Cry Havoc: Rhetorical Mobilization and Foreign Policy Decision Making During War-threatening Crises

Herbert, Roger, Foreign Affairs - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Owen, John, Department of Politics, University of Virginia

When leaders choose to threaten or use military force, how do they overcome the average citizen’s rational presumption against war and mobilize their populations for the collective action and sacrifice that modern war demands? Why are some efforts to mobilize populations for war more successful than others? Does this variation affect foreign policy decisions?

I argue that the chief instrument for mobilizing domestic support for war is rhetoric. I further argue that the efficacy, or resonance, of rhetorical mobilization campaigns that leaders orchestrate to “sell” their wars is variable. Following social movement scholarship, I contend that two observable and measurable factors determine resonance. The salience of a rhetorical mobilization campaign is the degree to which a leader rhetorically links international events with national values, cultural myths, and the everyday concerns of their citizens. The second factor, credibility, measures the foreign policy reputation of leaders relative to their political opponents and the consistency of their rhetoric with observable facts. During a war-threatening crisis, the likelihood that a leader’s preference for the use of force will become the manifest policy of the state depends on the resonance (i.e., salience and credibility) of the leader’s rhetorical mobilization campaign. High resonance rhetorical mobilization campaigns build domestic consensus, reduce the political and military risks of war, and create for leaders permissive decision-making environments in which domestic opinion has little sway over foreign policy decisions. When, however, rhetorical mobilization campaigns fail to resonate, leaders face constrained decision-making environments in which domestic opinion is likely to be a major determinant of foreign policy outcomes. Because taking the state to war without a stable public commitment incurs a high risk of domestic sanction, constrained leaders are more likely to amend or abandon their policy preferences for the threat or use of force.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
rhetoric, framing, foreign policy decision making, political communication, public opinion
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