A Boom with Review: How Retrospective Oversight Increases the Foreign Policy Ability of Democracies


  • Michael Colaresi is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Michigan State University, 303 South Kedzie Hall, East Lansing, MI 48824 (colaresi@msu.edu). The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewers, the AJPS editorial staff, as well as Hein Goemans, Brett Ashley Leeds, Benjamin Fordham, David Clarke, Erik Gartzke, Steve Kautz, David Leblang, Burt Monroe, Patrick Regan, Cristina Bodea, Eric Chang, Nathan Monroe, Kevin Quinn, Scott Gates, Sabine Carey, and Charm Lastlie for helpful comments and criticisms that significantly improved the article. Thanks are also due to the seminar participants at SUNY-Binghamton for their time and advice, as well as the Vice President’s Office for Research and the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University for financial support of the data coding efforts. The remaining errors are solely attributable to the inabilities of the author. The replication data for this article are available at http://dvn.iq.harvard.edu/dvn/dv/Colaresi.


In the ongoing debate concerning whether democracies can carry out effective national security policy, the role of transparency costs has received little attention. I argue for a more nuanced understanding of how some democracies that possess specific investigative institutions, such as national security–relevant freedom of information laws, legislative oversight powers, and press freedoms, are able to avoid the problems of which democracy skeptics warn. Using a new dataset on national security accountability institutions in democracies within a Bradley-Terry framework, I find that national security oversight mechanisms raise the probability that a democracy wins international disputes as well as increasing the expected number of enemy casualties, as compared to democracies that lack effective oversight. Contra previous theories of foreign policy efficacy, I find that the chances for democratic foreign policy success are maximized when competitive elections are linked to institutions that increase the retrospective revelation of previously classified information.