Does world opinion matter?

Just posted my APSA paper to my website that addresses just this question (presenting it Friday 8am, for better or worse). Decisionmakers—even scholars—invoke the notion of global public opinion pretty often, but it’s not entirely clear (a) what they mean by it and (b) that we have very good tools to asses whether and how it “matters” (or doesn’t) for the decisions great powers like the US in international disputes. This is the question I tackle in the paper, and I argue that it comes down to the fact that great powers face competing incentives in crisis bargaining: convincing their opponents that they’re willing to fight but reassuring fearful observers that they’re generally restrained in the use of force.

It’s not an easy line to walk—the motivating case is actually the US’s hotly-debated decision not to escalate the Berlin Crisis of 1961-62 too far—but the model gives some fairly interesting answers to the question. On the one hand, if a state has world opinion on its side, then the diplomatic costs that will be imposed on its enemy will discourage it from escalating, and the probability of war drops as the diplomatic costs associated with the opposition of world opinion go up. On the other hand, the promise of winning that kind of support can lead a resolute state that would otherwise escalate in order to prove its willingness to fight (thereby avoiding war) to mask its resolve, appearing restrained in order to win the favor of public opinion—all because fighting a war with its support is worse than achieving peace but losing the support of world opinion.

So it’s a story about bargaining, restraint, balancing, and, perhaps above all else, trying to really get a handle on one way that world opinion might very well affect the decisions of even the most powerful states in the system. Of course, the news isn’t all good, if it means that a strong, robust body of world opinion that favors restraint can actually encourage war, but we’ll see how well it goes over in Seattle…

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2 thoughts on “Does world opinion matter?

  1. Pingback: Time for the APSA slides… « The Wolf Den

  2. Pingback: More on the “world opinion” paper « The Wolf Den

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