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The Logic of “Offstage” Signaling: Domestic Politics, Regime Type, and Major Power-Protégé Relations

  • Roseanne W. McManus and Keren Yarhi-Milo

Abstract

This paper explores the question of how major powers signal support for their protégés. We develop a theory that explains why major powers show support for some protégés using highly visible “frontstage” signals of support, while supporting other protégés through less visible, but nonetheless costly, “offstage” signals. From an international strategic perspective, it is puzzling that major powers do not always send the most visible signal possible. We argue that this can be explained by considering the domestic environments in which the leaders of major powers and protégés operate. Focusing particularly on the United States as we develop our theory, we argue that the US will prefer to send offstage signals of support for more autocratic protégés for several reasons. First, sending frontstage support signals for autocracies would expose US leaders to charges of hypocrisy. Second, frontstage signals of support for autocracies face an impediment to credibility because of the public backlash in the United States that overt support for dictators could generate. Third, many autocratic protégés would be reluctant to accept a frontstage signal of support from the US because it could undermine their regime stability. We test our theory in a data set that records various support signals sent by the United States for other countries between 1950 and 2008, finding strong support for our expectations. We also find evidence of the causal mechanisms posited by our theory in a case study of relations between the US and the Shah's Iran.

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