"Nationalist Protests, Government Responses, and the Risk of Escalation in Interstate Disputes"

"Nationalist Protests, Government
Responses, and the Risk of Escalation in
Interstate Disputes"
ABSTRACT: When does nationalist public sentiment increase the risk of war in interstate
disputes? The literature often cites nationalism as a key driver of conflict, emphasizing
elite willingness to pander to it and the resulting constraints on state action. But much less
attention has been paid to variation in elite fears of popular nationalism and efforts to
subdue rather than inflame such sentiments. We focus on one key form of nationalist
expression—street protests—and the conditions under which nationalist mobilization may
raise the risks of war amid interstate feuds, whether by harming foreign interests directly
or forcing governments to adopt a more belligerent stance. When nationalist protesters
demand confrontational or uncompromising policies, elites must weigh the costs and
benefits of repression against those of allowing protests, including the risk that protests
will lead to domestic instability or interstate conflict.
We argue that governments’ ability and willingness to subdue hardline nationalist protests
varies within and across regime types. In democracies, where the risks of allowing protests
are relatively low and costs of repression are relatively high, demonstrations are common
but rarely destabilizing: revealing citizen preferences but ultimately influencing foreign
policy through the filter of elections. Autocracies typically forbid public protests that may
unite opposition to the regime, since the cost of repression is usually lower than the risk to
stability. Yet incentives to harness public opinion to advance territorial objectives and
increase domestic legitimacy create windows of selective tolerance in authoritarian states,
which can heighten interstate tension. Hybrid regimes may have enough democratic
features to make repression costly but not enough to ensure the stable and peaceful
resolution of domestic grievances, making nationalist protests both more common and
more likely to force international escalation. To illustrate, we examine how four different
regimes, ranging from autocratic to democratic—Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and the
Philippines—have dealt with nationalist protests over interstate disputes in recent years.