«Forthcoming, Security Studies 25:4 (2016) While the existing literature emphasizes that elites often have incentives to pander to nationalist ...»
Established democracies are the most likely to allow protests, as the risks they pose tend to be modest, and the costs of repression are high. 32 Social movement theorists note that protest is so commonplace in established democracies that it “may lose its power to inspire challengers and to impress antagonists and authorities.” 33 Demonstrations draw attention to issues that the opposition may use against the government in future elections but rarely challenge regime stability by threatening to overturn the political system. Repressing protests is costly, since governments derive much of their legitimacy from respecting rights such as free speech and assembly, and citizens can challenge government action in courts, in the media, and at the polls.
This analysis yields theoretical expectations beyond the prediction that protest tolerance will increase from the autocratic to democratic end of the regime spectrum. The most interesting implications lie toward the center of the spectrum. We expect weakly institutionalized democracies to be the most likely to allow or abet nationalist protests that could undermine regime stability. We also expect to see a heightened incidence of such protests in electoral authoritarian systems when incumbents face meaningful opposition challenges. These potentially destabilizing protests tend to have the greatest effects on international conflict.
Hafner-Burton et al, “When Do Governments,” 157.
See, e.g., Christian Davenport, “Multi-Dimensional Threat Perception and State Repression: An Inquiry into Why States Apply Negative Sections,” American Journal of Political Science 39, no. 3 (August 1995): 683-713.
David S. Meyer and Sidney Tarrow, eds., The Social Movement Society: Contentious Politics for a New Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), 4.
Effects on the Risk of Conflict Nationalist protests can raise or reduce the risk of interstate conflict. They can raise the domestic costs of diplomatic compromise and pressure governments to appease protesters by acting aggressively abroad or reneging on agreements to resolve or set aside a territorial dispute.
They can also escalate to spasms of provocative anti-foreign violence. By the same token, however, protests that threaten to spin out of control or force the government to the brink of conflict can convince foreign governments to back off and thereby diminish the chance of conflict. 34 As the difficulty of repression and threats to regime stability rise, protests become more credible as signals of a government’s resolve and commitment to an aggressive stance.
Leaders’ decisions to appease protest demands by adopting aggressive or uncompromising policies abroad are driven by a number of considerations, including the size and composition of protests and the expected effects of international escalation, but their calculations are apt to vary across regime types. Leaders of weakly institutionalized democracies are most likely to perceive the need to follow hawkish policies to appease domestic critics, since protests carry high risks to regime stability but are often prohibitively costly to repress. The severe fates that often await deposed leaders of “mixed” regimes create additional incentives to assuage popular demands. 35 Leaders of electoral authoritarian regimes are typically better able to quash nationalist protests and avoid unwanted pressure to escalate, but incumbents may eschew repression when faced with a significant electoral challenge.
See, e.g., Geoffrey Blainey, The Causes of War (New York: Free Press, 1988).
H. E. Goemans, “Fighting for Survival: The Fate of Leaders and the Duration of War,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 44, no. 5 (October 2000): 555-579.
In autocratic systems, protests are relatively easy to suppress and therefore unlikely to force the government’s hand if authorities nip them in the bud. When allowed to grow in size and scope, however, protests may threaten incumbent autocrats by galvanizing broader unrest and dissatisfaction with the government’s nationalist credentials. During windows of protest, autocrats may also face strong incentives to adopt more aggressive foreign policies.
In established democracies, protests are costly to repress but tend not to threaten the ouster of incumbent politicians. Although democratic leaders may also face diversionary incentives to escalate when protesters air domestic grievances, 36 nationalist protests are seldom regarded as serious threats to regime stability in robust democracies. Although nationalist protests may pressure the incumbent party to take a hard line, the worst outcome for an incumbent that resists protest demands is electoral defeat. Given the relatively mild costs of losing office and the low sensitivity of democratic leaders’ tenure to the international outcome, 37 nationalist protests are relatively unlikely to force democratic leaders into unwanted conflict.
H1. Nationalist protests are more likely to lead a government to adopt aggressive or uncompromising policies abroad in weakly institutionalized democracies than in other
Our argument that the risk of protest-driven escalation is highest in weakly institutionalized democracies is consistent with scholarship emphasizing that nationalism is most Christopher Gelpi, “Democratic Diversions: Governmental Structure and the Externalization of Domestic Conflict,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 41, no. 2 (April 1997): 255-82.
Alexandre Debs and H. E. Goemans, “Regime Type, the Fate of Leaders, and War,” American Political Science Review 104, no. 3 (August 2010): 430-45.
likely to raise the danger of war in states lacking robust democratic sources of legitimacy or a strong autocratic grip on power. Van Evera argues that such states are the “most dangerous,” having added incentives to stir nationalism to boost their legitimacy and stay in power. 38 Mansfield and Snyder similarly argue that invoking foreign threats is a “common expedient for hard-pressed leaders who seek to shore up their legitimacy.” 39 However, since leaders often fear the domestic and international repercussions of nationalist protests and try to repress them, the difficulty of repressing demonstrations is often as important as leaders’ desire to stir nationalism in generating risks of conflict.
In some circumstances, the difficulty of subduing nationalist protests can also dampen the risk of conflict. Governments that appear unable to control protests easily and face strong incentives to appease demonstrators with belligerent foreign policies can more credibly claim that their hands are tied in diplomatic negotiations and that foreign concessions are necessary to avert major domestic instability or conflict. Leaders of weakly institutionalized democracies are apt to have the greatest credibility in claiming to foreign rivals that they face such constraints, especially when protests are organized by a strong political opposition. Leaders of electoral authoritarian regimes and autocracies have greater capacity to repress protests, making it harder to claim that they are genuinely constrained and that protesters must be appeased. To impose credible diplomatic constraints, protests must generate appreciable risks of spinning out of control and threatening regime stability—dangers that usually prompt authoritarian leaders to nip protests in the bud. In established democracies, protests tend to have less credibility as
diplomatic constraints, as leaders can resist popular demands without fearing a coup or revolution, even if their popularity declines.
H2. Foreign rivals are more likely to regard nationalist protests as credible constraints on governments of weakly institutionalized democracies than in other regime types.
The net effect of nationalist protests on conflict depends upon the strength of these countervailing effects. Do protests provide sufficient diplomatic leverage with foreign rivals to offset the aggravated risk of anti-foreign violence and foreign policy belligerence? Foreign perceptions and willingness to compromise vary widely, making decisions to foment or allow such protests a risky bet for governments seeking diplomatic leverage. 40 Foreign rivals are more likely to compromise diplomatically when a government appears genuinely constrained than when it appears to have orchestrated protests or allowed rallies it could easily have subdued or ignored. Similarly, when protests descend into anti-foreign violence, a foreign rival is more likely to respond with restraint when it believes that the government wished but was unable to repress protesters. Foreign governments are apt to be much less sympathetic when they believe the government allowed or encouraged anti-foreign violence it could easily have prevented. 41 A full treatment of foreign perceptions and responses is beyond the scope of this paper, but important factors include relative power, stakes, and resolve.
In some cases, violent anti-foreign attacks will provoke foreign intervention even when the government is not complicit in allowing nationalist protests, particularly when they originate in ungoverned spaces that national authorities are unable to control. Still, the host government’s perceived acquiescence or complicity is likely to remain a key consideration in limiting the scope of foreign intervention to isolated strikes rather than regime change.
In 2012, for example, China allowed scores of anti-Japanese protests to signal Chinese opposition to Japan’s planned purchase of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Although some protests devolved into anti-Japanese violence, Japanese officials persisted in believing that China would curtail protests without first taking hawkish measures in the East China Sea to appease nationalist pressures. 42 It was not until a series of close encounters around the disputed islands that both governments recognized the growing risk of a maritime accident and the need for compromise. In a less autocratic context, such demonstrations might have been more credible.
H3. Foreign rivals are more likely to pursue accommodative policies and refrain from conflict escalation when they regard a government as genuinely constrained.
The difficulty of repression and threat to regime stability are subjective judgments that create room for divergent assessments. From a host government’s perspective, the best scenario is to appear to face high costs of repression and foreign policy constraints while in fact having considerable control and flexibility. The worst scenario is to encounter genuine challenges and constraints while facing foreign incredulity.
Because the relationship between regime type, government responses to nationalist protests, and interstate escalation is complex, qualitative case studies are best suited to assess and illustrate our arguments. We examine attempted or actualized nationalist protests in states
Jessica Chen Weiss, Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2014).
spanning a range of regime types: Vietnam (autocratic), Cambodia (electoral authoritarian), Thailand (weakly institutionalized democracy), and the Philippines (established democracy). 43 We also leverage over-time variation within each regime, as we expect incumbents’ incentives to foment, allow, or repress protests to vary with the strength of the opposition and popular backing for nationalist demands. We observe sixteen episodes of attempted or actualized nationalist protest: Thailand (2008, 2010-11, 2013), Cambodia (2003, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014), Vietnam (2007, 2011, 2012-13, 2014), and the Philippines (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014). 44 For each episode, we examine whether and why the government fomented, allowed or repressed nationalist demonstrations; whether the government took aggressive toward foreign rivals to appease the protesters; whether foreign rivals regarded the government as credibly constrained; and whether they offered any diplomatic concessions.
We use Southeast Asian cases for several reasons. Contemporary interstate war is rare but most likely to erupt in regions such as Southeast Asia, where territorial disputes are rife.