We develop and test a general argument about the conditions under which state leaders are most likely to choose legal dispute resolution over bilateral negotiations as a means to settle international disputes. Our central claim is that leaders who anticipate significant domestic audience costs for the making of voluntary, negotiated concessions are likely to seek the “political cover” of an international legal ruling. In such cases, it will be easier for leaders to justify the making of concessions if they are mandated as part of a ruling by an international court or arbitration body. We test a series of domestic-level hypotheses using a dataset comprised of nearly 1,500 rounds of talks concerning disputed territorial claims. Our multivariate analyses indicate that state leaders opt for legal dispute resolution when they are highly accountable to domestic political opposition, as well as when the dispute is highly salient to domestic audiences.
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