Polarisation, accountability, and interstate conflict

AuthorMax Gallop,Zachary Greene
Date01 February 2021
Publication Date01 February 2021
SubjectOriginal Articles
The British Journal of Politics and
International Relations
2021, Vol. 23(1) 121 –138
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1369148120944349
Polarisation, accountability,
and interstate conflict
Max Gallop and Zachary Greene
Voters constrain democratic leaders’ foreign policy decisions. Yet, studies show that elite
polarisation restricts the choices available to voters, limiting their ability to punish or reward
incumbent governments. Building on a comparative elections and accountability perspective, we
hypothesise that the governing context moderates the effectiveness of domestic punishment and
reward. The rise of elite polarisation in many democracies undermines voters’ ability to sanction
leaders through elections. Linking data on international crises to domestic polarisation, we find that
leaders are more likely to be involved in the initiation of inter-state disputes, resulting disputes will
be more likely to result in prolonged conflict, and ultimately that foreign policy outcomes exhibit
greater variance. Results from our analysis and extensive robustness checks demonstrate evidence
that increased dispersion of preferences among key actors can lead to extreme and negative foreign
policy outcomes as electoral mechanisms fail to reign in and hold governing parties to account.
democratic accountability, domestic constraints, foreign policy, interstate conflict, party politics,
preferences, polarisation
Scholars assume that voters constrain elected leaders’ foreign policy whims. They argue
that democratic leaders avoid conflict for fear of electoral punishment. Yet comparative
research finds that increased elite polarisation in many democratic countries complicates
the accountability mechanism. Polarisation reduces the viability of alternate electoral
choices to voters and therefore voters’ ability to punish ideologically close parties. Voters
become loath to vote for parties other than the most spatially proximate on the left-right
dimension, decreasing foreign policy’s salience. While researchers reveal substantial
insight into the relationship between domestic politics and foreign policy, voters regularly
fail to hold governments accountable for unpopular foreign policies such as engaging in
international conflict. Under some circumstances, domestic groups decline to punish
reckless elites. Consequently, context structures the conditions most likely to lead to elite
punishment for engaging in international conflict.
We begin to unpack electoral accountability’s role in constraining foreign policy out-
comes and conflict by accounting for the ways politicians and citizens prioritise policy.
School of Government and Public Policy, Department of Political Science, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK
Corresponding author:
Zachary Greene, University of Strathclyde, 16 Richmond St., Glasgow G1 1XQ, UK.
Email: zacgreene@gmail.com
944349BPI0010.1177/1369148120944349The British Journal of Politics and International RelationsGallop and Greene
Original Article
122 The British Journal of Politics and International Relations 23(1)
Comparative research highlights contexts in which domestic constituencies offer limited
attention and responses on issues. Studies find that voters rarely punish executives directly
for policy on many issues. Indeed, relative elite polarisation, the difference in prominent
political actors’ preferences on the most important dimension of conflict, matters for the
salience of positions on other issues. Increased elite polarisation places greater impor-
tance on parties’ positions over the left-right dimension and less prominence on govern-
ment performance. Polarisation ultimately determines other issues’ importance; issues
such as foreign policies and international conflicts (Brandenburg and Johns, 2014; Green
and Hobolt, 2008). Consequently, voters weigh relative distances to parties on the left-
right dimension more heavily when parties polarise on that dimension (Vegetti, 2014).
Following these insights, we argue elite polarisation leads governments to riskier for-
eign policy choices as it limits voters’ ability to sanction executives. Voters focused on
ideological costs on the primary left-right dimension of conflict pay less attention to
lower salience issues such as international militarised disputes. This context enables gov-
ernments preferring risky foreign policies to engage in conflicts with little concern for
future electoral punishment. Consequently, we predict that unconstrained leaders will be
more likely to both initiate military disputes, and escalate to full-scale war.
Based on a measure of elite polarisation derived from the Comparative Manifestos
Project (CMP), we predict Militarised Interstate Dispute (MID) initiation and escalation
(Palmer et al., 2015). Domestic elite polarisation seems to disrupt the accountability
mechanism over foreign policy. Results indicate that elites act as if they are free from
punishment. The findings are robust to the inclusion of citizen measures of polarisation.1
Hawkish executives become freer to threaten and initiate conflicts when they believe that
voters are unlikely to punish them.
These results hold broad consequences for theories of international conflict and elec-
toral accountability. Citizens hold differential capabilities to challenge executive behav-
iour. Electoral responsiveness links comparative theories of voting behaviour and policy
accountability to international relations theory. It illustrates a distinct linkage between
polarisation and government behaviour that undermines policy accountability (Carey,
2008). Studies have shown that polarisation leads to poorer democratic outcomes, but
scholars have yet to develop fully foreign policy implications. Our results imply that the
vote-to-foreign-policy-linkage diminishes under elite polarisation with possibly deadly
Domestic politics and conflict
Extensive research examines democracy’s effect on conflict behaviour (Gelpi and
Griesdorf, 2001; Koga, 2011; Oneal and Russett, 1999; Siverson and Johnson, 2016;
Ward et al. 2007; Wolford and Ritter, 2016). Domestic groups’ ability to hold leaders
accountable for past foreign policy statements plays a central role. Groups within demo-
cratic regimes constrain governments more than within autocracies. Much like theories of
audience costs propose, domestic constraints encourage democratically elected leaders
(with larger winning coalitions) to provide public goods to win reelection (Bueno de
Mesquita et al., 2005). Linked to theories of international conflict, public goods provision
causes leaders to avoid the risk of losing wars. Voters evaluate opposition and incumbents
over disagreements on domestic goods provision.
Researchers contend that disagreements in parties’ preferences over economic and
social policies structure electoral competition. Core issues constituting the left-right

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