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«Forthcoming, Security Studies 25:4 (2016) While the existing literature emphasizes that elites often have incentives to pander to nationalist ...»

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Nationalist Protests, Government Responses, and the Risk of Escalation in

Interstate Disputes


Forthcoming, Security Studies 25:4 (2016)

While the existing literature emphasizes that elites often have incentives to pander to nationalist

sentiment, much less attention has been paid to elite efforts to subdue popular nationalism, either

to avoid unwanted domestic instability or international escalation. This article examines how different governments respond to nationalist protests and the resulting effects that such protests have on the risk that interstate disputes will escalate to armed conflict. We argue that government responses to nationalist protests tend to vary in patterned ways across regime types.

Nationalist protests present particular dangers in weakly institutionalized democracies, where demonstrations often pose serious threats of instability but are difficult or costly for the government to subdue, tempting or forcing leaders to escalate to appease domestic critics. We illustrate the theory with four cases representing a range of regime types: Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines.


Why and when does popular nationalism increase the risk of international conflict?

Nationalism is often cited as a cause of war, 1 inflaming passions and impeding compromise over territories made “indivisible” by heated rhetoric. 2 An influential set of arguments holds that elites may stoke the flames of nationalism to rally domestic support or divert domestic frustration, limiting their ability to compromise with foreign rivals and making war more likely. 3 Much less John D. Ciorciari is assistant professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. Jessica Chen Weiss is associate professor of government at Cornell University.

The authors thank Robert Axelrod, Navid Hassanpour, Susan Hyde, Philip Potter, Allan Stam, Alexander Vuving, Jeremy Wallace, three anonymous reviewers, and participants in the Security Policy Workshop at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, International Relations Workshop at the University of Toronto, and Ford Security Seminar at the University of Michigan for their helpful comments on previous drafts.

See, e.g., Stephen Van Evera, “Hypotheses on Nationalism and War,” International Security 18, no. 4 (Spring 1994): 5-39.

Stacie E. Goddard, Invisible Territory and the Politics of Legitimacy: Jerusalem and Northern Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Jack Snyder, Myths of Empire (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991); Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder, “Democratization and the Danger of War,” International Security 20, no. 1 (Summer 1995): 5-38;

Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder, Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War (Cambridge, MA:

The MIT Press, 2007). For an empirical challenge to this literature, see Vipin Narang and Rebecca M. Nelson, “Who Are These Belligerent Democratizers? Reassessing the Impact of Democratization on War,” International Organization 63, no. 2 (April 2009): 357-79.

attention has been paid to elite fears of nationalist sentiment and the conditions under which political leaders tighten, rather than loosen, the leash on popular nationalism. 4 Although nationalism is often regarded as a source of legitimacy for incumbent elites, nationalist movements can also provide opposition groups cover to mobilize and challenge the government. 5 Nationalist protests can also devolve into violence against foreign interests, inviting cross-border retaliation. Diplomatically, nationalist protests can both signal resolve and tie the government’s hands by pressuring the government to act aggressively abroad. 6 Elites seeking to preserve international cooperation and flexibility may be keen to quash protests that create unwanted pressure for escalation. 7 Recent tensions in territorial disputes underscore the importance of understanding when elites are likely to encourage or repress popular nationalism. In 2012, claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands brought China and Japan to the brink of armed conflict, with nationalist protests in both countries calling for more vigorous policies to defend their nation’s sovereignty.

In 2011, Thai forces crossed the border with Cambodia amid protests calling for the defense of Thai sovereignty over a disputed temple complex. Island disputes have also sparked armed Exceptions include Erica Strecker Downs and Phillip C. Saunders, “Legitimacy and the Limits of Nationalism: China and the Diaoyu Islands,” International Security 23, no. 4 (Winter 1998-99): 114-46; and Jessica Chen Weiss, “Authoritarian Signaling, Mass Audiences, and Nationalist Protests in China,” International Organization 67, no.1 (January 2013): 1-35.

Jack Snyder, “Nationalism and the Crisis of the Post-Soviet State,” Survival 35, no. 1 (1993): 16; John Breuilly, Nationalism and the State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 19.

Weiss, “Authoritarian Signaling.” The desire to avoid policy “lock-in” has been a key critique of audience cost theories. See, e.g., Jack Snyder and Erica D. Borghard, “The Cost of Empty Threats: A Penny, Not a Pound,” American Political Science Review 105, no. 03 (August 2011): 437-56.

clashes between China, Vietnam, and the Philippines, with protests condemning China’s “illegal occupation” of islands and shoals in the South China Sea. Beyond Asia, in 2013 members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood held demonstrations calling for the “destruction of Israel,” 8 and Albanians in Kosovo protested normalization with Serbia. 9 Shortly before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Ukrainians tore down statues of Lenin to protest Russia’s influence. 10 Yet images of nationalist demonstrations and vitriolic slogans mask variation in governments’ willingness to encourage or restrain nationalist mobilization. Leaders weigh the possible benefits of fomenting nationalist protests or allowing them to continue—such as rallying domestic political support, attracting international attention, and signaling resolve to foreign rivals—against the dangers that protests demanding hardline foreign policies will undermine the government’s authority, degenerate into anti-foreign violence, and limit foreign policy options.

Leaders also consider the consequences of preventing or subduing nationalist protests— including the domestic costs of appearing unpatriotic and the risks that repression will backfire— against the benefits of preserving diplomatic flexibility and reassuring international audiences.

Even when governments conclude that repression is the best course of action, their ability to curtail nationalist protests varies widely.

This article examines how governments respond to nationalist protests and the resulting effects of those protests on interstate disputes. We argue that the risks nationalist protests pose to a government, the cost and ease of repressing them, and the consequent impact of such protests on international conflict all tend to vary in patterned ways across regime types. In established “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Stages Anti-Israel Rally,” Associated Press, 10 May 2013.

Fatos Bytyci, “Protesters fight police as Kosovo approves Serbia deal,” Reuters, 27 June 2013.

Serhy Yekelchyk, “In Ukraine, Lenin finally falls,” Washington Post, 28 February 2014.

democracies, protests are common and costly to repress. They may influence foreign policy through the filter of elections but seldom directly threaten to push the incumbent out of office or overturn the political system. In autocracies, public protests are typically forbidden or nipped in the bud, as the cost of repression is usually low relative to the risk that demonstrations will create opportunities for opposition forces to mobilize and set the stage for broader unrest. Nationalist protests present special risks in regimes that are neither robustly democratic nor firmly autocratic. These include weakly institutionalized democracies that lack reliable norms and institutions to ensure respect for electoral results, as well as “electoral authoritarian” systems dominated by one party, often in part through electoral fraud and intimidation. 11 In regimes without strongly embedded mechanisms for peaceful political change, protests often seek to topple incumbents rather than demand progress on specific issues. Yet incumbents without a firm authoritarian grip on power often lack the means to subdue potentially destabilizing demonstrations.

Most regime type typologies similarly distinguish between established and weakly institutionalized (or “flawed”) democracies and between electoral authoritarian (or “competitive authoritarian”) regimes and autocracies with little or no electoral character. See, e.g., Marc Morjé Howard and Philip G. Roessler, “Liberalizing Electoral

Outcomes in Competitive Authoritarian Regimes,” American Journal of Political Science 50, no. 2 (April 2006):

367; Matthijs Bogaards, “How to classify hybrid regimes? Defective democracy and electoral authoritarianism,” Democratization 16, no. 2 (2009): 399-423; Larry Diamond, “Elections without Democracy: Thinking about Hybrid Regimes,” Journal of Democracy 13, no. 2 (April 2002): 24-27. Electoral authoritarian systems differ from weakly institutionalized democracies primarily in the extent to which elections are free and fair, as opposed to serving as instruments of authoritarian rule. Weakly institutionalized democracies generally also have more robust checks and balances and respect for basic freedoms. Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Andreas Schedler, Electoral Authoritarianism: The Dynamics of Unfree Competition (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2006).

Protests that are difficult for a government to repress and threaten to spin out of control can have mixed effects on international conflict. Such demonstrations may increase the risk of war, either because they degenerate into violent xenophobic riots and precipitate foreign retaliation, or because they threaten regime stability and prompt insecure elites to appease demonstrators with a show of force. However, such protests may also decrease the risk of war by giving the government greater credibility in demanding foreign concessions. 12 The net effect on conflict depends on which of these competing effects dominates.

Our argument proceeds in two stages. We first analyze the factors driving government decisions to foment, allow or repress nationalist protests and then consider the resulting effects of protests on the risk of international conflict. We focus in particular on how regime type impacts both government handling of nationalist protests and the resulting dangers of escalation.

After elaborating our argument, we examine how four states with regimes ranging from autocratic to democratic—Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines—have dealt with nationalist protests and the international effects of their responses.


Deciding to Foment, Allow or Repress Protests Government decisions on how to handle nationalist protests reflect calculations about the domestic and international benefits and hazards of fomenting, allowing or repressing them.

Governments may instigate or allow nationalist protests to boost their popularity and rally Such leverage depends on a host of factors, including foreign beliefs that concessions would defuse the situation.

citizens behind the flag, helping divert public attention from domestic grievances. 13 They may also permit nationalist protests to signal diplomatic resolve by letting the domestic “audience costs” of compromise rise. 14 Chinese acquiescence in anti-American and anti-Japanese demonstrations in recent years is a prime example. 15 Nationalist protests can confer diplomatic leverage when foreign rivals believe nationalist pressure makes it difficult for the government to back down. Such protests can also broadcast and draw attention to their state’s grievances, magnifying international pressure on foreign rivals to compromise. 16 These potential benefits may appeal to governments that lack other sources of popular legitimacy and means of attracting attention or signaling resolve.

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