Skip to main content

The Illusion of Democratic Credibility

  • Alexander B. Downes (a1) and Todd S. Sechser (a2)

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.

Hide All
Art Robert J., and Cronin Patrick M., eds. 2003. The United States and Coercive Diplomacy. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace.
Bennett D. Scott, and Stam Allan C.. 2000. A Universal Test of an Expected Utility Theory of War. International Studies Quarterly 44 (3):451–80.
Boix Carles, and Rosato Sebastian. 2001. A Complete Data Set of Political Regimes, 1800–1999. Unpublished manuscript, University of Chicago.
Brambor Thomas, Clark William Roberts, and Golder Matt. 2006. Understanding Interaction Models: Improving Empirical Analyses. Political Analysis 14 (1):6382.
Braumoeller Bear F. 2004. Hypothesis Testing and Multiplicative Interaction Terms. International Organization 58 (4):807–20.
Brecher Michael, and Wilkenfeld Jonathan. 1997. A Study of Crisis. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Brown Jonathan N., and Marcum Anthony. 2011. Avoiding Audience Costs: Domestic Political Accountability and Concessions in Crisis Diplomacy. Security Studies 20 (2):141–70.
Cheibub José Antonio, Gandhi Jennifer, and Vreeland James Raymond. 2010. Democracy and Dictatorship Revisited. Public Choice 143 (1-2):67101.
Clare Joe. 2007. Domestic Audiences and Strategic Interests. Journal of Politics 69 (3):732–45.
Correlates of War 2 Project. 2004. Dispute Narratives—MID 3.0 Dataset. Unpublished manuscript, Pennsylvania State University, State College.
Danilovic Vesna. 2002. When the Stakes Are High: Deterrence and Conflict Among Major Powers. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Desch Michael C. 2008. Power and Military Effectiveness: The Fallacy of Democratic Triumphalism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Downes Alexander B. 2009. How Smart and Tough Are Democracies? Reassessing Theories of Democratic Victory in War. International Security 33 (4):951.
Eyerman Joe, and Hart Robert A. Jr. 1996. An Empirical Test of the Audience Cost Proposition: Democracy Speaks Louder Than Words. Journal of Conflict Resolution 40 (4):597616.
Fang Songying. 2008. The Informational Role of International Institutions and Domestic Politics. American Journal of Political Science 52 (2):304–21.
Fearon James D. 1994. Domestic Political Audiences and the Escalation of International Disputes. American Political Science Review 88 (3):577–92.
Fearon James D. 1995. Rationalist Explanations for War. International Organization 49 (3):379414.
Fearon James D. 1997. Signaling Foreign Policy Interests: Tying Hands Versus Sinking Costs. Journal of Conflict Resolution 41 (1):6890.
Finel Bernard I., and Lord Kristin M.. 1999. The Surprising Logic of Transparency. International Studies Quarterly 43 (2):315–39.
Gelpi Christopher, and Griesdorf Michael. 2001. Winners or Losers? Democracies in International Crisis, 1918–94. American Political Science Review 95 (3):633–47.
Guisinger Alexandra, and Smith Alastair. 2002. Honest Threats: The Interaction of Reputation and Political Institutions in International Crises. Journal of Conflict Resolution 46 (2):175200.
Haynes Kyle. Forthcoming. Lame Ducks and Coercive Diplomacy: Do Executive Term Limits Reduce the Effectiveness of Democratic Threats? Journal of Conflict Resolution.
Huth Paul K., and Russett Bruce. 1984. What Makes Deterrence Work? Cases from 1900 to 1980. World Politics 36 (4):496526.
Huth Paul K., and Russett Bruce. 1990. Testing Deterrence Theory: Rigor Makes a Difference. World Politics 42 (4):466501.
Indian Ministry of External Affairs. 1959. Notes, Memoranda and Letters Exchanged and Agreements Signed by the Governments of India and China, Volume I: 1954–1959. New Delhi, India: Indian Ministry of External Affairs.
Jaggers Keith, and Gurr Ted Robert. 1995. Tracking Democracy's Third Wave with the Polity III Data. Journal of Peace Research 32 (4):469–82.
Jones Daniel M., Bremer Stuart A., and Singer J. David. 1996. Militarized Interstate Disputes, 1816–1992: Rationale, Coding Rules, and Empirical Patterns. Conflict Management and Peace Science 15 (2):163213.
Juhász Gyula. 1979. Hungarian Foreign Policy 1919–1945. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó.
King Gary, Keohane Robert O., and Verba Sidney. 1994. Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
King Gary, Tomz Michael, and Wittenberg Jason. 2000. Making the Most of Statistical Analyses: Improving Interpretation and Presentation. American Journal of Political Science 44 (2):347–61.
Kuhn Thomas S. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lebow Richard Ned, and Stein Janice Gross. 1990. Deterrence: The Elusive Dependent Variable. World Politics 42 (3):336–69.
Lipson Charles. 2003. Reliable Partners: How Democracies Have Made a Separate Peace. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Lyall Jason. 2010. Do Democracies Make Inferior Counterinsurgents? Reassessing Democracy's Impact on War Outcomes and Duration. International Organization 64 (1):167–92.
Mansfield Edward D., Milner Helen V., and Rosendorff B. Peter. 2002. Why Democracies Cooperate More: Electoral Control and International Trade Agreements. International Organization 56 (3):477513.
Mansfield Edward D., and Snyder Jack. 2005. Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Martin Lisa L. 2000. Democratic Commitments: Legislatures and International Cooperation. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
McDougall Walter A. 1978. France's Rhineland Diplomacy, 1914–1924: The Last Bid for a Balance of Power in Europe. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Merom Gil. 2003. How Democracies Lose Small Wars. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Narang Vipin, and Nelson Rebecca M.. 2009. Who Are These Belligerent Democratizers? Reassessing the Impact of Democratization on War. International Organization 63 (2):357–79.
Partell Peter J. 1997. Executive Constraints and Success in International Crises. Political Research Quarterly 50 (3):503–28.
Partell Peter J., and Palmer Glenn. 1999. Audience Costs and Interstate Crises: An Empirical Assessment of Fearon's Model of Dispute Outcomes. International Studies Quarterly 43 (2):389406.
Pemstein Daniel, Meserve Stephen A., and Melton James. 2010. Democratic Compromise: A Latent Variable Analysis of Ten Measures of Regime Type. Political Analysis 18 (4):426–49.
Popper Karl R. 1959. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London: Hutchinson.
Pregibon Daryl. 1981. Logistic Regression Diagnostics. Annals of Statistics 9 (4):705–24.
Prins Brandon C. 2003. Institutional Instability and the Credibility of Audience Costs: Political Participation and Interstate Crisis Bargaining, 1816–1992. Journal of Peace Research 40 (1):6784.
Przeworski Adam, Alvarez Michael E., Cheibub José Antonio, and Limongi Fernando. 2000. Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-Being in the World, 1950–1990. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Ramsay Kristopher W. 2004. Politics at the Water's Edge: Crisis Bargaining and Electoral Competition. Journal of Conflict Resolution 48 (4):459–86.
Reiter Dan, and Stam Allan C.. 2002. Democracies at War. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Rioux Jean-Sébastien. 1998. A Crisis-Based Evaluation of the Democratic Peace Proposition. Canadian Journal of Political Science 31 (2):263–83.
Rosato Sebastian. 2003. The Flawed Logic of Democratic Peace Theory. American Political Science Review 97 (4):585602.
Ross Robert S. 2003. The 1995–96 Taiwan Strait Confrontation: Coercion, Credibility, and Use of Force. In The United States and Coercive Diplomacy, edited by Art Robert J. and Cronin Patrick M., 225273. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace.
Sartori Anne E. 2005. Deterrence by Diplomacy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Schelling Thomas C. 1960. The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Schelling Thomas C. 1966. Arms and Influence. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
Schultz Kenneth A. 1998. Domestic Opposition and Signaling in International Crises. American Political Science Review 92 (4):829–44.
Schultz Kenneth A. 1999. Do Democratic Institutions Constrain or Inform? Contrasting Two Institutional Perspectives on Democracy and War. International Organization 53 (2):233–66.
Schultz Kenneth A. 2001. Democracy and Coercive Diplomacy. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Sechser Todd S. 2010. Goliath's Curse: Coercive Threats and Asymmetric Power. International Organization 64 (4):627–60.
Sechser Todd S. 2011. Militarized Compellent Threats, 1918–2001. Conflict Management and Peace Science 28 (4):377401.
Slantchev Branislav L. 2006. Politicians, the Media, and Domestic Audience Costs. International Studies Quarterly 50 (2):445–77.
Smith Alastair. 1998. International Crises and Domestic Politics. American Political Science Review 92 (3):623–38.
Snyder Jack, and Borghard Erica. 2011. The Cost of Empty Threats: A Penny, Not a Pound. American Political Science Review 105 (3):437–56.
Sullivan Patricia Lynne, and Gartner Scott Sigmund. 2006. Disaggregating Peace: Domestic Politics and Dispute Outcomes. International Interactions 32 (1):125.
Swanson John C. 2001. The Remnants of the Habsburg Monarchy: The Shaping of Modern Austria and Hungary, 1918–1922. New York: Columbia University Press.
Tarar Ahmer, and Leventoğlu Bahar. 2009. Public Commitment in Crisis Bargaining. International Studies Quarterly 53 (3):817–39.
Tomz Michael. 2007. Domestic Audience Costs in International Relations: An Experimental Approach. International Organization 61 (4):821–40.
Tomz Michael, and Weeks Jessica. 2009. MIDipedia: An Expanded Database of Militarized Interstate Disputes. Unpublished manuscript, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif./Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.
Trachtenberg Marc. 1980. Reparation in World Politics. New York: Columbia University Press.
Trachtenberg Marc. 2012. Audience Costs: An Historical Analysis. Security Studies 21 (1):342.
Trager Robert F., and Vavreck Lynn. 2011. The Political Costs of Crisis Bargaining: Presidential Rhetoric and the Role of Party. American Journal of Political Science 55 (3):526–45.
Vanhanen Tatu. 2000. A New Dataset for Measuring Democracy, 1810–1998. Journal of Peace Research 37 (2):251–65.
Weeks Jessica L. 2008. Autocratic Audience Costs: Regime Type and Signaling Resolve. International Organization 62 (1):3564.
Weiss Jessica Chen. Forthcoming. Autocratic Signaling and Nationalist Protest in China. International Organization.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Organization
  • ISSN: 0020-8183
  • EISSN: 1531-5088
  • URL: /core/journals/international-organization
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 19
Total number of PDF views: 308 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 1143 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 22nd February 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.