Constraint Respecters, Constraint Challengers, and Crisis Decision Making in Democracies: A Case Study Analysis of Kennedy versus Reagan



Models linking domestic political constraints (audience costs, pressures for the diversionary use of force, democratic norms and institutions) to foreign policy behavior generally assume that leaders simply recognize and submit to constraints in their domestic environments—a strong structural argument. In contrast, research on political leadership and decision making suggests that leaders vary systematically in their orientations toward constraints: “constraint respecters” tend to internalize potential constraints, while “constraint challengers” are more likely to view them as obstacles to be overcome. This article develops an integrative theoretical framework that explicitly incorporates these insights and applies them to the domain of crisis decision making. After identifying leaders’ expected orientations toward constraints via at-a-distance methods, the plausibility of hypotheses derived from this framework is examined through case studies that explore the decision-making processes employed by President Kennedy (a “constraint respecter”) and President Reagan (a “constraint challenger”) during international crises. The results suggest that there is important variation in how leaders perceive and respond to domestic constraints, and that leadership style is one—though not the only—important source of this variation.