Nav: Home

Democracies are more prone to start wars -- except when they're not

July 23, 2018

What kind of political leader is most likely to start a war--an invective-spewing dictator or the elected head of a democratic nation? Surprisingly, science says it's probably not the autocrat.

Leaders of democratic nations actually have stronger incentives to start and exacerbate conflicts with other countries than their autocratic counterparts, suggests a new study to be published by the American Journal of Political Science.

The difference boils down to public pressure, say the study's authors, Michael Gibilisco of Caltech and Casey Crisman-Cox of Texas A&M University. Because of pressure from voters to not back down and appear weak, democratic leaders tend to act more aggressively in international conflicts. An autocrat, on the other hand, is answerable to no one and can back down from a conflict without facing personal consequences.

"If an elected leader makes a threat during a conflict with another country and the threat isn't followed through, they may face a decrease in approval ratings, or they may lose an election," says Gibilisco, assistant professor of political science. In democracies, he notes, voters can punish their leaders for appearing weak--these punishments or consequences are known as "audience costs" in political science parlance. To avoid those costs, leaders in representative governments become more aggressive during disputes.

In their study, Gibilisco and Crisman-Cox, who is also an assistant professor of political science, first developed a mathematical model of dispute initiation between countries and then fit the model to data of actual conflicts that occurred among 125 countries between 1993-2007.

They also estimated audience costs for the countries in their sample using existing databases containing country-by-country information on levels of democracy and press freedom. In general, they found that audience costs are highest in democracies with strong protections for a free press.

However, they also found that audience costs are much lower in democracies that have a rival that threatens their existence. (For example, South Korea's existential rival is North Korea.) One reason, the researchers say, is that a nation's voters will give their leader more leeway in deciding how to resolve a conflict with an existential rival, because survival is more of a concern than saving face.

In contrast to democracies, dictatorships tend to have low audience costs, but here, too, Gibilisco and Crisman-Cox found an exception. Dictatorships that provide a legal mechanism for removing a leader--as was the case in China before it abolished term limits this past March--have higher audience costs.

Once the researchers produced an audience-cost estimate for each country, they considered how changing a country's audience costs affects its willingness to engage in conflict. Overall, they found, increasing a country's audience costs, perhaps by strengthening democratic institutions, makes it more likely to start a conflict.

However, Gibilisco and Crisman-Cox found that other dynamics are at play that create more nuanced international dynamics.

For example, while democratic leaders may be less likely to back down during a crisis, they can also be more aggressive and prone to initiate conflict, because they know their opponent won't want to get in a fight against a country that will hold its ground, even if it leads to war. Alternatively, a democratic leader may be less likely to initiate a conflict in the first place, as they know that they won't be able to easily stand down from it.

Lastly, the researchers found a sort of mutually assured destruction effect with audience costs. Two countries that each have high levels of audience cost know the other cannot back down and thus avoid conflicts with each other; if they do end up in a dispute, however, the countries will have a harder time resolving it peacefully.

"The model kind of explains this behavior where peace and conflict are both self-enforcing," Gibilisco says. "So, if we're in peace today, none of us want to escalate a dispute into war tomorrow. But once we're at war, we want to avoid de-escalating."
"Audience Costs and the Dynamics of War and Peace" is available online and will appear in an upcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

A draft of this study was made available online in December 2017. The peer-reviewed version appears in the July 2018 issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

California Institute of Technology

Related Conflict Articles:

Study of civilians with conflict-related wounds helps improve the care in conflict zones
Researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have carried out the first randomized trial of civilians with acute conflict-related wounds at two hospitals in areas affected by armed conflict.
Researchers study the intricate link between climate and conflict
New research from the University of Notre Dame is shedding light on the unexpected effects climate change could have on regional instability and violent conflict.
Achieving optimal collaboration when goals conflict
New research suggests that, when two people must work together on a physical task despite conflicting goals, the amount of information available about each other's actions influences how quickly and optimally they learn to collaborate.
Do we trust artificial intelligence agents to mediate conflict? Not entirely
We may listen to facts from Siri or Alexa, or directions from Google Maps or Waze, but would we let a virtual agent enabled by artificial intelligence help mediate conflict among team members?
Tension around autonomy increases family conflict at end of life
Conflict within families can be stressful and confusing, and it can lead to feelings of sadness.
Coca and conflict: the factors fuelling Colombian deforestation
Deforestation in Colombia has been linked to armed conflict and forests' proximity to coca crops, the plant from which cocaine is derived.
Global burden of mental health in conflict settings
People living in countries that have experienced armed conflict are five times more likely to develop anxiety or depression, a University of Queensland research collaboration has found.
Climate change increases potential for conflict and violence
Images of extensive flooding or fire-ravaged communities help us see how climate change is accelerating the severity of natural disasters.
AI systems shed light on root cause of religious conflict
Artificial intelligence can help us to better understand the causes of religious violence and to potentially control it, according to a new Oxford University collaboration.
Hugs may help protect against conflict-related distress
Receiving hugs may buffer against deleterious changes in mood associated with interpersonal conflict, according to a study published Oct.
More Conflict News and Conflict Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at