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Testing Novel Implications from the Selectorate Theory of War

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 June 2011

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita
Stanford's Hoover Institution
James D. Morrow
University of Michigan
Randolph M. Siverson
University of California, Davis
Alastair Smith
New York University
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The authors tested five novel hypotheses derived from the selectorate theory of war with data for up to about 140 states and spanning the years 1816–1993. The hypotheses point to subtle differences in selection effects across regime types that should operate during crises that fall short of war and also during wars. Leaders who rely on a large coalition (such as democrats) to remain in office are shown to be more selective than their small-coalition counterparts in their willingness to fight wars when the odds of victory are not overwhelming. They are also more selective than their small-coalition counterparts in their willingness to take part in disputes that fall short of war when the odds are not exceptionally favorable. However, they are less selective about this form of participation than they are about war. Small-coalition leaders show no such selectivity in their preparedness to engage in disputes short of war or in war as a function of their odds of victory. These results hold whether the odds of victory are assessed continuously or whether they are based on a specific threshold. The authors also find, in keeping with the selectorate theory, that if a war fails to resolve quickly, democrats try harder than autocrats to win. And when the war is over, democrats demobilize much more slowly than autocrats.

Research Article
Copyright © Trustees of Princeton University 2004

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1 de Mesquita, Bruce Bueno, Morrow, James D., Siverson, Randolph M., and Smith, Alastair, “An Institutional Explanation of the Democratic Peace,” American Political Science Review 93 (December 1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; de Mesquita, Bruce Bueno, Smith, Alastair, Siverson, Randolph M., and Morrow, James D., The Logic of Political Survival (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003)Google Scholar.

2 Bueno de Mesquita et al. (fn. 1, 2003) show why large-coalition regimes require a higher probability of victory to wage war than do small-coalition regimes (pp. 269—72). They offer formal proof that leaders of large coalitions make a greater effort to win wars than do leaders of small coalitions (pp. 268—69) and extend the theory formally to postwar behavior (pp. 456–60).

3 Ibid., 106–26.

4 We use the phrase large coalition and the term democracy interchangeably to improve readability. For the same reason, we use the phrase small coalition and the term autocracy interchangeably. If the use of democracy or autocracy is confusing, substitute “large coalition” and “small coalition” system throughout.

5 Democrats often fight to ensure that the vanquished state's policies are in keeping with their own (that is, the victor's) constituents' policy goals. Because autocrats survive by providing private benefits to their backers, defeated autocrats can relatively easily commit to follow the policies sought by the democratic victor provided the victor permits the vanquished leader to have sufficient resources to sustain his or her political base. Vanquished democrats cannot as easily commit to follow the rival's policy agenda. A vanquished democrat still needs support from a broad coalition and so cannot easily impose policies desired by the victor without a high risk of domestic deposition. Therefore, all else equal, democrats are more likely to depose defeated democratic leaders than they are to depose defeated autocrats. Because of selection effects—democrats generally back down in the face of a threat from another, stronger democrat—all else is not equal. Such regime-threatening contests between democrats are normally “off the equilibrium path.” See Bueno de Mesquita et al. (fn. 1, 2003), chaps. 6,9.

6 Domestic institutions also shape the prospect that a leader will survive in office, creating an endogenous basis for predicting institution change. See Bueno de Mesquita et al. (fn. 1, 2003), chap. 8, for an exploration of the implications of the selectorate theory for endogenous institution change based on who gets to choose the institutions: the leader, the winning coalition, the selectorate, the disenfranchised (e.g., through revolution), or a foreign adversary. Here we treat institutions as exogenously given and fixed during the period of the war. A thorough treatment of wartime endogenous institution change is too complex to address here given space constraints, but it is a topic we intend to pursue.

7 Ibid., 456–60.

8 Ibid., chap. 3.

9 For an analysis of kleptocracy under different institutional settings, see ibid., 161–68.

10 Ibid., chap. 6. Bueno de Mesquita et al. (fn. 1,1999).

11 Briefly consider two alternative limiting cases. Suppose k is borne only if an effort is made to win so that for those who accept inevitable defeat, the external cost of war is normalized to 0. Then extra effort is made υ > R/W + k . Although the threshold for making an effort to win is increased relative to the case in the text, still the likelihood of satisfying the inequality is increasing in W. Now suppose that a state choosing to make extra effort bares fewer external costs, normalized here to 0, than does a state that makes no extra effort. This might arise because the adversary sees the futility of its position and so ceases hostilities quickly before incurring heavy costs itself. Then the choice is υ > R/W − k. In this case, the threshold for making extra effort is reduced, but still the larger W is, the more likely that the inequality is satisfied and extra effort is made.

12 Goemans, , “Fighting for Survival: The Fate of Leaders and the Duration of War.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 44 (October 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Bueno de Mesquita et al. (fn. 1,1999), 798–99, 805.

14 Ibid., 799—802; de Mesquita, Bruce Bueno and Siverson, Randolph M., “War and the Survival of Political Leaders: A Comparative Study of Regime Types and Political Accountability,” American Political Science Review 89 (December 1995)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ray, James, “On the Level(s): Does Democracy Correlate with Peace?” in Vasquez, John A., ed., What Do We Knoia about War? (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000)Google Scholar.

15 Bueno de Mesquita et al. (fn. 1, 1999), 800, 806.

16 Ibid., 805. An exception arises if it becomes evident to an autocratic leader that his or her political survival prospects have materially decreased compared to what they were believed to be at the war's outset. As defeated autocrats are deposed less often than defeated democrats, this exception arises relatively infrequently.

17 See Reiter, Dan and Stam, Allan C., Democracies at War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Tenenbaum, Barbara A., The Politics of Penury: Debt and Taxes in Mexico, 1821–1856 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986)Google Scholar.

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20 Ibid., 7–8.

21 Tenenbaum (fn. 18), 120.

22 Bueno de Mesquita et al. (fn. 1,2003 ), chap. 9.

23 On the endogenous use, costs, and benefits of oppression, see Bueno de Mesquita et al. (fn. 1, 2003), chap. 9.

24 Ibid.

25 The hypothesis about postwar military effort suggested here provides a generalized version of an empirical observation made by Bruce Russert in the context of his investigation of the American experience. Russett, Bruce M., “Who Pays for Defense?” American Political Science Review 63 (June 1969CrossRefGoogle Scholar).

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27 Tzu, Sun, The Art of War, ed. Clavell, James (New York: Delacorte Press, 1983), 914Google Scholar.

28 Caspar Weinberger, “The Use of Military Power” (Remarks delivered to the National Press Club, Washington, D.C., November 28, 1984), weinberger.html/ (accessed August 3,2004).

29 Sun Tzu (fn. 27), 16.

30 Lewis D. Johnston and Samuel H. Williamson, “What Was the GDP Then?” hmit/gdp/GDPsource.htm (accessed August 3, 2004).

31 In a two-party, plurality voting parliamentary system, the prime minister needs 50 percent of parliament to form the government. Each of the requisite members of parliament can be elected with just over 50 percent of the vote. Therefore, the prime minister needs just over 50 percent of the voters in 50 percent of the constituencies to have backed his party.

32 This upper estimate for the North Korean winning coalition is based on personal conversations with North Korea specialists. So is the estimate of Kim Jong U's requirements to maintain the loyalty of his coalition.

33 NYU Department of Politics Data Page, The Logic of Political Survival Data Source, http:// (accessed August 3,2004).

34 Green, Donald, Kim, Soo Yeon, and Yoon, David, “Dirty Pool,” International Organization 55 (Spring 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 All analyses are also replicated with country-specific fixed effects; there are no material changes in results.

36 Organski, A. F. K., The Stages of Political Development (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1965)Google Scholar; idem. World, 2nd ed. (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1968)Google Scholar.

37 Using the logarithm of energy consumption per capita as an alternative measure of economic development yields comparable results but for a smaller number of observations.

38 Seefn. 33.

39 Hostlev evaluates the level of hostility reached in a dispute, with scores ranging between 1 and 5. Scores lower than 5 represent progressively lower levels of threat. Scores of 1–3 involve no use of force, while a hostility level value of 4 indicates a low level use offeree.

40 We replicated these analyses controlling for total iron and steel production, per capita energy consumption, and total energy consumption as alternative indicators of economic development. All yield similar results.