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Research for the Real World

International Interactions Policy Blog

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International Interactions is a peer-reviewed journal with direct relevance to a wide and interdisciplinary audience. Readers include political scientists, economists, historians, mathematicians, statisticians, anthropologists, sociologists, and other social science researchers with an interest in international relations, as well as informed professionals in business and government.

Launched in 2019, II's blog synthesizes scholarly findings for a practitioner audience. Each blog post describes the policy takeaways of a recent II article, in the authors' own words, for use by engaged policymakers who can apply this research to current issues and challenges. 

Read the most recent blog posts below. Previous posts are archived by topic: conflict, human rights, leadership, and political economy.


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Costly signaling in autocracy | April 2021

Robert Carroll & Amy Pond, Costly signaling in autocracy, International Interactions (2021). Free Access until June 30, 2021>>

No autocrat wants revolution. While suppressing revolution is expensive and bloody, democratization may be even worse. At best, the autocrat must share his rents following democratization. At worst, the autocrat, his family, and his supporters may be killed, exiled, imprisoned, or impoverished. Of course, not all autocrats are the same: Some would prefer to supress the revolt rather than to give up and democratize.

Differences in autocrats’ willingness to suppress revolution create a dilemma for those who would revolt. They often do not know the autocrat’s type. They would prefer to revolt if the ruler is weak and likely to respond with democratization, but they would prefer to concede if the ruler is strong and would choose instead to violently suppress the revolution. Consequently, the autocrat must decide how best to signal his strength in hopes of deterring revolt. How, then, can autocrats signal their willingness to use violence? In answering the question, this paper builds on the large literature exploring the conditions surrounding autocrats’ decisions to use concessions and material transfers, and, conversely, shows of force and violent repression in trying to prevent revolution.

We present a simple signaling model to convey the argument. Economic transfers and shows of force differ in a number of important ways, which introduce a subtlety to the signaling process. In this article, we explore this subtlety to explain why autocrats differ in the ways in which they deter revolution. We argue that shows of force allow strong rulers to signal their type to citizens, while material transfers do not.

Due to variation in autocrats’ costs of employing violence, shows of force provide a richer signaling apparatus than do transfers. While an autocrat’s capacity to show force is directly related to his ability to use it, his capacity to provide transfers depends only on his access to resources and is independent from his ability to repress. The strong autocrat – who would repress revolution – can thus employ a level of force that is not incentive compatible for the weak autocrat, allowing the strong autocrat to communicate his type to citizens. Conversely, any level of transfer that is incentive compatible for the strong autocrat would likewise be incentive compatible for the weak autocrat. Thus, shows of force can signal strength, while transfers, which provide no information about the ruler’s strength, cannot.

In sum, we find that rulers cannot meaningfully convey strength by transferring wealth to the citizenry. However, they can convey their type through shows of force, as long as the strong type of autocrat – who would use violent repression in case of revolution – has a competitive advantage in displaying his strength. We additionally demonstrate that rulers favor shows of force when their willingness to suppress revolution is questioned and that citizens may prefer to pay the direct costs associated with shows of force in order to learn about the ruler’s type, rather than to remain uninformed.

The results illustrate a more general conclusion in costly signaling models, which should be of interest to all scholars focusing on uncertainty and communication: Information transmission is only possible when the cost of the signal undermines imitation. The cost must be smaller for the type that wants to distinguish himself and larger for the type that gains from being misidentified. Full article >>


Commanding Support: Values and Interests in the Rhetoric of Alliance Politics | April 2021

Jonathan A. Chu, Jiyoung Ko & Adam Liu, Commanding Support: Values and Interests in the Rhetoric of Alliance Politics, International Interactions (2021). Free Access until June 30, 2021>>

Military alliances are crucial to the national security of many countries around the world. Maintaining effective alliances, however, requires substantial investment of national resources. For democracies, this means that strong alliances must be built on strong domestic popular support. Average citizens, however, may have a myopic attitude toward alliances, not seeing their long-term strategic benefits. And this has consequences. For example, a 2008 report in the NATO Review argues that unsympathetic domestic audiences could threaten NATO’s long-term objectives in Afghanistan. How, then, can democratic governments raise popular support for costly military alliances?

Existing scholarship has focused either on how alliances are formed and terminated, or on how public opinion can have an impact on foreign policy making. However, there has been little convergence of these two strands of inquiries. We know little about how governments can manage public opinion for maintaining robust alliances.

Drawing from several literatures—alliance politics, public opinion and communication, and social psychology—we investigate how governments can shape mass preferences about alliances, focusing on the role of political rhetoric. Specifically, we examine the effects of two types of rhetoric—those emphasizing national interests and shared values—on public support for maintaining an alliance in times of peace and of conflict. We theorize that making positive appeals to either national interest or shared values can each raise public support even in the presence of countervailing cues.

To test our argument, we conducted two survey experimental studies in the United States, a patron state of several key asymmetric alliances crucial to global order and peace. We presented survey takers with information about a military ally (a hypothetical unnamed ally in Study #1 and South Korea in Study #2), and then cued them with positive rhetoric about American national interests and/or shared values with that ally. Building on this, Study #2 further tested the effects of pro-alliance rhetoric during an active crisis (as opposed to peacetime alliance maintenance in Study #1) while assessing the effects of negative or anti-alliance rhetoric.

Both studies find that making positive appeals to shared interests and values each generates citizen support for maintaining a costly alliance. Study #2 further shows that positive rhetoric raises mass support during an active crisis as well, though the effect is slightly muted. Lastly, in Study #2, we find that negative rhetoric can erode support for an alliance, but not in the presence of positive rhetoric.

We contribute to IR scholarship in two ways. First, we bring domestic constituents front and center to the alliance politics literature, which has focused mostly on state and inter-state variables. Second, while many researchers have sought to explain how international institutions (e.g. alliance treaties) sway public opinion, we contribute to the understanding of the formation of public opinion on these institutions in the first place. Full article >>

Looking for more? Explore previous International Interactions blog posts by topic:

Conflict   Human Rights   Leadership   Political Economy