War, Public Preferences, and Survey Experiments

In “A Preference for War,” Matthew Gottfried and Robert Trager use a survey experiment that assesses public willingness to use force to challenge some commonly used assumptions about state preferences in international crises. They show that respondents wish to reward apparent fairness in reaching bargains with opposing states, yet they also indicate a willingness to reward their own leaders’ bellicosity in response to aggressive rhetoric from those same opposing states. To the extent that public preferences dictate leader preferences in crises, these patterns could challenge the usefulness to common premises that “more is always better”, that risk preferences are constant over possible shares of disputed goods, and that the rhetoric used by other states has little impact on support for war.

In this symposium, Roseanne McManus and Philip Arena offer some brief assessments on the implications of these findings for the literature on international crises, domestic politics, and war. McManus focuses mainly on the findings over foreign rhetoric, speculating on how to square these experimental results with her own observational work that belligerent rhetoric can effectively signal a willingness to fight (and thus secure a peaceful resolution of disputes). Arena’s discussion confronts the authors’ proposed fairness heuristic, noting that some key results are still consistent with predictions made by models in which “more is better,” and suggesting possible ways to develop still-more informative experiments.

In their response, Gottfried and Trager close with a productive discussion of the two contributions, pushing back against come criticisms and highlighting new areas for further research---especially as, following the pattern here in which experimental meets formal-theoretic meets observational work in the future.

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