State Visits and Leader Survival

The forthcoming article “State Visits and Leader Survival” by Matt Malis and Alastair Smith is summarized by the author(s) below. 


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Political leaders spend substantial portions of their time traveling internationally to meet face-to-face with other leaders. Recent U.S. Presidents, for instance, have spent one-third of their days in office visiting or hosting foreign heads of state. This practice, while commonplace in contemporary politics, raises some basic questions: First, given the high opportunity cost of leaders’ time, why do leaders conduct visits themselves, rather than delegating diplomatic work to their (presumably better-informed) agents? Second, why are visits conducted in-person, despite the proliferation of technologies that would facilitate long-distance diplomatic communication? And finally, why do leaders seem to treat visits as a thing of material value, which can be proffered or withheld as part of an international exchange?

This paper seeks to resolve these puzzles, using a formal model of top-level diplomatic exchange and an empirical analysis of US presidential visits from 1960-2013. We develop a theory focused on the publicness of a visit and the information it reveals, and the impact of that information on domestic political contestation. Our model features a domestic challenger who can attempt to unseat an incumbent, but who only wants to challenge when the incumbent is weak and a challenge is likely to succeed. In anticipation of this domestic competition, a foreign power can choose whether or not to conduct a diplomatic visit with the incumbent, in exchange for some future deal or policy concession. Importantly, the foreign power faces a cost for conducting the visit, and only enjoys the benefit of the bilateral deal if the incumbent stays in office long enough to deliver. So the foreign power only visits leaders who are sufficiently strong as to make the visit worthwhile in expectation. Aware of these incentives, domestic opponents update their beliefs of the incumbent’s strength following a diplomatic visit, and are deterred from mounting a challenge against her.

The empirical analyses support the model’s predictions: a diplomatic visit with the U.S. President is associated with a dramatic reduction in the risk of being removed from office that same year. Visits have the largest effect in reducing the risk of irregular removal from office (that is, removal by extra-constitutional means), and are most consequential when they are least expected to occur (consistent with a standard logic of Bayesian updating). Further, visits are systematically reciprocated with policy concessions, in the form of closer voting alignment with the U.S. in the U.N. General Assembly and receipts of U.S. imports.

About the Author(s): Matt Malis is a PhD Student, Department of Politics at New York University and Alastair Smith is Professor, Department of Politics at New York University. Their research “State Visits and Leader Survival” 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.