A Preference for War: How Fairness and Rhetoric Influence Leadership Incentives in Crises

Robert Trager, Matthew Gottfried

We conduct a survey experiment to examine the effects of international compromise on presidential approval and to investigate the role of foreign government rhetoric in shaping the political incentives of leaders. We find that if leaders prefer to maximize voter approval, their preferences over disputed goods are not well represented by increasing, risk-averse utility functions. We also show that aggressive rhetoric on the part of foreign leaders increases the expected utility of war, decreases the value of substantial compromise, and provides leaders with a powerful incentive to fight harder. Overall, the findings suggest a contradiction between two commonly made assumptions: that leaders seek to maximize their chances of election and that leader preferences can be represented by increasing, risk-averse utility functions defined over fractions of some objective good. The rhetorical framing of disputes during the conflict process may beat least as important as material factors in understanding why some disputes result in war.