Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 07/2014

The Cost of Empty Threats: A Penny Not A Pound

Jack Snyder, Erica Borghard

December 2009

Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies


A large literature in political science takes for granted that democratic leaders would pay substantial domestic political costs for failing to carry out the public threats they make in international crises, and consequently that making threats substantially enhances their leverage in crisis bargaining. And yet proponents of this audience costs theory have presented very little evidence that this causal mechanism actually operates in real—as opposed to simulated—crises. We look for such evidence in post-1945 crises and find hardly any. Audience cost mechanisms are rare because (1) leaders see unambiguous committing threats as imprudent, (2) domestic audiences care more about policy substance than about consistency between the leader’s words and deeds, (3) domestic audiences care about their country’s reputation for resolve and national honor independently of whether the leader has issued an explicit threat, and (4) authoritarian targets of democratic threats do not perceive audience costs dynamics in the same way that audience costs theorists do. We found domestic audience costs only as secondary mechanisms in a few cases where the public already had hawkish preferences before any threats were made.