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Public Commitment in Crisis Bargaining



The “audience cost” literature argues that highly-resolved leaders can use public threats to credibly signal their resolve in incomplete-information crisis bargaining, thereby overcoming informational asymmetries that lead to war. If democracies are better able to generate audience costs, then audience costs help explain the democratic peace. We use a game-theoretic model to show how public commitments can be used coercively as a source of bargaining leverage, even in a complete-information setting in which they have no signaling role. When both sides use public commitments for bargaining leverage, war becomes an equilibrium outcome. The results provide a rationale for secret negotiations as well as hypotheses about when leaders will claim that the disputed good is indivisible, recognized as a rationalist explanation for war. Claims of indivisibility may just be bargaining tactics to get the other side to make big concessions, and compromise is still possible in equilibrium.