs, a finding that matches those from formal models (Slantchev 2006).

Finally, our paper helps scholars and policy practitioners appreciate the global effects of audience costs on peace. On the one hand, larger audience costs incentivize countries to stand firm and initiate disputes. On the other hand, increasing a country’s audience costs may deter others from initiating disputes against it, as they avoid entering a crisis against countries with that are committed to standing firm. We find that the second effect dominates in the data. That is, increasing audience costs in every country should increase peace worldwide.

About the Authors: Casey Crisman‐Cox is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Texas A&M University and Michael Gibilisco is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at California Institute of Technology. Their research, “Audience Costs and the Dynamics of War and Peace”, is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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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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