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Vetoing the Peace: The Agency Dilemma in Crisis Decision-Making

Brandon Merrell

How do domestic constraints influence government behavior during military crises? Existing research suggests that constrained leaders should eschew risky conflict out of concern that constituents will impose penalties if the country incurs heavy losses. In contrast, I argue that leaders also face domestic backlash when they refrain from engaging in popularly-supported military action. When citizens are optimistic about the use of force, domestic accountability mechanisms 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 evidence from several historical crises. Collectively, the results challenge the prevailing view that democratic leaders use military force only when they expect to win. Instead, domestic constraints can systematically compel accountable officials to fight riskier, costlier, and more lopsided wars than their unconstrained peers.

Paper presented at the 2018 ISA Annual Meeting and 2019 SPSA Annual Meeting. Copy available upon request.