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Democratic Domestic Institutions and Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

Scholarship on the relationship between domestic institutions and foreign policy is driven by the assumption that a state’s domestic political arrangement can explain important aspects of its foreign policy behavior. Democratic domestic institutions, in particular, are thought to be significant for explaining an important set of outcomes. Research shows, for example, that democracies tend to cooperate with each other; uphold their commitments; make more effective threats; engage in fewer wars with each other (but do fight non-democracies quite frequently); perform better in the wars in which they are involved; and tend to fight wars of shorter duration.

Studying the impact of democratic domestic institutions on foreign policy has developed along two broad lines. The first and most established approach is rooted in the basic distinction between democracies and non-democracies. In this view, democratic institutions constrain leaders in a way that produces distinct democratic foreign policy patterns. This approach has yielded a tremendous amount of research and insight into democratic foreign policy, but also suffers from several important shortcomings. One is that democracy tends to be correlated with a host of other variables, making it difficult to specify what exactly it is about democracy that explains certain foreign policy outcomes. A second and related critique of this approach is that it tends to treat democracy uniformly when in fact there is often great variation in democratic domestic institutions across cases.

A second and more recent approach focuses on the differences among democracies and seeks to explain how this variation, in turn, creates variation in foreign policy behavior. Democracies differ in terms of their underlying institutional arrangements in a variety of ways, including whether they have presidential or parliamentary systems, autonomous or constrained executives, and open or closed institutions to modulate the flow of information between leaders and citizens, among others. Even within a country, there can be a different set of institutional constraints on democratic leaders depending on the given foreign policy instrument they seek to employ. Studying these variations and their impact on policy processes and outcomes provides great promise for further unpacking the relationship between domestic democratic institutions and foreign policy.

Keywords: democracy, domestic politics, domestic institutions, foreign policy, audience costs, leader tenure, diversionary war

Democracy and Foreign Policy

The relationship between democracy and foreign policy is central to the study of international relations and will remain so for the conceivable future. The number of democracies in the world has grown 10-fold in the decades since World War II. A majority of the world’s states today are democracies, governing a majority of the world’s population (Marshall, Gurr, & Jaggers, 2016). This includes 9 of the world’s 10 largest economies, 11 of the world’s 15 largest militaries, and 6 of the world’s 9 nuclear weapons states (International Monetary Fund, 2016; Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2016). Illuminating the impact that democratic domestic institutions have on these states’ foreign policies is important not only for explaining individual state behavior, but also for explaining broader outcomes in international relations.

Democracy can be defined as a set of basic political rights and institutionalized procedures for determining how a government is formed and reaches decisions.1 This definition captures the fundamental essence of democracy, which is the idea that a government’s authority should ultimately be derived from the people and that state decisions should be either directly or indirectly held accountable by popular mechanisms.

Since the advent of modern popular government, several enduring questions have animated scholars interested in the relationship between democracy and foreign policy. Do democratic political institutions and norms constrain foreign policy decision makers? And, if so, in what ways? Are democratic states more cooperative and peaceful, or belligerent and warlike? Do democracies carry out more effective foreign policies? Or are they prone to mistakes or deviations from strategic behavior?

Answers to these questions have varied across approaches and over time. The original view of popular government as a constraint—especially on war—is rooted in the works of republican theorists stretching from Montesquieu through Kant and Paine to Tocqueville. This perspective assumes that when a broad base of citizens—who ultimately must bear the costs of war—participates either directly or indirectly in government, their interests (as opposed to leader or national interests) will act as a constraint on war and other aspects of foreign policy. This tradition historically diverged on the question of whether such a domestic constraint was positive or negative. Liberals beginning with Kant viewed the potentially peaceful effects of democracy favorably, while Tocqueville and later postwar realists warned that democracy undermined the ability of leaders to craft effective foreign policies.

Though received wisdom today holds that democratic political institutions do exert an important influence on a state’s foreign policy, this view emerged only in the last three decades. In the decades after World War II, IR scholars paid little attention to the general relationship between domestic politics and foreign policy. A large part of the field treated states as unitary actors and attempted to theorize world politics in systemic terms (Gilpin, 1981; Morgenthau, 1967; Organski & Kugler, 1980; Waltz, 1979), while others developed organizational (Allison, 1971) and individual level theories (Jervis, 1976). Thus, with some exceptions (see Levy, 1989), IR scholars did not focus explicitly on the link between democratic domestic institutions and foreign policy.

In the late 1980s, this trend began to change as a result of two innovations. On the one hand, there was a larger shift toward the study of domestic politics in IR catalyzed by Putnam’s (1988) groundbreaking work on two-level games. On the other hand, some scholars had begun reckoning with the finding by the sociologist Dean Babst (1964) that democracies do not fight against each other. By 1988, Levy (1988, p. 662) declared that this was the closest finding IR had to “an empirical law.” This specific finding, coinciding with the larger shift toward studying the role of domestic politics in IR, helped spawn a vast body of research on various dimensions of the democratic peace, including the relationship between democratic domestic institutions and foreign policy.

In the three decades since this domestic institutional turn occurred, significant progress has been made in teasing out this relationship. IR scholars have examined the democracy/foreign policy nexus in two broad ways. The first and most established approach is rooted in the basic distinction between democracies and non-democracies. In this view, democratic institutions—basic political rights, nearly universal franchise, regular and contested elections—constrain leaders in a way that produces distinct democratic foreign policy patterns. Research shows, for example, that democracies tend to cooperate with each other; uphold their commitments; make more effective threats; engage in fewer wars with each other (but do fight non-democracies quite frequently); perform better in the wars in which they are involved; and tend to fight wars of shorter duration.

Though this approach has yielded a tremendous amount of research and insight into democratic foreign policy, it also suffers from several important shortcomings. One is that democracy tends to be correlated with a host of other variables including relative peace, economic development, settlement of territorial disputes, and U.S. hegemony in the postwar period, making it difficult to specify what exactly it is about democracy that explains certain foreign policy outcomes. A second and related critique of this approach is that it tends to treat democracy uniformly when in fact there is often great variation in democratic domestic institutions across cases.

In response to these challenges, a second approach has emerged in recent years that focuses on the differences among democracies and seeks to explain how this variation, in turn, creates variation in foreign policy behavior. Democracies differ in terms of their underlying institutional arrangements in a variety of ways, including whether they have presidential or parliamentary systems, autonomous or constrained executives, and open or closed institutions to modulate the flow of information between leaders and citizens, among others. Even within a country, there can be a different set of institutional constraints on democratic leaders depending on the given foreign policy instrument they seek to employ.

The sections that follow unpack the relationship between democratic domestic institutions and foreign policy, focusing specifically on foreign-security policy.2 The first section discusses the overarching framework that guides the study of the democracy/foreign policy nexus. The following five sections then look at established literatures on the relationship between democratic domestic institutions and foreign policy including the democratic peace, casualty sensitivity, audience costs, leader tenure, and diversionary war. The last section and conclusion then turn to look at the institutional heterogeneity that exists among democracies and how this helps explain variation in foreign policy.

The Democracy/Foreign Policy Nexus

Studies about the general relationship between democracy and foreign policy center on two questions: How do democratic institutions incentivize political leaders to pursue certain types of foreign policy behavior, particularly in contrast to non-democratic leaders? And what are the foreign policy consequences of these institutional incentives? Though there are different views on the extent to which democratic institutions impact foreign policy, scholars largely agree on a minimum set of shared assumptions about how they should affect behavior:

  1. 1. Leaders of all stripes desiring to gain and/or hold office take foreign policy stances and make foreign policy choices with their domestic political interests, as well as the broader national interest, in mind.

  2. 2. How leaders gain and hold office matters. In democracies, this means institutions, including freedoms of assembly, speech, and press; the rule of law; separation of powers; and, most importantly, elections influence the kinds of foreign policy stances leaders take and the foreign policy choices they make.

  3. 3. If citizen and leader preferences diverge on questions of foreign policy, the aforementioned democratic institutions should in theory cause their preferences to converge.

  4. 4. Democratic leaders ultimately act based on these constrained preferences, producing policy outcomes that result in patterns of foreign policy behavior different from those of non-democratic regimes.

It is important to note that this does not assume non-democratic leaders are unconstrained. Rather, that they face different domestic constraints. In democracies, citizens have a variety of formal avenues available to express approval and dissent. Public opinion is widely measured and reported, and citizens are generally freer to express their opinions, both individually and collectively, through the media, rallies, town hall meetings, protests, and other civil society activities. Elected legislatures and independent judiciaries also tend to provide checks on executives. Most importantly, though democratic citizens do not always privilege foreign policy issues over other concerns, regular, competitive elections provide the chance to reject prospective foreign policy platforms and/or throw leaders out of office for past foreign policy failures.

Citizens in non-democratic regimes, in contrast, have fewer or no formal avenues available to express dissent. Autocratic leaders may still face a variety of domestic constraints from other potentially powerful societal actors including the military, or other elite factions (Bueno de Mesquita & Smith, 2011; Weeks, 2014). Foreign policy failures may result in these actors seeking their overthrow and ultimately their exile, imprisonment, or death. But these are non-popular institutional mechanisms of constraint, and they operate differently and tend to be weaker than democratic domestic constraints in terms of influencing foreign policy decision making. Recent research moreover shows that non-democratic regimes are more durable than previously believed, in part because leaders are able to adapt domestic institutions in order to manage threats to their survival from potential domestic competitors (Brownlee, 2007; Gandhi, 2008).

As discussed later, the degree to which democratic decision makers are actually constrained by democratic domestic institutions vary according to how such institutions are arranged, among other factors. But on the whole, the expectation is that the ability of citizens to hold leaders accountable and influence foreign policy behavior in democracies is stronger than non-democracies. This is the general assumption that informs the bulk of research on the democracy/foreign policy nexus highlighted in the following sections.

Do Democratic Institutions Cause Peace?

The primary body of research connecting democratic domestic institutions with foreign policy is work on democratic peace theory. Though a strand of this research explores the normative foundations of democratic peace (Dixon, 1993, 1994; Mousseau, 1998; Owen, 1997; Peterson & Graham, 2011), most of it examines whether the structural (institutional) constraints discussed in the previous section cause peace and if so under what conditions. This section discusses the general relationship between democracy and war, before the following sections discuss possible mechanisms for how democratic institutions actually translate into war and peace outcomes.

As early as 1964, Babst (1964, 1972) showed that democracies historically have not gone to war against each other. In the following two decades, IR scholars slowly began to investigate what became known as the “democratic peace.” Doyle (1983a, 1983b) elaborated the institutional and normative underpinnings of the theory, while others tested it empirically. Rummel (1983) found support for a monadic argument: the proposition that democracies are not only more pacific toward other democracies, but are more pacific in general. Others (Chan, 1984; Maoz & Abdolali, 1989; Small & Singer, 1976; Weede, 1984) meanwhile found support only for a dyadic argument: the proposition that democracies are more pacific toward other democracies, but not necessarily toward non-democracies.

IR scholars have since used better concepts and theory, more sophisticated methods, larger datasets, and more extensive controls to study the relationship between democracy and war. Even when controlling for the influence of factors including trade, economic interdependence, wealth, economic growth, alliances, political stability, and culture on conflict initiation, considerable quantitative research shows that democracies still behave more pacifically toward one another (Bremer, 1992; Henderson, 1998; Huth & Allee, 2002; Maoz & Russett, 1992; Ray, 1995; Oneal, Oneal, Maoz, & Russett, 1996; Russett & Oneal, 2001). This work has been supplemented by qualitative research that shows similar results in potentially problematic cases (Owen, 1997; Peterson, 1995; Ray, 1995). The empirical evidence for the dyadic argument is in fact so strong that many scholars consider joint democracy in any given dyad to be sufficient for peace.

More contested is the argument that democracies are more pacific in general. Some research supports a monadic argument. Benoit (1996) and Rousseau (2005) both find a general pacific effect of democracy on conflict initiation. Rummel (1997) moreover not only finds that democracies are less likely to initiate conflict overall, but that they are less likely to use domestic violence and commit genocide, additional indicators suggesting democratic domestic institutions produce nonviolent behavior. Finally, Keller (2005) argues that the monadic peace hinges on whether or not democratic leaders respect domestic institutional constraints: Only when they do are democracies are more pacific in general. Nonetheless, except for contingent findings like Keller’s, the general findings supporting a monadic peace are contested. None of the earlier dyadic research cited above finds evidence for a monadic argument, a finding confirmed by later research (Quackenbush & Rudy, 2009).

Even though the support for a dyadic democratic peace is strong, the logic and findings of much of the structural argument within the literature suffer from several common problems. In terms of the logic, at least three issues remain unresolved. First, the structural argument is a monadic explanation. Democratic political institutions should constrain leaders regardless of adversary. If this is true, the argument for more pacific behavior by democracies should hold for both the monadic and the dyadic argument, which is not the case. In other words, the presence of democratic institutions alone is not a sufficient explanation for pacific behavior. Second, most of the general findings in the literature are correlational and not causal. Explanations and evidence for how institutions act as mechanisms of behavior are lacking. IR scholars have expanded their scope of research in recent years to better determine how institutions constrain or not, which will be discussed. But more work is required. Third, the core logic of the structural argument assumes that democratic institutions function similarly across space and time, but this is not the case. Not all democracies look and act the same, and democratic institutions evolve over time. Exploring how variations in democracy and democratic institutions affect behavior has become an important line of inquiry in recent years, a trend that will be argued, is one of several fruitful ways for the field to proceed.

In terms of the findings within the democratic peace literature, at least two issues are problematic. First, for the monadic argument, the problem is that democracies are not particularly peaceful. Their propensity for war with non-democratic states and non-state actors is quite high. Thus as the research already highlighted suggests, it is not even clear whether democracies are more peaceful than non-democracies, let alone pacific in general. Second, for the dyadic argument, the problem is that democracy tends to be correlated—and therefore possibly conflated—with a host of other factors that might, in fact, be doing the explaining in the democratic peace story. The following factors have all been studied:

  • American hegemony in the post-1945 period (Rosato, 2003)

  • The presence of common interests in potential cases of conflict (Gartzke, 1998; Gowa, 2000)

  • The effect of markets, trade, and development on interstate relations (Gartzke, 2007; Gartzke & Weisiger, 2014; McDonald, 2009; Mousseau, 2009)

  • The settlement of territorial disputes as a precursor to democracy and peace (Gibler, 2012; Owsiak, 2012, 2013; Rasler & Thompson, 2011; Schultz, 2014)

When these factors are controlled for, the findings supporting the argument that joint democracy is a sufficient condition for peace are minimized or eliminated. Again, this is another reason why identifying the mechanisms for how democratic domestic institutions translate into foreign policy behavior are so important.

Overall then, the answer to whether democratic institutions cause peace is mixed. It is clear that democratic institutions alone do not cause peace, though states that both have democratic institutions are pacific toward one another. Whether and how this dyadic peace is actually caused by democratic domestic institutions, however, remains unresolved. The next few sections will explore how some of the ways IR scholars have begun to tease out how democratic domestic institutions actually produce certain types of behavior.

Effects of Minimizing the Costs of War

The central logic underlying democratic peace theory is that citizens prefer peace because they must pay the costs of war. Therefore, we should expect that democratic political institutions, which enable citizens to express approval and dissent, and ultimately replace leaders, will cause leaders to avoid foreign policy actions resulting in war. When war is necessary, we should expect leaders to attempt to minimize its costs on citizens. If this logic holds, then we should expect to see citizens sensitive to the costs of war. Citizens pay for the costs of war with their blood and treasure, and therefore they should be sensitive to casualties and taxes. This sensitivity in turn should inform foreign policy behavior.

Scholars indeed have found considerable support for the negative effect of casualties on war support. Mueller (1973) was one of the first to make this connection, showing that U.S. public support during the Korean and Vietnam Wars declined as a function of cumulative national casualties. Others have recently revisited this claim and showed that while the general relationship between casualties and public support for war tends to hold, it is mitigated by a variety of factors. Gartner and Segura find that it is mitigated by both temporal (Gartner, 2008a; Gartner & Segura, 1998) and geographic (Gartner & Segura, 2000) proximity. In other words, public support is not necessarily sensitive to overall national casualties, but is sensitive to recent increases in casualties and casualties that hit close to home—especially known casualties (Gartner, 2008b). Althaus, Bramlett, and Gimpbel (2012) similarly show that local losses affect support more than national losses, but that this effect is temporary and moderated by citizens’ news consumption. Others (Eichenberg, 2005; Gelpi, Feaver, & Reifler, 2009) meanwhile find that public support is tied not only to casualties, but sometimes more importantly to success. When wars are perceived to be going well, the public is willing to tolerate more casualties.

Though less extensive, there is also an emerging literature on public sensitivity to the financial costs of war. This arose in part as a response to public debate over the high costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and other U.S. security operations since September 11, 2001, estimated by some to total almost $5 trillion (Crawford, 2016). Looking at several U.S. cases, Geys (2010) shows that financial costs did (independent of casualties) negatively affect American public support strongly in this case Korea and less so in Iraq/Afghanistan, with no effect in the Vietnam War. The declining negative effect of financial costs may be a result of the declining costs of these wars relative to GDP, but may also be a function of how wars are financed. Whereas the United States previously financed wars through a specific war tax levied on individuals, since 1968 it has largely financed them through borrowing. As Flores-Macías and Kreps (2017) show through experimental evidence from the United States and United Kingdom, public support is more sensitive to wars financed through taxes rather than borrowing. Kriner and colleagues (in press) further demonstrate this finding, but show that it is conditional on whether taxes are regressive or progressive.

Research shows democracies may try to eliminate, minimize, and concentrate/diffuse costs in ways indicative of the fact that democratic domestic institutions do indeed constrain leaders. In general, democracies tend to win the wars they start (Gelpi & Griesdorf, 2001; Reiter & Stam, 2002; Siverson, 1995), suggesting there may be an ex ante selection effect that informs why and when they initiate conflicts. In other words, knowing that citizens may tolerate casualties and other costs only when a war is successful (Eichenberg, 2005; Gelpi et al., 2009), leaders may choose to initiate conflicts only when the risk of defeat—and possibly being thrown out of office—is low. Democracies also tend to fight shorter wars (Bennett & Stam, 1996, 1998; Slantchev, 2004). They may do so in order to minimize the casualties and financial costs of a conflict, as well as to rely on positive public support, which tends to wane when conflicts extend.

Research suggests democracies do in fact attempt to minimize both casualties and the financial costs of wars. In terms of casualties, Siverson (1995) shows that conflicts initiated by democracies (i.e., where choice is possible) result in fewer casualties than when a democracy is targeted (where they must respond), suggesting democratic leaders may choose conflicts likely to result in fewer battle deaths. Valentino, Huth, and Croco (2010) find a more general effect, showing that democracies are less likely to suffer both military and civilian casualties in all their wars. This suggests democratic leaders may not only choose conflicts likely to result in fewer battle deaths ex ante, but that they may pursue certain strategies during conflicts to reduce the human costs of war. In terms of financial costs, research shows that democracies tend to vary their spending with public cost sensitivity in mind. Specifically, they tend to spend less on military than non-democracies during peacetime, but more during wartime (Fordham & Walker, 2005; Goldsmith, 2007; Valentino et al., 2010). This is consistent with the idea that democratic leaders will try to minimize the financial costs of war when possible (peacetime), but spend when needed (wartime) to ensure victory.

Recent research has begun to reveal some of the strategies democratic states pursue to minimize costs in some instances and concentrate/disperse them in others. Valentino and colleagues (2010) show that democracies reduce the costs of war by reducing casualties. Democracies do this in several ways: First, as mentioned, they tend to mobilize national resources and build greater military capabilities during war in order to better protect military personnel and civilians. Second, they tend to form or join powerful coalitions in order to augment their own military capabilities and distribute the costs of fighting to others. Third, they tend to use military strategies designed to minimize casualties. Fourth, they tend to fight wars at a distance, which shields their homelands and domestic populations from harm and concentrates losses among military personnel.

Though it is not clear whether democracies pursue these strategies purposefully or specifically to reduce cost sensitivity, there are at least four other possibilities beyond how wars are fought that require consideration. First, as discussed, casualty sensitivity may be mitigated by which groups of citizens actually end up bearing the costs of war. In the United States, for example, poorer and less-educated segments of society tend to bear the costs disproportionately (Kriner & Shen, 2010). Thus it is at least plausible that concentrating military service in certain segments of society like this could concentrate casualties and thereby dampen their negative impact on general public support. Second, conscription has been shown to decrease mass support for war (Horowitz & Levendusky, 2011), providing an incentive for leaders wishing to reduce constraints to use a different mobilization strategy. This may explain why many democratic militaries in the 20th century switched from conscription to volunteer-based armies. Third, instead of using war taxes, democratic leaders could finance war by borrowing, which is less visible and diffuses the costs of war. This would explain, for example, why the United States last used war taxes in 1968. Finally, democracies can invest in technologies designed to decrease the costs of war, while still using military force. Drones are the latest possible example of this (Kaag & Kreps, 2012).

This body of research shows that citizens do appear to be sensitive to the costs of war and that foreign policy behavior is responsive to this sensitivity. The cost minimization strategies furthermore suggest democratic leaders are aware that public support for war is conditioned by casualties, financial factors, and potentially other costs. This shows two things. On the one hand, democratic institutions do, in theory, constrain leaders. On the other hand, it shows that in practice leaders have a variety of options to minimize costs and thereby reduce—though not eliminate—the constraints they face.

Audience Costs

Leaders constrained by democratic institutions must not only be attentive to the human and financial costs of war, but also to the domestic political costs of behavior during crisis and conflict situations. Scholars have looked at how this impacts behavior in several ways. In this section, the discussion will be on the role that the prospect of citizens punishing leaders for costly wars plays in prewar crisis bargaining behavior. In the next section, the discussion will talk about how domestic political institutions shape leaders’ private incentives (in terms of office retention and their post-tenure fate) in conflict situations. Finally, discussion will entail whether poor political conditions at home create problematic incentives for leaders to use force overseas to shore up their domestic support.

The first strand of literature centers on the concept of “audience costs,” that is, when domestic audiences punish leaders for failed policies. The potential costs include lower approval ratings and/or electoral losses in democracies, and being overthrown and potentially imprisoned or killed in a non-democracy. The expected audience costs are less severe in democracies, but if institutions work as expected, they should also be easy to impose. Whereas audience costs are potentially more severe in non-democracies, they are also less likely to materialize (though see Weeks, 2008). Fearon (1994) was the first to theorize the effect of this difference on states’ foreign policy behavior in crisis situations. In Fearon’s model, democratic leaders are more constrained by prospective audience costs during crises, meaning that if they issue a threat and are bluffing, they will pay for it at home. There are two implications to audience costs: First, democratic leaders may be more reluctant to back down once they have made a threat. The threats they issue, therefore, should be seen as more credible by adversaries and allow democracies to achieve favorable outcomes during crises without resort to force. Second, they may be more selective in initiating a crisis, knowing that they will have to follow through on any threats made. Together, this would explain why democracies may be more pacific.

Others have since built on this insight in important ways. Smith (1998) provides microfoundations to explain why citizens would actually remove a leader from office for backing down during a crisis. He shows that audience costs are endogenous to leaders’ private information about their competence, and crises essentially offer opportunities for citizens to evaluate that competence. Competent leaders follow through on their threats as a chance to demonstrate their ability, whereas the least competent leaders either do not issue threats or back down for fear that intervening would only further reveal their inability. Schultz (1998, 2001) builds on Fearon’s work to show that the ability to create audience costs and signal resolve critically depends on open deliberation and debate facilitated by democratic domestic institutions. This allows domestic opposition to signal support for war, convincing the intended target of a state’s willingness to use force.

Another important theoretical development for understanding how audience costs are generated stems from looking at the role that information sources play. Slantchev (2006) was the first to look at this, arguing that leaders and other government sources alone cannot be relied upon to provide the kind of information citizens need to evaluate leader performance. Based on these sources alone, it may be that democracies and non-democracies cannot be distinguished in their ability to generate audience costs. What differs in democracies is the presence of institutions that ensure alternative sources of information—most importantly, a free press. Baum and Potter (2015) and Potter and Baum (2014) further develop the role of information, showing that a free press alone is not sufficient to transmit information to citizens. They show importantly that institutional variation exists among democracies in terms of electoral institutions and media access that mitigate information transmission. It is only in democracies where a vibrant opposition and media access are present that citizens have access to the information they need for audience costs to be generated.

Even as audience costs continue to be theorized in robust and novel ways, the empirical record on whether audience costs exist and how they affect decision making is mixed.

Various quantitative studies find general evidence for the existence of audience costs and more specific findings including that democracies communicate intentions more effectively (Eyerman & Hart, 1996); are less likely to back down in a crisis (Partell & Palmer, 1999); more credibly signal their intentions and are more selective in their choice of conflicts (Gelpi & Griesdorf, 2001); face less resistance when they initiate disputes (Schultz, 2001); and generate higher audience costs than non-democracies (Kurizaki & Whang, 2015). Because audience costs are so difficult to observe directly due to selection effects, others have used experimental studies to test the core logic that the public will punish a leader for inconsistency between rhetoric and action. Both Tomz (2007) and Levy, McKoy, Poast, and Wallace (2015) find direct evidence for this effect. Trager and Vavreck (2011) furthermore find that the magnitude of audience costs is under a democratic leader’s control through the use of rhetoric, and that they can be made so large that no leader concerned about reelection would ever incur them.

Other studies, however, have contradicted some of the findings of those cited above, showing that democracies do not use diplomatic conflict as a means to convey signals of resolve (Kinsella & Russett, 2002); democratic targets are more likely to back down during the initiation phase of a crisis, but not the escalation phase (Lai, 2004); and democratic challengers back down not because democracies show resolve, but because they demand less (Filson & Werner, 2004). In a systemic review of the quantitative literature on audience costs, Downes and Sechser (2012) show that much of the data typically used is flawed and reveals misleading results. Using new data, they show threats from democracies are no more successful than threats from other non-democracies. Research that focuses on specific cases where we should expect to see audience costs, moreover, fails to uncover them. Snyder and Borghard (2011) find little evidence for audience costs in the post-1945 period, while Trachtenberg (2012) finds the same in analysis that extends back to the pre-1914 period as well.

Finally, some experimental studies show results that seem to contradict those cited above. Levendusky and Horowitz (2012) show that audience costs are mitigated by how crises and backing down are framed. When leaders present credible information that justifies backing down, they are less likely to be punished. Furthermore, Kertzer and Brutger (2016) find that experimental studies that fail to disentangle whether an audience punishes leaders for inconsistency (backing down) or threatening to use force in the first place (belligerency) overestimate how much inconsistency actually matters. War-averse citizens may simply be punishing leaders for threatening to drag the country into war.

Audience costs provide a plausible causal mechanism to explain important and unexplained aspects of democratic and non-democratic crisis bargaining. Several problems remain, however, for determining their explanatory value. On the one hand, the literature makes a set of potentially problematic assumptions, according to Snyder and Borghard (2011), which need to be addressed. Problematic assumptions include the following: leaders seek to lock themselves in rather than remain flexible; publics care about consistency between rhetoric and action more than policy substance; other reputational considerations are less important than those associated with audience costs; and targets understand domestic audience costs mechanisms. It is not clear logically or empirically that these assumptions hold. On the other hand, measuring the existence of audience costs and how they affect decision making is difficult to observe directly in history, and difficult to extrapolate from experimental studies. Additional case studies using process-tracing could help overcome these issues.

Leader Tenure

A second strand of literature on the domestic political determinants of foreign policy behavior focuses on how domestic political institutions shape the private incentives of leaders in conflict situations. This literature looks specifically at the individual consequences of success and failure in war for democratic vs. non-democratic leaders and how this shapes their behavior. The consequences include both whether and how long political leaders will remain in office and what happens to them when their leadership tenure ends. In short, war is shown to be riskier for the private interests of democratic leaders than it is for non-democratic leaders; and this, in turn, explains important aspects of democratic foreign policy behavior.

Bueno de Mesquita and Siverson (1995) begin with the premise that war is potentially risky for leaders. Leaders have a private interest in retaining office and those who involve their states in war risk losing their position. Because the risk of losing office institutionally differs between democracies and non-democracies based on the size of the selectorate—the subset of the population that participates in the selection of a leader (Bueno de Mesquita, Morrow, Siverson, & Smith, 1999; Bueno de Mesquita, Smith, Siverson, & Morrow, 2003), democratic and non-democratic leaders face different incentives in conflict situations. Democratic leaders face larger selectorates in regular elections and are more prone to being thrown out of office for policy failures such as losing a war. This encourages them to be careful about selecting conflicts and sure to win the ones they enter. Non-democratic leaders, in contrast, face smaller selectorates and depend less on their policy successes and more on their ability to distribute rewards to supporters. This encourages them to focus more on the expected gains of conflict vs. negotiation in conflict situations and less on office retention. These institutional differences, in turn, explain various democratic foreign policy behaviors, including why democracies fight, but not with other democracies; why they tend to win the wars they fight; and why their wars are shorter, among others. These findings have been critiqued by Clarke and Stone (2008), but selectorate theory remains an important framework for thinking about leader incentives and conflict behavior.

Related research looks not just at the chance political leaders will remain in office as a result of war, but what their fate will be when their leadership tenure ends, which is also determined by regime type. Goemans (2000) was the first to look at the effect of regime type on the post-tenure fate of leaders, focusing on its impact on war termination. He starts with the assumption that war termination occurs when new information about the outcome and costs of a conflict cause combatants to change their settlement terms. He shows, however, that this is moderated by the expectations of leaders about their future. Even if democratic leaders reach a losing settlement, they can expect to leave office as a result of voluntary retirement, term limits, or at worst losing the next election. Their post-tenure life may consist of giving paid speeches, writing memoirs, running a foundation, and/or supporting members of their party in later elections. Non-democratic leaders, in contrast, often face overthrow, exile, imprisonment, or even death as a result of negotiating a loss. Thus, while ending the conflict may be better for the nation as a whole, it may not be for the individual leader. This provides an incentive for non-democratic leaders to be selective in deciding to initiate a conflict, but also explains why they may persist fighting in a “gamble for resurrection” once a conflict is begun even though a negotiated settlement could be reached. Chiozza and Goemans (2011), as well as Debs and Goemans (2010), have developed, and expanded on, this insight to explain other important differences in democratic vs. non-democratic foreign policy behavior.

Diversionary War

A third strand of literature on the domestic political determinants of foreign policy behavior focuses on whether institutions may perversely incentivize leaders to use force overseas to improve their political prospects at home. This is thought in particular to be a “pathology of democratic systems” (Gelpi, 1997, p. 280). The potential for “diversionary” uses of force is founded on the premise that leaders’ domestic political problems—stemming from economic stagnation, social unrest, lack of domestic policy success, or concerns about future elections—may be overcome by focusing citizens’ attention on foreign policy matters. In theory, leaders may benefit from citizens’ rallying around the flag during a militarized conflict situation (Mueller, 1973), crisis situation (Hetherington & Nelson, 2003), or as a result of increasing foreign policy salience through lower profile uses of force such as peacekeeping missions (Kisangani & Pickering, 2007). Such instances may not only generate a rally-round-the-flag effect, but also demonstrate leader competence (Smith, 1996) or scapegoat others for domestic problems, which are separate but related mechanisms for improving one’s domestic political fortunes.

General studies of the relationship between domestic problems and the use of force have provided evidence both for and against the diversionary war hypothesis. Some research shows that leaders facing political or economic problems at home are more likely to use force (James & Oneal, 1991; Morgan & Anderson, 1999; Morgan & Bickers, 1992; Ostrom & Job, 1986), while other research shows a weak or nonexistent relationship (Chiozza & Goemans, 2003; Leeds & Davis, 1997; Meernik, 2004; Oneal & Tir, 2006). For some time, this was considered an impasse with studies showing a diversionary effect unable to overcome questions about theory, case selection, and scope limitations.

More recently, scholars have begun to explore more nuanced versions of the diversionary war hypothesis, producing a number of interesting findings. By breaking down instances according to regime type, Gelpi (1997) finds that diversionary war is indeed more likely to be used by democratic leaders than non-democratic ones. Kisangani and Pickering (2009, 2011) find similar results, but also show that when regime type is broken down even further that certain types of democracies (mature, w/presidential systems) and non-democracies (consolidating, single party) are more likely to resort to diversionary uses of force than others (Kisangani & Pickering, 2011; Pickering & Kisangani, 2005, 2010). Brulé and Williams (2009) similarly find that certain types of parliamentary democracies (minority government, weak party cohesion) are more likely than others (coalition) to use force when the economy is performing poorly. This trend toward thinking about democratic variation and its impact on foreign policy behavior accords with a larger trend that will be discussed later.

Varieties of Democracy

Much of the literature cited thus far on the democratic peace, costs of war, audience costs, and leaders draws a distinction between democracies and non-democracies to study foreign policy behavior. In doing so, however, it tends to treat democracies as a homogenous group of actors. This assumes that democratic institutions are organized similarly across space and time, and that democracies behave similarly. The problem is that democracies are institutionally heterogeneous, and they might behave differently as a result. Three areas where scholars have begun to look at how variations in democratic institutions affects foreign policy behavior will be discussed.

Macro-Institutional Structure

Some scholars have compared macro-institutional structural differences among democracies, starting with distinctions between presidential and parliamentary systems. Auerswald (2000) compares the conflict propensity between presidential and parliamentary systems through a series of case studies and finds that the former are more conflict prone. Elman (2000) distinguishes systems by whether they are more majoritarian (Westminster parliamentary and semi-presidential) or less majoritarian (coalitional parliamentary and presidential). In theory, these different structures should alter the ability for executives and legislatures to affect decisions about war and peace, which Elman finds true in a series of case studies. Reiter and Tillman (2002) find that legislative constraints in general are associated with a lower likelihood to initiate disputes, but that this does not appear to be determined by whether a country has a parliamentary or presidential system (see also Leblang & Chan, 2003).

Other scholars have looked at differences within parliamentary democracies to examine whether cabinet-type—majority, coalition, or minority—affects foreign policy behavior. This is based on the idea that the unity or disunity of a government may affect decision-making processes. Prins and Sprecher (1999) find that coalition governments are more likely to reciprocate when targeted in disputes, and are more likely to respond with military force. In contrast, Ireland and Gartner (2001) find that coalition governments are no more prone to use force than majority governments, and that minority governments are the least prone. Palmer, London, and Regan (2004) find no effect, arguing that the political orientation of the ruling party—rather than the number of parties in a coalition—best explains conflict behavior. Kaarbo (2012), meanwhile, finds that cabinet-type does matter, but not in ways previously expected. Coalition governments are neither more conflictual nor less, but rather are more extreme, choosing policies that are in some cases more conflictual and in others more peaceful depending on their composition.

Finally, other research investigates the effect of the level of inclusion provided by democratic institutions. If mechanisms of popular control explain why democracies are more peaceful than non-democracies, then it is also possible that democracies with greater popular control are more peaceful than those with less. Reiter and Tillman (2002) find that democracies with greater levels of political participation are indeed less likely to initiate disputes. This is a finding that has been replicated in others ways as well. Clark and Nordstrom (2005) provide a theoretical basis for this claim and show that greater participation makes it harder for executives to motivate the initiation of force. Joshi, Maloy, and Peterson (2015) further specify inclusion mechanisms including formal rules pertaining to voter access, electoral formulae, and cameral structures and find that more popular democracies are less conflict prone than elite democracies. Additionally, Hunter and Robbins (2016) show that candidate-centric electoral systems, which hold legislators more individually accountable to voters, result in less conflict initiation than party-centric systems.

Executive Constraint

Another possible mechanism for how democracies may be more constrained institutionally is through legislatures that act as a check on executives. Active legislatures with genuine legislative powers are an essential part of democracy. They are elected like executives—sometimes on a more regular basis—and have similar electoral incentives, but at a local, state or regional rather than national level. Moreover, though their role in foreign policy varies and is often inferior to the role played by executives—particularly with respect to the use of force—they can still play an important foreign policy role through appropriations, authorizations, and votes of confidence. Just how much of a role they play vis-à-vis executives may in turn explain important aspects of foreign policy behavior.

Though Auerswald (2000) and Elman (2000) look at variations in macro-institutional structure in their respective studies, the underlying mechanism connecting structure with behavior in both is the extent to which institutions alter the ability for executives and legislatures to affect decisions about war and peace. Their case studies show that when democracies contain executives that are constrained by legislatures, they are less likely to initiate the use of force. Executive constraint also potentially matters in other areas as well. Ripsman (2002), for example, shows that institutional differences and the subsequent degree of structural autonomy enjoyed by executives in the United States, Britain, and France help explain negotiations over the two post-world war settlements. In the U.S. case, for example, he finds that President Truman enjoyed greater autonomy than previous presidents, which explains how he was able to negotiate a deal and get it accepted unlike President Wilson three decades earlier. Wilson had policy independence during negotiations in Paris, but was later defeated in the Senate. Truman, meanwhile, not only had greater leeway during negotiations, but was also able to push through policies despite domestic opposition.

Additional studies also provide support for the role of executive constraint. Reiter and Tillman (2002) find that greater legislative controls over foreign policy in democracies are associated with a lower likelihood to initiate disputes. Using a global dataset of dyads from 1885 to 2001, Choi (2010) finds furthermore that greater legislative constraints in democracies reduce the likelihood for the initiation of militarized interstate disputes with other democracies. This finding holds for mixed dyads as well, but not non-democratic ones, suggesting that legislatures function in democracies as constraints, but are less constraining in autocracies. Focusing on the United States, Howell and Pevehouse (2005) show that Congress exhibits a greater foreign policy constraint on the executive than is often thought. While a recent special issue of West European Politics (“Special Issue: Challenging Executive Dominance: Legislatures and Foreign Affairs,” 2017) explores in greater detail the role of legislatures in foreign policy both in theory and through a series of recent case studies on the United States, United Kingdom, France, Canada, and Japan.

Media Openness

Finally, variation in the institutions that regulate media openness may additionally result in differences in foreign policy behavior. One of the key assumptions underlying the idea that citizens are able to constrain leaders’ foreign policy decisions through political institutions is that they have information regarding particular foreign policies and their consequences. This does not require citizens to be fully knowledgeable about foreign affairs or monitoring foreign policy actions all the time. In fact, citizens are often uninformed about and uninterested in foreign policy. Rather, it requires that when citizens do need to hold elected officials accountable because of a failing war, an inconsistency between threats and deeds (as audience cost theory assumes), or some other foreign policy failure, that they have the information required to do so.

Large-N studies by Van Belle (2000) and Choi and James (2006) both provide evidence for the connection between media openness and foreign policy behavior by looking at the impact of press freedom on militarized interstate disputes. Both studies conclude that the presence of joint press freedom in disputes reduces their frequency and severity. Choi and James find this holds even when controls are used for institutional democracy, economic interdependence, and joint membership in international organizations, suggesting that press freedom explains additional variation in peaceful behavior beyond the traditional triad used to explain the democratic peace. They hypothesize that this is because press freedom serves two important functions. Domestically, it makes it harder for leaders to bluff or mislead and escape accountability for policy failures. Internationally, it provides credible information to others about leaders’ competence and resolve during crises.

Baum and Potter (2015) look more closely at exactly how democratic institutional variation modulates the flow of information between leaders and citizens. Because citizens are generally uninformed and uninterested in foreign policy, they tend to rely on elite cues and the media for information to make informed judgements about foreign policy and hold leaders accountable at the ballot box. Institutions ultimately determine how well those sources function in transmitting information. Baum and Potter focus on two. First, electoral institutions determine the number of parties that have access to office. Opposition parties provide a greater variety of elite cues and can play a whistleblower role when a governing party attempts to mislead the public. A greater number of parties is also associated with a more diverse media landscape that delivers higher quality political information. Second are institutions that ensure not only free press, but media access. Among several findings, Baum and Potter show that states with electoral and media institutions that increase the flow of information between leaders and citizens are less likely to initiate military disputes. Furthermore, they show that among democracies, those with a higher number of electorally eligible parties and high levels of media access are able to generate credible audience costs.

Future Directions and Challenges

The last three decades of research assessed in this article shows that examining the relationship between democratic domestic institutions and foreign policy has the potential to explain important aspects of individual state behavior, as well as broader outcomes in international relations such as the lack of armed conflict between democracies. Yet, many theoretical and empirical gaps and puzzles remain in the various literatures cited. This presents both challenges and opportunities for IR scholars moving forward.

Perhaps most important is the need to continue to tease apart the differences between democracies. When IR scholars began looking at the relationship between democratic domestic institutions and foreign policy, they focused mostly on the democracy/non-democracy distinction to determine how the two regime types differed institutionally and in terms of behavior. This was a good first step, but there are important limits to this distinction. As discussed, there are often substantial differences among democracies (and non-democracies) that are obscured by this basic division.

This presents a challenge, for example, for much of the quantitative literature cited, which relies on the 21-point Polity IV (previously III) scale to measure democracy. Some studies rely on a binary categorization (democracy/autocracy) or three-category measure (autocracy/anocracy/democracy) based on these scores. But as has been discussed elsewhere, there is no theoretical basis for doing either and both are problematic for different reasons: The former is too crude, while the latter creates ambiguity about the regime type anocracy (Goldstone et al., 2010; Munck, 2009). In any case, dividing regime types in this way obscures differences among similar types. Other studies rely on the full linear scale from -10 to 10, but this too creates problems in teasing out the differences between democracies. As has been acknowledged, Polity is an artifact of the Cold War and is skewed toward corralling democracies at the upper end of the scale (Marshall et al., 2016, pp. 9–10). This was perhaps appropriate when Polity was first created and there were almost triple the number of non-democracies than democracies. But the ratio has almost reversed now. So now more than ever it is important to distinguish what separates one democracy from another. This is an issue that will hopefully be corrected in the forthcoming Polity V project, providing better measures and the opportunity to refine the distinctions between democracies in quantitative work.

Meanwhile, the recognition that democratic institutional variation matters creates several imperatives for IR scholars. On the one hand, the various institutional dimensions across which democracies differ needs to be better conceptualized. On the other hand, those differences need to be theorized and tested, both qualitatively and quantitatively, to determine how they impact things like crisis behavior, war initiation, and war termination, among other foreign policy behaviors. As mentioned earlier, good progress has already been made in these directions and similar work should be encouraged.

Exploring such variation could explain enduring puzzles like why there is evidence of a dyadic peace, but not a monadic peace. It could be, for example, that there is a general monadic peace to be explained by democracy, but only democracies with certain institutional features. This, in turn, could inform policy debates about what kinds of specific policies should be pursued overseas to support the spread of peaceful regimes. Exploring variation could also shed light on why some scholars find evidence for audience costs and others do not. As Baum and Potter show, looking at variation in electoral and media institutions is one way of closing this gap, but there are other possibilities as well. Additionally, it could help explain why democracies tend to perform well in the crises and wars they initiate, but still tend to be targeted by other states. One possibility is that this is explained by variations in casualty sensitivity, as Filson and Werner (2004) suggest. It is also possible, however, that it is moderated by institutional differences among democracies, which invites targeting in some cases but not others.

Another related issue area that might be worthwhile exploring is within case institutional variation over time, or across issue area. The latter, for example, has been studied in the American case where the executive is often characterized as containing “two Presidencies”—one with limited powers in domestic affairs, the other with extensive powers in foreign affairs (Canes-Wrone, Howell, & Lewis, 2008; Wildavsky, 1966). Others, meanwhile, have disaggregated U.S. foreign policy powers even further and shown that while the two Presidencies notion may apply to some areas of foreign policy such as national security, it does not apply to other areas that cross the foreign-domestic boundary more clearly such as trade or foreign aid where presidents are more constrained by Congress (Milner & Tingley, 2015). The implication of this research is that a broad measure of executive constraint may miss underlying variation with respect to which foreign policy instrument the executive employs. Thus a case may be coded as one where executive constraint is high, which may in general be true, but is in fact not the case when it comes to war initiation or treaty negotiation.

Finally, in response to previous waves of new democracy creation, scholars looked at the effect of democratization on foreign policy (Mansfield & Snyder, 2005; Narang & Nelson, 2009). Today with the large number of democracies across the world and trends including populism, there is evidence of democratic backsliding that might be occurring. According to Freedom House (2017), 2016 marked the 11th consecutive year in which freedom declined around the world with 67 countries declining, and 36 improving their record. Yet as Lust and Waldner (2015) suggest, democratic backsliding is still something we know very little about. This raises the question about what impact democratic backsliding could have on foreign policy? Accordingly to Bermeo (2016), backsliding today is a result of two factors. First, it is not a result of coups and outright transformations to non-democracy, but “executive aggrandizement.” If some of the findings about the impact of executive constraints on foreign policy are correct, democratic backsliding could contribute to increased frequency of crises and wars in such cases. Second, it is not a result of outright voting fraud, but “strategic harassment and manipulation” of citizens and groups. If some of the findings about the impact of political inclusion on foreign policy are correct, this also suggests democratic backsliding could have a negative impact on peaceful behavior. These potential developments are worth exploring.

Determining the exact relationship between democratic domestic institutions and foreign policy remains an incomplete task. More questions have been raised than answers provided by the last three decades of scholarship. Rather than viewed as a gap, this should be seen as an opportunity for further inquiry and debate.


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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (1.) Political rights include inclusive suffrage, alternative sources of information, freedom of expression, and associational autonomy, while procedures include regular elections that are conducted freely and fairly, as well as the arrangement of governing institutions (presidential vs. parliamentary, constraints on the executive, etc.). This is based on Dahl’s (1971, 1989, 1998) widely accepted, expanded procedural definition of democracy (see Munck, 2009, pp. 120–132).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (2.) Democratic institutions have been found to produce a number of foreign policy behaviors. Research, for example, shows that democracies tend to ally with other democracies (Lai & Reiter, 2000; Leeds, 1999); democratic alliances endure longer than other alliances (Gaubatz, 1996; Leeds & Savun, 2007); and democracies are less likely to abrogate their commitments (Leeds, Mattes, & Vogel, 2009; Leeds & Savun, 2007). Democracies also set lower trade barriers with each other (Mansfield, Milner, & Rosendorff, 2000), and sign more preferential trade agreements both with other democracies and non-democracies (Mansfield & Milner, 2012; Mansfield, Milner, & Rosendorff, 2002; Rosendorff & Shin, 2015). These are important findings, but extend beyond the scope of this article, which focuses on the impact democratic institutions have on a state’s security-foreign policy.