Why do some leaders and segments of the public display remarkable persistence in confrontations in international politics, while others cut and run? The answer given by policymakers, pundits, and political scientists usually relates to issues of resolve. Yet, though we rely on resolve to explain almost every phenomenon in international politics—from prevailing at the bargaining table to winning on the battlefield—we don’t understand what it is, how it works, or where it comes from. Resolve in International Politics draws on a growing body of research in psychology and behavioral economics to explore the foundations of this crucial idea.
I argue that political will is more than just a metaphor or figure of speech: the same traits social scientists and decision-making scholars use to comprehend willpower in our daily lives also shape how we respond to the costs of war and conflict. Combining laboratory and survey experiments with studies of great power military interventions in the postwar era from 1946 to 2003, I show how time and risk preferences, honor orientation, and self-control help explain the ways leaders and members of the public define the situations they face and weigh the trade-offs between the costs of fighting and the costs of backing down.
Offering a novel in-depth look at how willpower functions in international relations, Resolve in International Politics has critical implications for political psychology, public opinion about foreign policy, leaders in military interventions, and international security.
Canonical models of costly signaling in international relations (IR) tend to assume costly signals speak for themselves: the costliness of a signal is typically understood to be a function of the signal, not the perceptions of the recipient. Integrating the study of signaling in IR with research on motivated skepticism and asymmetric updating from political psychology, we show that individuals' tendencies to embrace information consistent with their overarching belief systems (and dismiss information inconsistent with it) has important implications for how signals are interpreted. We test our theory in the context of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran, combining two survey experiments fielded on members of the American mass public. We find patterns consistent with motivated skepticism: the individuals most likely to update their beliefs are the ones who need reassurance the least, such that costly signals cause polarization rather than convergence. Successful signaling therefore requires knowing something about the orientations of the signal's recipient.
Despite a plethora of theoretical frameworks, IR scholars have struggled with the question of how observers assess resolve. We make two important contributions in this direction. Conceptually, we develop an integrative framework that unites otherwise disconnected theories, viewing them as a set of heuristics actors use to simplify information-rich environments. Methodologically, we employ a conjoint experiment that provides empirical traction impossible to obtain using alternative research designs. We find that ordinary citizens are ‘intuitive deterrence theorists’ who focus to a great extent on capabilities, stakes, signals and past actions in judging resolve. We also find that observers see democracies as less resolved than autocracies (not more), casting doubt on key propositions of democratic credibility theory. Finally, a conceptual replication shows that a group of elite decision makers converge with the US public in how they interpret costly signals, and in viewing democracies as less resolved than autocracies.
Do costly signals work? Despite their widespread popularity, both hands-tying and sunk-cost signaling have come under criticism, and there's little direct evidence that leaders understand costly signals the way our models tell us they should. We present evidence from a survey experiment fielded on a unique sample of elite decision-makers from the Israeli Knesset. We find that both types of costly signaling are effective in shaping assessments of resolve, for both leaders and the public. However, although theories of signaling tend to assume homogenous audiences, we show that leaders vary significantly in how credible they perceive signals to be, depending on their foreign policy dispositions, rather than their levels of military or political experience. Our results thus encourage IR scholars to more fully bring heterogeneous recipients into our theories of signaling, and point to the important role of dispositional orientations for the study of leaders.
Politicians frequently turn to reputational arguments to bolster support for their proposed foreign policies. Yet despite the prevailing belief that domestic audiences care about reputation, there is very little direct evidence that publics care about reputation costs, and very little understanding of how. We propose a dispositional theory of reputation costs, in which citizens facing ill-defined strategic situations turn to their core predispositions about foreign affairs in order to weigh competing reputational dimensions. Employing a diverse array of methodological tools — from vignette-based survey experiments to automated text analysis — we show that the mass public has a "taste" for reputation, but understands it in fundamentally different ways, with hawks concerned about the negative reputational consequences of inconsistency, and doves equally concerned with the negative reputational consequences of belligerence and interventionism. In illustrating how reputation costs are in our heads, our findings offer both good and bad news for theories of reputation in IR.
Political psychology in international relations has undergone a dramatic transformation in the past two decades, mirroring the broader changes occurring in IR itself. This review essay examines the current state of the field. We begin by offering a data-driven snapshot, analyzing four years of manuscript classifications at a major IR journal to characterize the questions that IR scholars engaged in psychological research are and aren’t investigating. We then emphasize six developments in particular, both present-day growth areas (an increased interest in emotions and hot cognition, the rise of more psychologically-informed work on public opinion, a nascent research tradition we call the "first image reversed", and the rise of neurobiological and evolutionary approaches) and calls for additional scholarship (better integration of the study of mass and elite political behavior, and more psychological work in IPE). Together, they constitute some of the directions in which we see the next generation of scholarship as heading.
Every time a major violent act takes place in the US, a public debate erupts as to whether it should be considered terrorism. Political scientists have offered a variety of conceptual frameworks, but have neglected to explore how ordinary citizens understand terrorism, despite the central role the public plays in our understanding of the relationship between terrorism and government action in the wake of violence. We synthesize components of both scholarly definitions and public debates to formulate predictions for how various attributes of incidents affect the likelihood they are perceived as terrorism. Using a conjoint experimental design, we show the importance of the extremity and severity of violence, but also the attributed motivation for the incident, and social categorization of the actor. The findings demonstrate how the language used to describe violent incidents, for which the media has considerable latitude, affects the likelihood the public classifies incidents as terrorism.
If public opinion about foreign policy is such an elite-driven process, why does the public often disagree with what elites have to say? We argue here that elite-cuetaking models in IR are both overly pessimistic and unnecessarily restrictive. The public may lack information about the world around them, but it does not lack principles, and information need not only cascade from the top down. We present the results from five survey experiments where we show that cues from social peers are at least as strong as those from political elites. Our theory and results build on a growing number of findings that individuals are embedded in a social context that combines with their general orientations towards foreign policy in shaping responses towards the world around them. Thus, we suggest the public is perhaps better equipped for espousing judgments in foreign affairs than many of our top-down models claim.
Why do some actors in international politics display remarkable persistence in wartime, while others "cut and run" at the first sign of trouble? I offer a behavioral theory of resolve, suggesting that variation in time and risk preferences can help explain why some actors display more resolve than others. I test the theory experimentally in the context of public opinion about military interventions. The results not only help explain why certain types of costs of war loom larger for certain types of actors, but also shed light onto some of the contributions of the behavioral revolution more broadly.
Psychology is traditionally used in political science to explain deviations from rationality. Lost in the debate between rationalists and their critics, however, is a sense of whether the kinds of strategic self-interested behavior predicted by these models has psychological microfoundations: what would homo economicus look like in the real world? We argue that strategic rationality has distinct psychological microfoundations characterized by a proself social value orientation and a high level of epistemic motivation, and varies by individuals. Testing our argument in the context of international relations, we employ a laboratory bargaining game and integrate it with in-depth research on German foreign policy-making in the 1920s. We find in both contexts that even among those only interested in maximizing their own egoistic gains, those with greater epistemic motivation are better able to adapt to the strategic situation, most importantly the distribution of power. Our results build a bridge between two approaches often considered to be antithetical to one another.
Many of our theories of international politics rely on microfoundations. In this short note, I suggest that although there has been increasing interest in microfoundations in IR over the past twenty years, the frequency with which the concept is invoked belies a surprising lack of specificity about what microfoundations are, or explicit arguments about why we should study them. I then offer an argument about the value of micro-level approaches to the study of conflict. My claim is not that all theories of IR need to be developed or tested at the micro-level in order to be satisfying, but rather, that many of our theories in IR already rest on lower-level mechanisms — they either leave these assumptions unarticulated, or fail to test them directly. In these circumstances, theorizing and testing micro-level dynamics will be especially helpful. I illustrate my argument using the case of resolve, one of the central explanatory variables in the study of international security. I argue that the absence of microfoundations for resolve is one reason why IR scholars have had difficulties testing whether resolve has the effects we often claim, and sketch out a two-stage research design political scientists can use to study unobservable phenomena.
Previous research has shown that on issues of foreign policy, individuals have “general stances,” “postures,” “dispositions” or “orientations” that inform their beliefs toward more discrete issues in international relations. While these approaches delineate the proximate sources of public opinion in the foreign policy domain, they evade an even more important question: what gives rise to these foreign policy orientations in the first place? Combining an original survey on a nationally representative sample of Americans with Schwartz’s theory of values from political psychology, we show that people take foreign policy personally: the same basic values we know people use to guide choices in their daily lives also travel to the domain of foreign affairs, offering one potential explanation why people who are otherwise uninformed about world politics nonetheless express coherent foreign policy beliefs.
According to a growing tradition in International Relations, one way governments can credibly signal their intentions in foreign policy crises is by creating domestic audience costs: leaders can tie their hands by publicly threatening to use force, since domestic publics punish leaders who say one thing and do another. We argue here that there are actually two logics of audience costs: audiences can punish leaders both for being inconsistent (the traditional audience cost), and for threatening to use force in the first place (a belligerence cost). We employ an experiment that disentangles these two rationales, and turn to a series of dispositional characteristics from political psychology to bring the audience back into audience cost theory. Our results suggest that traditional audience cost experiments may overestimate how much people care about inconsistency, and that the logic of audience costs (and the implications for crisis bargaining) varies considerably with the leader’s constituency.
Behavioral economics has shown that many people often divert from classical assumptions about self-interested behavior: they have social preferences, concerned about issues of fairness and reciprocity. Social psychologists show that these preferences vary across actors, with some displaying more prosocial value orientations than others. Integrating a laboratory bargaining experiment with original archival research on Anglo-French and Franco-German diplomacy in the interwar period, we show how fairness and reciprocity matter in social interactions. Prosocials do not exploit their bargaining leverage to the degree that proselfs do, helping explain why some pairs of actors are better able to avoid bargaining failure than others. In the face of consistent egoism on the part of negotiating partners, however, prosocials engage in negative reciprocity, leading them to adopt the same behaviors as proselfs.
Although classical international relations theorists largely agreed that public opinion about foreign policy is shaped by moral sentiments, public opinion scholars have yet to explore the content of these moral values, and American IR theorists have tended to exclusively associate morality with liberal idealism. Integrating the study of American foreign policy attitudes with Moral Foundations theory from social psychology, we present original survey data showing that the five established moral values in psychology - harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, authority/respect, ingroup/loyalty, and purity/sanctity - are strongly and systematically associated with foreign policy attitudes. The "individualizing" foundations of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity are particularly important drivers of cooperative internationalism, and the "binding" foundations of authority/respect, ingroup/loyalty, and purity/sanctity of militant internationalism. Hawks and hardliners have morals too, just a different set of moral values than the Enlightenment ones emphasized by liberal idealists.
Political scientists have long been interested in the American public's foreign policy mood, but have typically separated the micro-level question (who's more likely to support isolationism?) from the macro-level one (when does isolationism's popularity increase?), even though public opinion is inherently a multilevel phenomenon, as the answers to these two questions interact. Showing how multilevel models can deal with the effects of time rather than just space, I find that both guns and butter drive foreign policy mood, but in different ways. When economic assessments sour, the public's appetite for isolationism increases, but the impact of these individual-level perceptions is constrained by aggregate economic conditions, which are sufficiently salient that they are accessible irrespective of knowledge. The nature of the international security environment, however, predominantly affects foreign policy mood amongst high-knowledge individuals, thereby suggesting that low and high-knowledge individuals' foreign policy views are shaped by different situational cues.
IR scholars have long debated whether the American public is allergic to realism, which raises the question of how they would "contract" it in the first place. We argue that realism isn't just an IR paradigm, but a belief system, whose relationship with other ideological systems in public opinion has rarely been fully examined. Operationalizing this disposition in ordinary citizens as "folk realism," we investigate its relationship with a variety of personality traits, foreign policy orientations, and political knowledge. We then present the results of a laboratory experiment probing psychological microfoundations for realist theory, manipulating the amount of information subjects have about a foreign policy conflict to determine whether uncertainty leads individuals to adopt more realist views, and whether realists and idealists respond to uncertainty and fear differently. We find that many of realism's causal mechanisms are conditional on whether subjects already hold realist views, and suggest that emotions like fear may play a larger role in realist theory than many realists have assumed.
One of the central challenges in China-US relations is the risk of a security dilemma between China and the United States, as each side carries out actions for defensively-motivated reasons, failing to realize how it is perceived by the other side. Yet how susceptible to security dilemma thinking are the Chinese and American publics? Can its deleterious effects be mitigated? We explore the individual-level microfoundations of security dilemma thinking, fielding a unique dyadic cross-national survey experiment in China and the United States. We find micro-level evidence consistent with the security dilemma, and show it is especially pronounced among Chinese respondents. We also find that IR scholars have overstated the palliative effects of empathy: perspective-taking significantly affects respondents’ policy preferences, but can often lead to escalation rather than cooperation. Our findings have important implications for the study of public opinion in China-US relations, and perspective-taking in IR.
If an older conventional wisdom in scholarly and policy-making circles held that reputation was “one of the few things worth fighting for,” a more recent argument holds that past actions are relatively costless. Using archival evidence, reputation critics have argued that a country’s credibility is rarely at stake, as foreign observers discount an actor’s actions in the past when calculating her credibility in the present. We introduce a new type of evidence into this debate, presenting the results from original surveys fielded on four samples (from foreign decision-makers, foreign publics, and American IR scholars) to study the reputation costs incurred by various actors as a result of the Russian invasion of Crimea and the ongoing Syrian civil war. Our results suggest that American IR scholars may be underestimating the magnitude of reputation costs the US has incurred by backing down on threats.
Do distinctive “partisan types” exist in the public’s eyes in foreign policy? A growing number of analyses presumes that Democrats and Republicans in Washington are, in fact, seen as systematically differing across an array of foreign policy issues, with major implications for questions ranging from the future of liberal internationalism, to the ability of leaders to send credible signals by going against their party’s type. Yet there is a surprising absence of work that has investigated the microfoundations of partisan types, and how we know them when we see them. Building on the stereotype literature in social psychology, we explore the scope conditions of partisan types using a national survey experiment, which finds that partisan types are greatly attenuated at the water’s edge. Our findings have important implications for a number of literatures, most notably those that examine “against type” models and the role of (bi)partisanship in foreign policy.
How do concerns about fairness shape foreign policy preferences? In this article, we show that fairness has two faces — one concerning equity, the other concerning equality — and that taking both into account can shed light on the structure of important foreign policy debates. Fielding an original survey on a national sample of Americans in 2014, we show that different types of Americans think about fairness in different ways, and that these fairness concerns correlate with foreign policy preferences: individuals who emphasize equity are far more sensitive to concerns about burden sharing, are far less likely to support US involvement abroad when other countries aren't paying their fair share, and often support systematically different foreign policies than individuals who emphasize equality. As long as IR scholars focus only on the equality dimension of fairness, we miss much about how fairness concerns matter in world politics.
Many of our theories of IR argue that leaders and publics alike use regime type to draw inferences about actors' behavior in crises and war, with important implications not just for how other actors treat democracies, but also how democracies themselves behave. Yet although these beliefs about regime type are important, they are also difficult to study directly. In this research note, we put democratic leaders' beliefs directly under the microscope, fielding a survey experiment on a unique elite sample of members of the Israeli Knesset. We find that Israeli leaders perceive democracies as no more likely to stand firm in a crisis but more likely to emerge victorious in wars. We replicate our findings in six national samples in four democracies (Israel, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States), suggesting that similar beliefs about democracies in crises and war hold across a range of democracies.
When is the public more likely to defer to elites on foreign policy? Existing research suggests the public takes its cues from co-partisans, but what happens when co-partisans disagree? Bridging the gap between theories of public opinion, bureaucratic politics, and civil-military relations, we argue that the public prioritizes information from advisers who signal expertise through prior experience. However, differing social standing of government institutions means the public values some types of prior experience more than others. Using a conjoint experiment, we show that the American public heavily defers to military credentials when adjudicating between conflicting information from cabinet advisers, even on non-military issues; we replicate our findings in a second conjoint experiment showing that the same dynamics hold when considering possible candidates for cabinet positions. The results have important implications for the study of public opinion, bureaucratic politics, and civil-military relations.
There are many debates in Washington about anti-Americanism: where it comes from, what implications it has for US foreign policy, and whether it can be eradicated by careful public diplomacy. Yet before we search for a cure for the disease or ascertain how severe its symptoms are, we need to be able to diagnose it in the first place. One reason why anti-Americanism attracts so much attention is that it is often understood as a form of prejudice rather than mere disagreement with American policies. If this is the case, however, we need to be able to differentiate unpopularity from the prejudice believed to be causing it. To do so, we present three novel experiments embedded in a national survey in France in 2009-10, studying anti-Americanism like how political scientists study other forms of prejudice. Our findings counter conventional wisdom in two ways. First, we find relatively little evidence of anti-Americanism in France. Second, a key predictor of anti-Americanism in France is nationalism, but not in the direction some IR scholars might expect: the more attached the French are to their country, the more of a break they give the United States compared to other great powers who behave similarly. The results thus suggest that nationalism and the fostering of a common ingroup are not contradictory forces.
Whether leaders taking the perspective of rivals or allies, student subjects taking the perspective of leaders in lab studies, or citizens taking their own perspective in hypothetical scenarios, most modern IR scholarship draws implicitly on perspective-taking. If our ability to engage in this sort of mental simulation was foolproof, we would have nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, several decades of psychological research suggests that individuals vary tremendously in their ability to do so, and that even when they can manage it, the effects are often negative. Ignoring this critical factor only detracts from our ability to generate and refine theories in IR or test our empirical predictions. We provide a conceptual framework for understanding perspective-taking in IR, focusing on the nature of the “target” (first or third-person) and individuals' inability to adjust from their initial anchor: their own beliefs. Across three experimental studies, we find evidence that perspective-taking exacerbates pre-existing attitudes towards the use of force, making hawks more hawkish and doves more dovish. Perspective-taking thus makes people more like themselves, which raises the prospect that participants are less like themselves in studies that do not take perspective-taking into account.
For the past fifty years, public opinion scholars have searched for signs of “constraint” in the American public’s foreign policy attitudes. We review these attempts here, suggesting that the ensuing work has ultimately fallen into two research traditions that have largely been conducted in isolation of one another: horizontal models that portray attitudes as being sorted along multiple dimensions on the same plane, and vertical models that imply a hierarchical organization in which abstract values determine specific policy positions. We then offer a new — networked — paradigm for political attitudes in foreign affairs, leveraging tools from network analysis to show that both camps make unrealistically strict assumptions about the directionality and uniformity of attitude structure. We show that specific policy attitudes play more central roles than our existing theories give them credit for, and the topology of attitude networks varies substantially with individual characteristics like political sophistication.
This chapter borrows from psychological research on images, stereotypes, and dehumanization to explore the images that South Koreans have of North Koreans, and test how these perceptions relate to attitudes about unification. It finds that South Koreans perceive their Northern counterparts as being not particularly warm, but also not especially cold, and significantly less competent. It also finds evidence of South Korean dehumanization of North Koreans, specifically with respect to what the dehumanization literature refers to as “human nature” traits, rather than “human uniqueness” traits. South Koreans don't dehumanize North Koreans by viewing them animalistically, but by viewing them mechanistically instead — as subhuman rather than nonhuman. These patterns are also driven by stark generational differences, with younger South Koreans displaying more negative perceptions about North Koreans than older generations. Finally, it explores the political consequences of these perceptions, showing that variation in perceived warmth and human nature dehumanization is significantly associated both with attitudes towards reunification, operationalized both in terms of general support for reunification, and as willingness to personally sacrifice for unification, thereby demonstrating the importance of studying perceptions of outgroups in the context of inter-Korean relations.
How does the public think about foreign affairs, and how do these public preferences shape foreign policymaking? Over the past several decades, scholarship on public opinion and foreign policy has proliferated, partially due to a growing interest in the “first image” and the ways in which individuals matter in international relations, partially due to an experimental revolution that gave political scientists new methods they could use to study public opinion, and partially due to a range of searing debates—on topics ranging from the Iraq War to globalization—whose fault lines political scientists attempted to map. This review offers a curated sampling of the field, focusing, in particular, on six sets of substantive questions, drawing on a mix of classic and contemporary scholarship. It begins by reviewing what we know about how foreign policy attitudes are structured, before focusing on public opinion about two different areas of foreign policy: the use of force, and foreign economic issues such as trade and investment. It then turns to the effects of sex and gender, along with the role of cue givers in shaping foreign policy preferences — whether partisan elites, international organizations, or social peers. It concludes by reviewing the relationship between public opinion and foreign policy, whether in democracies (as in theories of democratic constraint and accountability), transnational public opinion (as in theories of soft power and anti-Americanism), or in nondemocratic regimes, a relatively new area of research.
The election and inauguration of Donald Trump, and uncertainty about the direction of foreign policy under the Trump administration, has led to renewed focus on the future of extended deterrence among U.S. allies. These issues are particularly sensitive in Asia, where American allies face a rising and increasingly muscular China. However, US capabilities and deployments are unlikely to change dramatically. Changes that do occur more rapidly are more likely to be in the perceptions of elites in the capitals of U.S. allies, suggesting that the psychology of how extended deterrence operates may be as important to understand as how military capabilities and commitments contribute to credible extended deterrence. In this chapter, we borrow a range of insights from political psychology to hypothesize how the dynamics of the American-led alliance system may change with the Trump presidency, even in the absence of observable changes to the military balance or U.S. treaty commitments. We argue that many of these factors will work to significantly undermine the durability of alliances, and policymakers in Washington seeking to maintain U.S. alliances may not be able to rely on unchanging U.S. troop deployments or treaty commitments to sustain the credibility of U.S. alliances.
One reason why the national discussion on Afghanistan has become so muddled is widespread misunderstanding about the nature of counter-insurgency campaigns. Viewing the Canadian engagement in Afghanistan through the prism of counter- insurgency doctrine not only contextualizes continuity and changes that have taken place in Canadian strategy since the mid-1990s, but points to some of the missteps that have dogged coalition forces over the past seven years: a lack of resources, a lack of presence, a lack of follow-through and a lack of local state capacity.
La méconnaissance — largement répandue — de la nature des missions contre- insurrectionnelles est l'une des raisons qui expliquent que le débat sur l'Afghanistan soit si confus au Canada. Analyser l'engagement du Canada en Afghanistan à la lumière de la doctrine de contre-insurrection nous permet non seulement de mettre en perspective tant la continuité que les changements de la stratégie adoptée par le Canada depuis le milieu des années 1990, mais aussi de cerner certaines faiblesses qui ont marqué l'action des forces de la coalition depuis sept ans : le manque de ressources, le manque de suivi et la faible capacité de l’État afghan.
I am the Paul Sack Associate Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Government at Harvard University, where I specialize in the intersection of international security, foreign policy, political psychology, and quantitative and experimental methods.
My book, Resolve in International Politics, was published in 2016 by Princeton University Press, and received the 2017 Alexander L George Award from the International Society of Political Psychology for the best book published in the field of political psychology. My research has also appeared in a number of journals, including the American Journal of Political Science, Annual Review of Political Science, British Journal of Political Science, Conflict Management and Peace Science, International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, the Journal of Conflict Resolution, the Journal of Politics, and World Politics.
It has also received a variety of other awards, including the CGS/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award from the Council of Graduate Schools for the best dissertation in the social sciences, the American Political Science Association's Helen Dwight Reid (now Merze Tate) Award for the best dissertation in international relations, law and politics, the Kenneth N. Waltz award for the best dissertation in the field of international security and arms control, and the Peace Science Society's Walter Isard Award for the best dissertation in peace science. It has also been featured on The Colbert Report, Chelsea Lately, and Real Time with Bill Maher — briefly making (some of) my students think I'm cooler than I actually am.
I graduated with a PhD in Political Science from The Ohio State University in August 2013. Before coming to Harvard, I was a Dartmouth Fellow in US Foreign Policy and International Security at the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. In 2016-17, I was a Visiting Associate Research Scholar at the Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance at Princeton University.