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How do domestic constraints influence government behavior during military crises? Existing research suggests that democratic leaders eschew risky conflicts for fear that constituents will penalize them if the country incurs heavy losses. In contrast, I show that leaders also face domestic penalties when they refrain from engaging in popularly-supported military action. When citizens are hawkish, domestic accountability mechanisms that are designed to suppress military adventurism can backfire by encouraging democratic leaders to behave more aggressively than those who are unconstrained. I provide empirical support for the theory by analyzing international territorial exchanges from 1816 to 2014. When threatened by strong opponents, democracies are significantly less likely to concede territory peacefully than are autocracies. Instead, democratic leaders consistently fight—and ultimately lose—highly asymmetric wars that autocratic leaders are able to avoid. The results challenge the established view that democracies select only into conflicts that they expect to win. Instead, the evidence suggests either that democracies are significantly worse than other states at predicting the likely outcomes of war or, alternatively, that domestic constraints systematically compel democratic leaders to fight riskier, more lopsided wars than their autocratic peers. I provide further support for the mechanism by examining the decisions made by Chilean, Peruvian, and Bolivian leaders in the prelude to the War of the Pacific.
Paper presented at the 2018 ISA Annual Meeting. Copy available upon request.