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Autocratic Audience Costs: Regime Type and Signaling Resolve

by Jessica L. Weeks
International Organization ()

Abstract

Scholars of international relations usually argue that democracies are better able to signal their foreign policy intentions than nondemocracies, in part because democracies have an advantage in generating audience costs that make backing down in international crises costly to the leader. This article argues that the conventional hypothesis underestimates the extent to which nondemocratic leaders can be held accountable domestically, allowing them to generate audience costs. First, I identify three factors contributing to audience costs: whether domestic political groups can and will coordinate to punish the leader; whether the audience views backing down negatively; and whether outsiders can observe the possibility of domestic sanctions for backing down. The logic predicts that democracies should have no audience costs advantage over autocracies when elites can solve their coordination dilemma, and the possibility of coordination is observable to foreign decision makers. Empirical tests show that democracies do not in fact have a significant signaling advantage over most autocracies. This finding has important implications for understanding the relationship between regime type and international relations.

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