International Law, (Non)Compliance, and Domestic Audience Costs

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Principal investigator:

Geoffrey Wallace

University of Washington



Sample size: 2007

Field period: 03/20/2017-09/05/2017

Are leaders punished domestically when they do not live up to their international commitments? Correspondingly, are leaders rewarded by domestic audiences when following through on similar promises? A large literature has developed around the conjecture of audience costs – that leaders are sanctioned by domestic groups when they fail to follow through on external commitments. A common corollary is that the promises made by leaders are, in turn, more credible due to these likely domestic costs should a leader subsequently change course. Empirical studies of audience costs have largely focused on the role of external threats during foreign policy crises, but have been extended to a variety of other issue areas on international security and political economy. Likewise, much research has focused on the costs of backing down from a prior commitment relative to having made no promise at all, rather than also considering whether there are benefits of following through on commitments. This study seeks to evaluate an additional implication of audience costs theory – whether the prospects for domestic punishment, or rewards, are greater depending on the degree to which a commitment is embedded in international law.

Drawing on the existing literature on audience costs, as well as previous work on international law, generates the following hypotheses:
1) The public should exhibit greater disapproval (approval) for a leader who violates (complies with) a prior commitment than if they had made no initial promise.

2) The level of public disapproval (approval) for a leader who violates (complies with) a prior commitment should be greater as the level of legal obligation in the commitment increases.

3) The relative size of the effect on public opinion should be greater for violating a commitment than following through on a commitment, when compared to making no initial promise.

Experimental Manipulations
All respondents were presented with a hypothetical scenario where a foreign country invaded a neighboring country. Respondents were then randomly assigned to additional information based on how the U.S. president responded to the crisis according to the following two treatments.
Level of Obligation by the U.S. President:
• No Commitment [control]: Statement that the U.S. would stay out of the conflict.
• Verbal [treatment #1]: Verbal threat that if the attack continued the U.S. military would push out the invaders.
• Soft law [treatment #2]: Participation in an international meeting agreeing to guidelines recommending that if the attack continued the U.S. military would push out the invaders.
• Formal treaty [treatment #3]: Joined an international treaty promising that if the attack continued the U.S. military would push out the invaders.
Use of Force:
• No [control]: U.S. president subsequent did not send U.S. military forces.
• Yes [treatment]: U.S. president subsequent sent U.S. military forces.
The design involves a 4 x 2 factorial design with a total of 8 experimental groups when both treatments are fully crossed.

There were two main outcome variables of interest.

1) Approval: Approval of how the president handled the situation: 1 = Strongly approve; 2 = Somewhat approve; 3 = Neither approve nor disapprove; 4 = Somewhat disapprove; 5 = Strongly disapprove

2) Credibility: Feeling that other countries would believe promises made by the U.S. president in the future: 1 = Extremely likely; 2 = Somewhat likely; 3 = Somewhat unlikely; 4 = Extremely unlikely.

Summary of Results
The findings are generally consistent with a key expectation of audience costs theory that leaders are punished more by the public for inconsistencies between their promises and subsequent actions (H1). Leaders who back down from a prior promise to use force are punished with lower approval ratings compared to a leader who said they would stay out from the beginning. In a corresponding manner, leaders are rewarded for following through on a commitment to use force, compared to initially saying they would stay out of the conflict but then eventually used military force. In line with H3, the size of the punishment for backing down from a commitment is also relatively larger than the reward for following through on a prior commitment, though the difference between the two treatment effects is of modest statistical significance. Similarly, the evidence provides only modest support for H2 – that the costs/benefits increase as a commitment becomes more legalized. Backing down from a soft law or formal treaty commitment does lead to greater domestic punishment compared to a simple verbal promise, though the differences do not attain standard thresholds of statistical significance. A similar modest difference is evident in the case of following through on a formal treaty compared to a verbal promise, while soft law actually exhibits slightly less of a benefit, though again the differences in treatment effects are not statistically significant. The findings thus have a number of implications for understanding the limits and conditions under which international law is expected to have consequences for domestic politics and leaders' levels of approval.