In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Audience Costs and the Credibility of Commitments

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Sources of Audience Costs
  • Audience Costs, Regime Type, and Democratic Peace
  • Ongoing Debates on Audience Costs
  • Other Research Directions

International Relations Audience Costs and the Credibility of Commitments
Zenobia T. Chan, Samuel Liu, Kai Quek
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0305


Threats and promises are prevalent in international relations (IR). However, deception is also a possibility in diplomacy. Why should one state believe that another state is not merely bluffing? How can a state credibly communicate its threats and promises to others? The IR scholarship suggests that one way by which a state may make its commitments credible is by generating audience costs—the political costs a leader suffers from publicly issuing a threat or promise and then failing to follow through. There is a broad and methodologically diverse literature on the existence, mechanisms, and effectiveness of audience costs. The concept of audience costs has also been applied to explain many phenomena in IR. This article examines the IR scholarship on audience costs across different methodological approaches, including qualitative case studies, large-N statistical tests, and survey experiments.

General Overviews

The concept of audience costs was developed and formalized in Fearon 1994 and Fearon 1997 on the basis of the logic of costly signaling. To credibly communicate its resolve to other states, a resolved state may choose to incur costs that an unresolved state is unlikely to bear. Quek 2021 identifies four mechanisms of costly signaling on the basis of the cost structure of the signal. Of the four, costly signaling through what Fearon 1997 calls “tying hands”—whereby the signal is costly if the signaler fails to respond to the receiver’s challenge, but is otherwise costless—is the most well-known mechanism, and audience costs are the most well-known example of a tied-hands signal in IR. How can the signaling state persuade its target that it is not bluffing when it threatens to use force? Audience cost theory suggests that the believability of the threat hinges on the prospect that a leader could suffer a domestic political backlash if she reneges on a public threat, which reduces the room for the leader to backtrack on her threat (i.e., “tying the leader’s hands”). Since leaders who are in fact not willing to carry out the threat would be disinclined to incur the costs in the first place, those who incur the costs are more likely to be seen as resolute. A resolved leader may differentiate herself from an unresolved leader by generating the audience costs that an unresolved leader is unlikely to generate. In this theory, the domestic audience plays an important role in committing states or leaders to their threats and promises. The additional credibility produced by audience costs can be advantageous for states engaging in coercive diplomacy. Unlike many of the earlier theories of IR, which often give little role to domestic publics, audience cost theory provides a mechanism connecting domestic politics and elite decision-making in international crises.

  • Fearon, James D. “Domestic Political Audiences and the Escalation of International Disputes.” American Political Science Review 88.3 (1994): 577–592.

    DOI: 10.2307/2944796

    This foundational work provides a formal model based on how a leader suffers domestically after making threats without following through. The prospect of suffering from audience costs differentiates truly resolute leaders from those who bluff, making threats more credible. The logic suggests that audience costs can affect the likelihood of armed conflict by altering state calculations about escalation and backing down.

  • Fearon, James D. “Signaling Foreign Policy Interests: Tying Hands versus Sinking Costs.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 41.1 (1997): 68–90.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022002797041001004

    The author develops two formal models to illustrate two types of costly signaling mechanisms: tying hands and sinking costs. These mechanisms allow states to communicate their intentions credibly.

  • Jervis, Robert. The Logic of Images in International Relations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970.

    In a section discussing domestic constraints and the credibility of signals (pp. 74–76), the author briefly proposes a mechanism that is akin to audience costs.

  • Quek, Kai. “Four Costly Signaling Mechanisms.” American Political Science Review 115.2 (2021): 537–549.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055420001094

    The author develops two costly signaling mechanisms, installment costs and reducible costs, in addition to the mechanisms of sunk costs and tied-hands costs in Fearon 1997.

  • Schelling, Thomas C. Arms and Influence. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966.

    Schelling highlights in chapter 2 that communicating intentions alone is insufficient—states must do so credibly by limiting the options to revoke a commitment. By risking the loss of national honor and reputation that results from failing to follow through on its commitment, a state can tie its hands and make the communicated commitment credible.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.