The 'Commitment Trap' Revisited: Experimental Evidence on Ambiguous Nuclear Threats

17 Pages Posted: 12 Oct 2022 Last revised: 9 Jan 2023

See all articles by Michal Smetana

Michal Smetana

Charles University

Marek Vranka

Prague University of Economics and Business; Charles University in Prague

Ondřej Rosendorf

Charles University in Prague

Date Written: August 17, 2022

Abstract

In this paper, we provide an empirical test for the theoretical claim that ambiguous nuclear threats create a “commitment trap” for American leaders: when deterrence fails, supposedly they are more likely to order the use of nuclear weapons to avoid domestic audience costs for backing down. We designed an original survey experiment and fielded it to a sample of 1,000 U.S. citizens. We found no evidence of a commitment trap when ambiguous nuclear threats are made. Unlike explicit threats, ambiguous ones did not generate domestic disapproval when the leader backed down; the decision to employ nuclear weapons led to more public backlash for the leader than being caught bluffing; and the threats did not influence public preference for nuclear use across our scenarios. Our findings contribute to the scholarly literature on nuclear crisis bargaining and policy debates over the future of U.S. declaratory policy.

Keywords: Nuclear weapons; deterrence; calculated ambiguity; audience costs; weapons of mass destruction; survey experiment

Suggested Citation

Smetana, Michal and Vranka, Marek and Rosendorf, Ondřej, The 'Commitment Trap' Revisited: Experimental Evidence on Ambiguous Nuclear Threats (August 17, 2022). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4228497 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4228497

Michal Smetana (Contact Author)

Charles University ( email )

U Knize 8
Prague, 15800
Czech Republic

Marek Vranka

Prague University of Economics and Business

Czech Republic

Charles University in Prague ( email )

Celetná 13
Praha 1, 116 36
Czech Republic

Ondřej Rosendorf

Charles University in Prague ( email )

Celetná 13
Praha 1, 116 36
Czech Republic

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