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Strategic Democratic Leaders and Constraint


How do leaders navigate foreign policy making when their preferences are at odds with their publics? The international relations and political behavior literatures present two ostensibly incompatible observations about democracies and foreign policy; the former arguing that democratic leaders are constrained in foreign policy making and the later arguing that public opinion on foreign policy is often missing its teeth. This raises several important questions, when do democratic leaders face constraint, what does constraint look like when they do, are leaders held accountable, and if so, what does accountability look like when they are?

To answer these questions, I argue that just as leaders tie their hands and create prospective audience costs, they can also act strategically to pursue their objectives by acting to loosen domestic constraints to broaden the range of acceptable policies, those which are not expected to result in ex post audience costs. Leaders are highly aware of and concerned with the potential for domestic backlash and are able to reduce and loosen seemingly prospective audience costs. This thesis integrates the audience cost and political behavior arguments to cohesively demonstrate how political leaders deal with situations in which their foreign policy objectives, given international challenges and possibilities, are at odds with domestic political preferences.

I test my theory through process tracing of seven cases of democratic countries that joined the Iraq War despite opposed publics. First I show that political opportunities and constraints embody more than just public opinion and more than just the structure of political institutions. They are multifaceted and nuanced and also include historical normative factors and the particular political context. Second, I show that political leaders are just that, they have the capacity to lead and expand (as well as contract) the constraints under which they operate. My findings suggest that the multifaceted nature of constraint allows leaders the opportunity to emphasize the more favorable factors and in some cases use those favorable factors to reduce the impact of the less favorable factors of constraint resulting in a more nuanced understanding of accountability as well.

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