Term Limits, Leader Preferences, and Interstate Conflict

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Authors J. Theron Carter, Timothy Nordstrom
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Paper Abstract Drawing on the idea that electoral accountability is a source for peace, recent research claims term limits result in democratic leaders who are systematically more likely to initiate conflicts. This conclusion rests upon analyses that suffer from two issues. First, scholars have not considered how leaders’ preferences or the strategic environment might condition the relationship between term limits and interstate conflict. Second, existing analyses rely on state-level data that cannot accurately identify whether a conflict is initiated by a term-limited or an electorally accountable incumbent in those years where both types of leaders served. Using a new, leaderyear measure of term limits, we find that lame ducks are less likely to initiate conflicts than their electorally accountable counterparts, on average, and that this result holds among democratic leaders with dovish preferences but not democratic leaders with hawkish preferences. The concept of electoral accountability is central to many explanations for how regime type influences states’ behavior. While specific arguments vary, democracies are thought to behave differently than dictatorships because elections serve as a means by which citizens can hold elected officials accountable for their policy choices, thus preventing them from implementing policies that deviate from their constituents’ preferences. Scholars have linked electoral accountability to cooperation in general (McGillivray and Smith 2000, Leeds 1999) and specific cooperative behaviors such as international trade (Mansfield, Milner and Rosendorff 2000, Guisinger 2009) and alliance reliability (Leeds 2003). The role of accountability arguably plays an even larger role in explanations of democracies’ and dictatorships’ conflict behavior, most notably institutional accounts of the democratic peace. Such theories argue democratic incumbents avoid costly interstate conflicts due to their desire to be re-elected by conflict-averse publics (e.g., Kant 1991, Russett and Oneal 2001). But how do democratic leaders behave when they are no longer constrained by the prospect of re-election? Somewhat surprisingly, the issue of lame duck democratic leaders has been largely overlooked by international conflict scholars. The emerging literature on the effect of term limits argues the removal of electoral accountability provides democratic leaders with more discretion in pursuing costly foreign policies (e.g., Zeigler, Pierskalla and Mazumder 2013). This reduction in constraints is thought to make democratic leaders who cannot be re-elected behave more like dictators than democratic leaders whose political futures can be extended in a future election (Haynes 2012, Conconi, Sahuguet and Zanardi 2014). Empirically, scholars find that democracies led by lame ducks generally are more likely to initiate conflicts than those led by electorally accountable incumbents. The idea that democracies governed by lame ducks are more likely to initiate conflicts is intuitive, especially given institutional explanations of the democratic peace that focus on electoral accountability. However, the growing consensus on the relationship between term limits and interstate conflict is based on analyses that suffer from two issues. First, scholars have ignored how leaders’ underlying preferences over the use of force and strategic behavior could condition the relationship between term limits and conflict initiation. Second, existing analyses rely on state-level measures of term limits that cannot identify whether a conflict was initiated by a lame duck or an electorally accountable leader in years where both served. This article seeks to address these two shortcomings. First, we carefully consider how and why term limits might affect conflict initiation. A survey of research on how conflict processes
Date of publication 2017
Code Programming Language R

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