American Political Science Review

Research Article

The Cost of Empty Threats: A Penny, Not a Pound


a1 Columbia University


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 unambiguously 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 independent 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 as secondary mechanisms in a few cases where the public already had hawkish preferences before any threats were made.


We thank Tanisha Fazal and Robert Shapiro for very useful discussions of conceptual and data issues at an early stage in our research, and Thomas Christensen, Sumit Ganguly, Robert Jervis, Andrew Nathan, Stéphanie Pézard, Tonya Putnam, Nicholas Sambanis, and participants in seminars at the Jackson Institute/MacMillan Center International Relations Workshop, Yale University; the Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies, Northwestern University; as well as the Project on International Affairs Seminar Series, University of California at San Diego.