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Fighting for the People: Leaders, Audiences, and the Use of Force

This paper relates to my broader book project, Wars for the People: Leaders, Audiences, and the Use of Force. Versions of the paper were presented at the 2018 ISA Annual Meeting, the 2019 SPSA Annual Meeting, and the 2019 MPSA Annual Meeting. A .pdf copy is available here.

Brandon Merrell

Why do leaders wage wars they cannot hope to win? I demonstrate that political leaders sometimes engage in military actions they believe are costly and counterproductive because they would face domestic backlash if they instead pursued a peaceful settlement. In short, leaders possess private information about the costliness and riskiness of war and confront a series of strategic difficulties and disincentives to sharing this information with citizens. As a result, citizens may remain naively optimistic about the desirability of using military force. In these circumstances, domestic institutions that hold leaders accountable to their constituents can encourage rather than deter leaders from behaving aggressively. I provide two forms of empirical support for the theory. First, I examine territorial transfers that occurred between 1816 and 2014 and show that elected leaders consistently fight—and ultimately lose—asymmetric wars that autocrats avoid. Second, I provide qualitative evidence from several historical crises. The results challenge the prevailing view that democratic institutions encourage leaders to exercise discretion. Instead, domestic constraints can systematically compel accountable officials to fight riskier, costlier, and more lopsided wars than their unconstrained peers.