Shaping Public Risk Tolerance During Deterrence Crises

In a recent article, Jeffrey Berejikian and Zachary Zwald use seven survey experiments to analyse how the general public evaluates the risk of military options, such as the number of potential casualties, during an imminent deterrence crisis. Informed by prospect theory, they demonstrate that by simply reframing the language used to describe the possible outcome of military options, the public’s willingness to accept risks changes.

The manipulation of public opinion can determine the likelihood of deterrence success in myriad ways. Surprisingly, neither the academic nor policy communities fully appreciate the importance of domestic politics in shaping deterrence bargaining dynamics—let alone how the public processes risks during immediate deterrence.

To the extent that scholars focus their attention on domestic politics during deterrence crises, they usually depict public opinion as a constraint that can either enhance or undermine deterrence stability—depending upon one’s orientation. Consider, for instance, decades of research on “audience costs,” which highlights the presumed difficulty of committing to escalatory military actions because such commitments may carry domestic political costs if they fail.

In the context of deterrence, we see a similar concern among some policymakers; that public opinion may constrain U.S. leaders at critical junctures during a crisis and subsequently prevent them from communicating credible threats to an adversary. However, the concept of domestically-imposed constraint also suggests that the public will serve as a check on the worst impulses of political leaders. Since the prospect of electoral punishment constrains elites if they fail—in democracies, at least—we may hope that the public serves as a mechanism to prevent our leaders from engaging long-shot gambles, escalating conflicts, or straying too far from the national interest.

By contrast, our research shows that the choice of language alone can shift the public’s preferences in favor of risky military escalation during the opening stage of a deterrence crisis. It follows, therefore, that neither of these views on how the public affect bargaining dynamics is wholly correct.

In our study, we conducted seven survey experiments covering a range of potential deterrence crises, including when the stakes are high and nuclear use is on the table. In each experiment, we presented subjects with a vignette that describes a bourgeoning crisis where an adversary has taken some action that challenges a long-standing U.S. extended deterrent commitment to an ally. Each scenario contained a degree of uncertainty and risk–i.e., the adversary may be preparing to launch a military attack that results in the loss of American and allied lives, or it could be that they are posturing in an attempt to probe the strength of the U.S. commitment.

We utilized a Prospect Theory framework to evaluate how the language used to frame the potential outcome of two military options—one defensive and the other offensive—affects the public’s willingness to support a risky offensive act that escalates the crisis.

We asked participants to choose between a conservative defensive course of action (e.g., bolster air and missile defenses in the region) and a riskier pre-emptive military escalation (e.g., deploying special forces to eliminate the specific military capability the adversary threatens to use). Each participant randomly received either the “gains frame” or “loss frame” treatment that only varied the language used to describe the potential outcomes from the two military options. For example, we presented a “Nuclear Blackmail” scenario by framing the possible deaths that may result in terms of either the number of “lives saved” or “lives lost.”

Consistently, we found that simply reframing the exact same “facts on the ground” produces statistically and substantively significant shifts in favor of a riskier military escalation option as a preferred response to a deterrence crisis.

Going forward, these results raise concerns that have not yet received the serious consideration they deserve. First, over the last few years, commentators have downplayed President Trump’s aggressive language toward North Korea as just “loose talk” with little, if any, real effect on the actual course of the crisis at hand. Yet, our research demonstrates how language alone can itself cause deterrence failure—even when a nuclear response by the adversary is on the table. A leader’s bellicose rhetoric may inadvertently produce a loss frame for the public and, thus, create the domestic political incentives for unnecessary, or harmful, military escalation.

Second, U.S. policymakers must now consider the challenge posed by the vulnerability of the public’s risk preferences to manipulation by an adversary in the lead up to, and during, a deterrence crisis. The growing trend towards employing cyber operations to weaponize information, in conjunction with our finding demonstrating the malleability of the public’s risk preferences during a deterrence crisis, suggests that an adversary can manipulate the public’s risk tolerance during immediate deterrence to create political incentives that dictate which options democratically elected leaders support. An effective 21st century U.S. deterrence strategy, therefore, must be able to identify points of public vulnerability and develop counter-framing strategies that stand to prevent foreign manipulation.

Jeffrey D. Berejikian is a Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Georgia. Zachary Zwald is in the Department of Political Science at the University of Houston. They are the authors of “Why language matters: Shaping public risk tolerance during deterrence crises”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here.

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