The Credibility of Public and Private Signals: A Document-Based Approach

The Credibility of Public and Private Signals: A Document-Based Approach

by Azusa Katagiri, Nanyang Technological University and Eric Min, University of California, Los Angeles

For decades, scholars of international relations have studied the relative effects of actions, public words, and private words during interstate crises. Many of these works use game theory and historical case studies to argue that threats made in public are more credible and concerning because it is costly to back away from words spoken in front of a large domestic and international audience. Conversely, statements made in private are viewed as being cheap and easy to dismiss. These lines of research have overlooked the reality that policymakers are bombarded with information and struggle to adduce actual signals from endless noise. While ostensibly “costless,” private messages provide a more precise and direct communication channel than public and “costly” pronouncements. We assess these claims by digitizing and applying machine learning methods to over 18,000 documents from the Berlin Crisis of 1958-1963. These records provide unprecedented quantitative access to private statements, public statements, and White House evaluations of Soviet resolve. We produce three findings: actions have greater influence on the White House than either public or private statements; public statements are noisier than private statements; and private statements have a larger effect on evaluations of resolve than public statements. Our results challenge predominant views of interstate crisis diplomacy.

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American Political Science Review / Volume 112 / Issue 4 / November 2018

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