Dovish Reputation Theory: When Fighting to Demonstrate Resolve Backfires

Joshua A Schwartz, University of Pennsylvania


According to traditional, hawkish reputation theory, states inevitably harm their reputation for resolve by backing down and enhance or maintain it by choosing to stand firm and engage in military conflict. This logic has been used, at least in part, to justify consequential interventions like the Vietnam War, which resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of billions of dollars spent. However, is it always true that states maximize their reputation for resolve by refusing to back down? In other words, is fighting to demonstrate resolve always a logical reason to go to war? I advance a new theory of reputation—dovish reputation theory—that argues the answer is no. My theory can be summarized in two steps. In the first step, choosing to fight rather than back down in the past can lead to war-weariness that reduces a country’s future level of resolve. In the second step, foreign actors can observe the signs of war-weariness and therefore downgrade their estimates of a country’s reputation for resolve. I test my theory using a multi-method research design that includes survey experiments conducted on the general public and members of the United Kingdom Parliament; large-N statistical analyses of political parties’ election manifestos and militarized interstate disputes; and historical case studies of World War I and the First Iraq War. My analysis yields four key findings. First, the experience of a previous conflict can harm a state’s future resolve. Second, backing down, all else equal, does undermine a state’s reputation for resolve. Third, choosing to fight can also erode a state’s reputation for resolve if signs of war-weariness develop. Fourth, the reputation for resolve costs associated with war-weariness can equal or outweigh the reputation for resolve benefits of not backing down. This means states do not always enhance or maintain their reputations for resolve by engaging in military conflict rather than backing down. The most important implication of this project is that the benefits of using military force are lower than the common wisdom suggests.

Subject Area

International Relations|Political science|Military studies

Recommended Citation

Schwartz, Joshua A, "Dovish Reputation Theory: When Fighting to Demonstrate Resolve Backfires" (2022). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI29321702.