Don't Tread on Me: Constraint-Challenging Presidents and Strategic Conflict Avoidance

By Keller, Jonathan W.; Foster, Dennis M. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2016 | Go to article overview

Don't Tread on Me: Constraint-Challenging Presidents and Strategic Conflict Avoidance


Keller, Jonathan W., Foster, Dennis M., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Despite a great deal of empirical investigation in the last 30 years, little systematic support has been produced for the diversionary hypothesis, or the notion that national leaders facing domestic discontent seek to generate popular rallies by using military force abroad (Ostrom and Job 1986). Scholars have advanced several potential explanations for this state of affairs: that armed diversion simply generates too many political risks and costs (e.g., Meernik 2000); that it fails to produce politically useful rallies with regularity (e.g., Lian and Oneal 1993); and that more direct ameliorative measures hold out greater hopes of success (Clark 2003). Two recent advances, however, suggest that the dearth of findings is as attributable to variability in interstate conditions and individual leadership attributes as to general diversionary ineffectiveness. First, the "strategic conflict avoidance" (SCA) perspective (Smith 1996; Leeds and Davis 1999; Fordham 2005; Foster 2006b; 2008) demonstrates that potential international targets increase cooperation toward and avoid initiating conflict against would-be antagonists when the latter's diversionary incentives are strong. Second, work based in leadership psychology shows that leadership traits that are associated with greater risk taking, conceptual simplicity, and aggressive responses to constraints are crucial intervening variables that increase the likelihood of diversionary behavior by particular leaders (Keller and Foster 2012; Foster and Keller 2013). These two promising lines of new research have important theoretical implications for each other, but have not yet been brought together.

The primary purpose of the current project, simply put, is to integrate the expectations of the SCA and "first-image" psychological approaches to the study of diversionary conflict. Because leadership traits are largely observable in political rhetoric and are likely to mold the perceptions people form of leaders, foreign leaderships should be able to develop expectations about the willingness of certain counterparts to challenge political obstacles and constraints and, by extension, the likelihood that they will utilize diversionary conflict strategies. In particular, following from Keller's (2005) framework, we hypothesize that American presidents whose spontaneous rhetoric indicates high task emphasis, a need for power, a distrust of others, and unabashed nationalistic proclivities should be more likely to engage in diversionary conflict, should be seen as more likely to do so by potential targets, and should thus be treated in a more conciliatory fashion when diversionary incentives are operative.

Time-series analysis of the American foreign policy experience for the period 1953-2000 largely bears out these expectations. The primary independent variable, which is an interaction of the economic misery index (unemployment plus inflation) and an "at-a-distance" scale measure of constraint challenging proclivity revealed in presidential rhetoric, is found to be negatively and significantly associated with the initiation of escalatory militarized incidents (as measured in the militarized interstate dispute [MID] data set) against the United States (1953-2000). Moreover, this interaction term is positively and significantly associated with increasingly cooperative diplomatic behavior by enduring interstate rivals (using the World Event/Interaction Survey [WEIS] events data) in the period 1966-1992. Marginal-effects analyses reveal that presidents whose aggregate previous rhetoric has revealed strong constraint-challenging tendencies are targeted for fewer militarized incidents and more rival cooperation as the misery index rises, while strong constraint respecters are on the receiving end of more conflictual diplomatic overtures by enduring rivals as the misery index rises.

The article proceeds as follows. First, the considerable literature on diversionary force usage is addressed, focusing particularly on the SCA and first-image perspectives' explanations for broadly inconsistent findings. …

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