This paper explores the time-inconsistency problem of audience costs in international disputes. The nature of democracy makes it difficult for leaders to back down from earlier diplomatic positions in an international dispute, out of fear of domestic political costs. Few studies have addressed the temporal aspect of such costs. This study argues that election timing impinges on the extent to which the audience cost mechanism works, and consequently, on state conflict behavior. While competitive elections are central to the political accountability inherent in a democracy, voters typically lack enough opportunities to punish unsatisfactory leaders in a timely way, because of fixed election timing, and also may disregard foreign policy missteps that occurred in the distant past. Democratic leaders therefore have an incentive to choose strategically, with the electoral calendar in mind, when selecting a form of conflict behavior. Leaders can retreat from their demands without paying high audience costs when the upcoming election is in the distant future. To test this argument, the authors conduct a natural experiment featuring territorial disputes between Russia and two Baltic republics-Estonia and Latvia. Despite the commonalities in the disputes, as well as in their political systems and socioeconomic backgrounds, the governments of the two Baltic countries showed a sharp contrast in their diplomatic decisions. This paper argues that only the temporal gap in electoral timing can explain this variation, imparting the ironical implication that frequent democratic elections can obstruct peaceful conflict resolutions, and that excessive democratization may well hinder the very goal of peace.
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