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Credibility in Crises: The Role of Leadership Beliefs in State Threat Assessments Open Access

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Why is it that some threats are considered credible by states during crises, while others are not? How do target states interpret coercive signals intended to establish threat credibility during these periods? These questions are central to both academic and policy debates about the effectiveness of coercive diplomacy. Yet despite their importance to scholars and practitioners alike, we lack good answers to these questions. In this dissertation I argue that variation in leadership beliefs within a target state is key to understanding how threatening signals are interpreted during crises. Research within political science has shown that decision makers’ differing belief systems and assumptions about the world around them can hold important implications for political outcomes. I build on this research to argue that a target state’s prior interactions with an adversary determine its leader’s beliefs and expectations regarding the extent of that adversary’s interests and satisfaction with the status quo. Previous crises provide crucial information to target state leaders both about an adversary’s political objectives, and the costs that adversary is willing to absorb to achieve its goals. Taken collectively, this information – gleaned through ‘experiences of resolve’ – enables target state leaders to form beliefs about the extent of an adversary’s foreign policy interests, and the ways in which that adversary will pursue its objectives in the future.I argue further that the impact of a leader’s individual beliefs about an adversary once formed – and how “sticky” they are – depends on the target state’s threat environment, and in particular, the balance between internal versus external threats. Leaders often face complex security environments and are forced to prioritize across multiple threats to their regime. Since states have a finite set of resources, prioritization requires focusing the security apparatus of the state on those threats deemed most urgent, affecting budget decisions, the nature of training and the stationing of military forces, and most importantly the orientation of the intelligence community. Beliefs about the extent of an adversary’s interests thus feed into a target state leader’s understanding of his broader threat environment, helping to determine the chief threats to the regime, and dictating the focus of state security institutions. This process of threat prioritization and resource allocation impacts the quality and quantity of information available to leaders in crises, and helps to explain the conditions under which prior beliefs exert an influence on assessments of threat credibility. I develop and test this theory through a comparative historical analysis of four carefully selected crises – the Suez Crisis (1956), the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), the Falklands War (1982), and the Iraq Wars (1991-2003). The findings of this dissertation make important contributions to literatures on coercive diplomacy, foreign policy decision making, and recent work linking regime types to war.

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