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The Illusion of Democratic Credibility

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 July 2012

Alexander B. Downes
George Washington University, Washington, DC. E-mail:
Todd S. Sechser
University of Virginia, Charlottesville, and the Council on Foreign Relations. E-mail:
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Do democracies make more effective coercive threats? An influential literature in international relations argues that democratic institutions allow leaders to credibly signal their resolve in crises, thereby making their threats more likely to work than threats by nondemocracies. This article revisits the quantitative evidence for this proposition, which we call the “democratic credibility hypothesis,” and finds that it is surprisingly weak. Close examination of the data sets most commonly used to test this hypothesis reveals that they contain few successful democratic threats, or indeed threats of any kind. Moreover, these data sets' outcome variables do not properly measure the effectiveness of threats, and therefore yield misleading results. The article then reassesses the democratic credibility hypothesis using the Militarized Compellent Threats data set, a new data set designed specifically to test hypotheses about the effectiveness of coercive threats. The analysis indicates that threats from democracies are no more successful than threats from other states.

Research Article
Copyright © The IO Foundation 2012

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