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The Credibility Paradox: Violence as a Double-Edged Sword in International Politics

Authors


  • The author would like to thank the psychologist Steven Pinker for his insightful comments and the philanthropist Jason Karp for funding the experiment.

Abstract

Implicit in the rationalist literature on bargaining over the last half-century is the political utility of violence. Given our anarchical international system populated with egoistic actors, violence is thought to promote concessions by lending credibility to their threats. From the vantage of bargaining theory, then, empirical research on terrorism poses a puzzle. For nonstate actors, terrorism signals a credible threat in comparison with less extreme tactical alternatives. In recent years, however, a spate of studies across disciplines and methodologies has nonetheless found that neither escalating to terrorism nor with terrorism encourages government concessions. In fact, perpetrating terrorist acts reportedly lowers the likelihood of government compliance, particularly as the civilian casualties rise. The apparent tendency for this extreme form of violence to impede concessions challenges the external validity of bargaining theory, as traditionally understood. In this study, I propose and test an important psychological refinement to the standard rationalist narrative. Via an experiment on a national sample of adults, I find evidence of a newfound cognitive heuristic undermining the coercive logic of escalation enshrined in bargaining theory. Due to this oversight, mainstream bargaining theory overestimates the political utility of violence, particularly as an instrument of coercion.

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