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Untying Hands after Public Threats: Signaling Domestic Preferences in International Crisis

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Speaker: Dr. Cathy Xuanxuan Wu


Why do leaders make a threat more or less salient to a public in international crises? The literature on costly signaling in international crises debates on whether open threats allow democratic leaders to signal resolve, or the willingness to fight, by tying their hands. However, since complete secrecy is rare, a more useful question is why leaders make an existing threat more or less salient to a public. I develop a game-theoretic model to examine how a leader chooses the salience of an existing threat to signal the public's resolve to a foreign adversary. The model yields two important findings on the strategies of democratic leaders. First, when the public is dovish, a democratic leader makes an existing threat more salient, revealing that the public is unwilling to fight and thus leading to peace. Second, when the public is hawkish, a democratic leader sometimes also makes an existing threat more salient, mimicking the strategy of a leader with a dovish public; such strategy leads to war, as the adversary remains uncertain about the public's resolve. Regardless of the crisis outcomes, the democratic leader follows the public's policy preference. The result shows that raising the salience of an existing threat can lead to peace not by deterring an adversary, but by signaling a public's preference for peace. Depending on a public's preference, a salient threat can either tie or untie a democratic leader's hands.

About the Speaker

Dr. Cathy Xuanxuan Wu is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science & Geography and the Graduate Program in International Studies at Old Dominion University.  Dr. Wu received her Ph.D. in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin, her M.A. in Political Science from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and her B.A. in International Politics from Peking University. She studies the roles of domestic politics and leadership in diplomacy and international conflict, with a regional focus on East Asia. Her research has appeared in the Journal of Conflict Resolution.

Date: 2018-12-11, Tue
Time: 16:30
Venue: Room 966, The Jockey Club Tower, Centennial Campus, HKU
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Tea & coffee will be served. Please bring your own reusable bottle/cup.