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Efficient Secrecy: Public versus Private Threats in Crisis Diplomacy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 July 2007

Texas A&M University


This paper explores when and why private communication works in crisis diplomacy. Conventional audience-cost models suggest that state leaders must go public with their threats in international crises because leaders cannot tie their hands if signals are issued privately. I present a crisis bargaining game where both the sender and the receiver of signals have a domestic audience. The equilibrium analysis demonstrates that a private threat, albeit of limited credibility, can be equally compelling as a fully credible public threat. The analysis suggests that secrecy works in crisis diplomacy despite its informational inefficacy. Secrecy insulates leaders from domestic political consequences when they capitulate to a challenge to avoid risking unwarranted war. The logic of efficient secrecy helps shed light on the unaccounted history of private diplomacy in international crises. The Alaska Boundary Dispute illustrates this logic.

© 2007 by the American Political Science Association

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