Going Private: Presidential Rhetoric and the Domestic Politics of Audience Costs in U.S. Foreign Policy Crises


In this study, I explain why, despite the potential credibility enhancement associated with generating domestic audience costs, leaders frequently opt to “go private,” by conducting foreign policy out of the public spotlight.   I argue that leaders (in this instance U.S. presidents) are likely to prefer to forego the potential benefits of audience costs (such as enhanced credibility in the eyes of an adversary) in crises involving relatively modest strategic stakes, unless they are confident of success in a fight. There are two reasons for this. First, public scrutiny disproportionately raises the potential political price of a bad outcome, thereby decreasing a leader's willingness to incur a large political risk for a relatively small strategic or political gain. Second, the reactions of the domestic “audience,” once a leader seeks to engage them, is not entirely predictable. Hence, leaders' efforts to generate audience costs can sometimes backfire, leading to reduced, rather than enhanced, credibility. I test my hypotheses with data on U.S. behavior in all international crises between 1946 and 1994.   My results show that when U.S. national security interests in a crisis are modest, American presidents are indeed less likely to speak publicly about potential adversaries, unless they are quite confident of success if a fight ensues.

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