War and Democratic Constraint: How the Public Influences Foreign Policy

War and Democratic Constraint: How the Public Influences Foreign Policy


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ISBN-13: 9780691165233
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 04/27/2015
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Matthew A. Baum is the Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications and professor of public policy at Harvard University. He is the author of Soft News Goes to War and the coauthor of War Stories (both Princeton). Philip B. K. Potter is assistant professor of politics at the University of Virginia.

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War and Democratic Constraint

How the Public Influences Foreign Policy

By Matthew A. Baum, Philip B. K. Potter


Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-6647-2


Introduction: Looking for Democratic Constraint

In February 2003, British citizens opposed to the war in Iraq held the largest public demonstration ever seen in the United Kingdom. The protest brought London to a standstill—no mean feat in a country with a long and storied tradition of public protest. In the three months preceding the war, only a third of the British public on average supported a military attack on Iraq, compared to nearly half (47 percent) opposing it. Public support bottomed out in the month prior to the war (February 2003), falling to 29 percent, with opposition rising to 52 percent. Indeed, as late as March 16, four days before the US-led invasion, 54 percent of the British public considered war against Iraq unjustified, while only 30 percent considered it justified.

Despite strong public opposition, Tony Blair—a Labour prime minister whose left-of-center politics made him no obvious ideological ally to Republican US President George W. Bush—proceeded to commit forty-five thousand troops to the conflict. Blair maintained that presence—a force second in number only to that of the United States—in the face of opposition that intensified in the years that followed. In short, despite substantial opposition from his own electorate, Blair prioritized the strategic relationship with the United States, which was pushing very hard for contributions to its "coalition of the willing."

The British public was not alone in disapproving of the Iraq War. Prior to the war's outbreak, an overall average of two-thirds of respondents across sixty-two countries surveyed—in some cases over 90 percent—opposed a military attack on Iraq. Protests of comparable magnitude to those in London sprang up in many Western countries in the first half of 2003, but the domestic responses to them varied widely. Canada—a country with equally deep cultural, military, and financial ties to the United States—withheld support for the conflict, as did France, a long-standing ally. Both cited domestic opposition as a primary reason. Italy and Spain initially committed forces, but withdrew them in the face of the same sort of mounting opposition that Blair withstood.

How should we understand this variability? When it comes to foreign policy, why are some leaders seemingly constrained by public opinion, even in the earliest stages of policy formulation, while others are more insulated from it? These are the questions that motivate this book.

The problem is substantial. Republican forms of government, by design, put distance between leaders and voters. Citizens voluntarily delegate some of their sovereign power, for limited periods of time and in limited domains, to elected representatives. In theory, this allows leaders to make considered decisions by insulating them from popular passions. In the longer term, however, representatives must either faithfully represent the deeper preferences of the citizenry or be replaced through elections. In an era of mass democracies in which millions hold the franchise, we are inevitably speaking of such republican arrangements in which the few represent the many. Yet the variability that we have just described in the way American allies responded to calls for contributions to the coalition of the willing suggests that not all democracies are alike when it comes to insulation and responsiveness.

We argue that this distinction arises from the way diverse institutions modulate the flow of information from leaders to citizens. There are important differences among democracies on this dimension. Some foster the flow of information much more effectively than others, and these distinctions are important. With information comes democratic constraint. Without it, democracies are in some important regards functionally equivalent to autocracies.

Most existing work on democratic conflict behavior assumes that information flows easily and responsiveness is automatic. These assumptions might approximate the realities of direct democracy in ancient city-states such as Athens, but they bear little resemblance to democratic processes in modern mass democracies. As is so often the case, the result is a mismatch between theory and practice that undercuts the validity and usefulness of academic research on this subject. In practice, citizens cannot perfectly constrain their leaders. The best evidence suggests that, more often than not, they fail to even come close. This is because, once in power, leaders have powerful incentives to prevent citizens from holding them to account. In some cases they also possess institutional tools enabling them to do so.

Nowhere is the gap between elected representatives and the public larger than in the "high politics" of international affairs, particularly in matters of war and peace. Most citizens have little or no firsthand knowledge of events taking place abroad. In this sense, the Iraq example is more the exception than the rule in that citizens worldwide were at least aware and mobilized enough to have preferences and make them known. More commonly, leaders make foreign policy decisions without any meaningful public scrutiny. Citizens generally lack the time and incentive to inform themselves about distant events with uncertain implications for their daily lives. This leaves them dependent upon political and media elites to tell them what they need to know about foreign policy. Consequently, political and media institutions that systematically foster both robust opposition elites and the flow of information from them to citizens enhance democratic responsiveness, whereas their absence tends to insulate leaders from their citizens.


While an extensive body of empirical research explores how and why states become embroiled in international conflict, very little of it differentiates among democracies. For example, the voluminous literatures on the democratic peace and domestic audience costs—which we grapple with in this book—generally identify states as either democracies or autocracies, thereby smoothing over any institutional differences within democracies as a group. This can be a useful simplification for answering some questions, but it also means that puzzles like the aforementioned variability in nations' responses to the Iraq conflict generally escape scrutiny. Within democracies, this body of work tends to implicitly assume that the foreign policy process is perfectly transparent to attentive voters, that these citizens easily "hire and fire" their leaders, and that this translates into relatively high leader responsiveness and consistent constraints on foreign policy behavior. Indeed, the mechanisms underpinning the audience cost and democratic peace propositions actually require that these assumptions meaningfully approximate reality. The initial departure point of this book is to challenge their universality.

Given the extent of executive insulation in the United States when it comes to foreign affairs, it is perhaps unsurprising that the long-dominant, made-in-the-USA paradigm in international relations, neorealism, holds that it is possible to understand and explain states' interactions with one another, including decisions to go to war, while simultaneously "black boxing"—that is, ignoring entirely—everything that goes on within the state. A common neorealist analogy thus likens the international system to a billiards table, with states—the only meaningful actors on the table—as balls moving around independently while occasionally bumping into one another (that is, interacting). Neorealism thereby treats states—regardless of regime type—as "functionally undifferentiated units." The implication is that scholars interested in studying international interactions, including international conflict, can safely model autocracies and democracies in the same way while ignoring the institutional differences between them, or among democracies.

Challengers to this perspective have sought to pry open the black box to better understand how variations in the linkages between citizens and leaders might influence states' foreign policy activities. This led to the rediscovery of Kant's democratic peace thesis, according to which democracies are—due to their pacific norms or institutional checks and balances—either less likely to fight wars or less likely to fight wars against one another, or both. More recently it has spawned a large scholarly literature focused on determining whether and when democratic citizens will be inclined to punish their leaders either for foreign policy failures or for failing to live up to their foreign policy promises. According to the theory, such potential punishment—commonly referred to as domestic audience costs—makes democratic leaders more credible to adversaries than their autocratic counterparts. The reason is that democratic leaders will tend to issue threats only when they mean business, because once they make a public threat citizens will punish them at the ballot box for backing down.

While these literatures are substantial in size and influence, nearly all work purporting to consider the role of domestic political institutions in international interactions has simply replaced the realist black box—that is, the simplifying assumption that in explaining the interactions between states it is possible to assume away all the nuances of politics within states—with two slightly smaller ones: democracy and autocracy. Yet, as others have established for autocracies, democracies are far from an undifferentiated class. We argue that there is actually a great deal of consequential variation within these categories and that by taking such variations into account, we can substantially improve our understanding of the conditions that lead to variation in citizens' abilities to hold their leaders to account in foreign affairs.


We contend that the reliability of the flow of information from elites to the masses most directly determines the degree to which citizens can constrain their leaders. Two basic conditions must be present for citizens of mass democracies to hold their leaders accountable. First, there must be independent and politically potent opposition partisans that can alert the public when a leader missteps. This is the part of the system required to counteract leaders' incentives to obscure and misrepresent. Second, media and communication institutions must be both in place and accessible sufficiently to transmit messages from these opposition elites to the public.

Scholars of international relations have long recognized the importance of information and variations in its quality in mediating interactions between states. Influential theories of international conflict, in particular, turn on questions of the transparency, reliability, and availability of information to the actors involved in disputes. After all, states cannot prevail in crisis bargaining or negotiations unless they are able to successfully communicate their intentions and resolve. Yet scholars have devoted scant attention to the process by which states disseminate information internally. In effect, most international relations research assumes (implicitly or explicitly) that among democracies, information passes efficiently from leaders' mouths or actions to the intended recipients. If so, the only remaining uncertainty—which underpins much of the formal literature on international conflict—concerns what information a leader transmits or withholds and whether or not the intended recipient considers it reliable. As noted, this assumption is problematic in an era dominated by mass democracies.

Throughout the post–World War II era, democratic citizens have primarily learned about their governments' activities via the mass media. The past decade has witnessed the emergence of new political information sources, like social media, that may in some cases serve as alternatives and in other cases as complements to traditional mass media. However, a great deal of data, some of which we introduce in later chapters, clearly indicate that at present, mass media—especially television, but also newspapers and radio—remain the predominant sources of political information for the vast majority of people around the world.

This raises the questions of whether and how the mass media influence states' behavior in international conflicts. The few scholars of international relations who have investigated this question have mostly emphasized the possibility that a press free from government influence might facilitate peaceful conflict resolution by raising the domestic political costs to leaders of engaging in war abroad. The trouble is that nearly all democracies feature a free press, so press freedom alone cannot help resolve the puzzling variability in democratic constraint that we introduced at the start of this chapter.

Communication scholars and journalists have shown greater interest in this question. Nonetheless, while avoiding the unstated assumptions of the international conflict literature, they have in at least one important respect drawn a similar conclusion, at least for the United States (the case upon which research in this area is largely based). That is, they typically agree with international relations scholars that the media frequently do not exert very much independent influence in foreign affairs. Instead, the prevailing view is that in most instances the (American) media index their coverage of foreign policy to the tenor of elite rhetoric on whatever issue elites are publicly debating. This means that when elites are united across party lines in support of a president's foreign policy, media coverage will reflect this harmony and the public will tend to support the policy. In contrast, when elites engage in partisan conflict, media coverage will reflect this partisan discord and the public will consequently divide along partisan lines. In such cases, the president's fellow partisans will tend to support the policy while opposition partisans oppose it.

Others such as Entman, however, hold that in at least some circumstances the media can play an important proactive role, even in the archetypal US case. Yet in many such situations, contrary to the international relations literature, communication scholarship emphasizes the propensity of media to exacerbate military conflicts by, for example, pressuring democratic leaders to use military force for humanitarian purposes. According to this so-called CNN Effect hypothesis (an admittedly outdated term), public opinion, driven by dramatic images of human suffering, can pressure governments to take military or humanitarian action abroad that they would otherwise be inclined to avoid. That said, with the exception of some anecdotal accounts of the US-led intervention in Somalia in 1992, most of the related research finds no consistent evidence of such a pattern, leading to the current prevailing wisdom that the supposed CNN Effect is either incorrectly specified or perhaps the imaginings of self-congratulatory journalists overestimating their own importance.

Despite the substantial body of work, there remains a disconnect between the understanding of communication and international relations scholars concerning whether, when, and how the media are likely to matter in situations of actual or potential international conflict. We argue that by properly situating the media within the larger context of the information transmission process between governments and citizens, it becomes possible to reconcile these seemingly contradictory arguments concerning how media might influence international interactions in potential conflict situations. We contend that media influence can cut multiple ways. In some circumstances it can reduce the likelihood of conflict between states; in others it is more likely to raise the odds of a military clash, while in still others the media are unlikely to exert any significant influence on policy makers.


We identify two aspects of democratic systems that affect both the generation and the flow of information about foreign policy by influencing the extent of independent political opposition and their ability to reach the public with their messages. These aspects are political opposition and media access. Our argument, which we introduce here but develop more fully in chapter 2, is that these forces work in conjunction with one another and that their effects are thus conditional—both are required for meaningful and consistent democratic constraint.

Institutions and the Flow of Information: Political Opposition as Whistleblowers

The primary source of quality foreign policy information challenging the executive's policy frame is a strong and independent political opposition. Political systems that feature robust and diverse opposition have effective whistleblowers who can relay news of a leader's foreign policy miscues to the media.


Excerpted from War and Democratic Constraint by Matthew A. Baum, Philip B. K. Potter. Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Chapter 1 Introduction: Looking for Democratic Constraint 1

Why Democratic Institutions Matter 3

The Role of Political Information within Democracies 4

The Recipe for Democratic Constraint 7

Effects on What? 9

Moving Forward 11

Chapter 2 Democracies Are Not Created Equal: A Theory of Democratic Constraint 14

Information, Accountability, and Principal-Agent Problems 15

An Uninformed, Inattentive Electorate 19

Political Opposition as Whistleblowers 21

Media Institutions and the Transmission of Information 28

Hearing the Whistleblowers—The Importance of the Press 32

Bringing Together Information Generation and Transmission 37

Foreign Policy Responsiveness and International Conflict Behavior 41

Initiation and the Democratic Peace 43

Reciprocation and Audience Costs 47

Coalition Formation 49

Conclusion and Next Steps 52

Chapter 3 Democratic Constraint, the Democratic Peace, and Conflict Initiation 53

Period and Structure of Analysis 56

Measuring Conflict Initiation 58

Measuring the Extent of Opposition with Political Parties 59

Measuring Media Access 60

Measuring Press Freedom 61

Additional Controls 64

Results 67

Democratic Constraint among Democracies 71

Alternative Measures of Conflict 73

The Independent Effects of Opposition and Access 74

Conclusion 75

Appendix 1: Statistical Tables and Robustness Tests 77

Appendix 2: The Role of the Internet 81

Chapter 4 Looking for Audience Costs in All the Wrong Places: Constraint and Reciprocation 86

Research Design 88

Results 90

Unpacking Militarized Disputes 92

Compellent Threats 94

The Problem of Perception 96

Conclusion 98

Appendix: Statistical Tables and Robustness Tests 99

Chapter 5 Willing and Politically Able: Democratic Constraint and Coalition Joining 103

Iraq (2003): Operation Iraqi Freedom 104

Afghanistan (2001): Operation Enduring Freedom 121

Conclusion 129

Appendix: Statistical Tables and Robustness Tests 130

Chapter 6 Downs Meets the Press: How Party Systems Shape the News 151

Mapping News Content onto the Downsian Premise 153

Cases and Data 156

Results 159

2004 and 2009 European Election Studies (EES) 161

Conclusion 163

Appendix: Statistical Tables, Robustness Tests, and Content Analysis Codebook 164

Chapter 7 Coalition Stories: Cases from the Iraq Coalition 193

Case Selection 194

The United Kingdom 198

Spain 205

Poland 210

Germany 213

Conclusion 220

Chapter 8 Conclusion: Information, Constraint, and Democratic Foreign Policy 222

Policy Implications 223

Recipe for a Watchdog Press: Some Prescriptions for Media Ownership 226

Technological Change, the Internet, and Satellite Television 229

Moving Forward 232

References 237

Index 251

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