The forthcoming article “If They Endorse It, I Can’t Trust It: How Outgroup Leader Endorsements Undercut Public Support for Civil War Peace Settlements” by Nicholas Haas and Prabin B. Khadka is summarized by the author(s) below. 

If They Endorse It, I Can't Trust It: How Outgroup Leader Endorsements Undercut Public Support for Civil War Peace Settlements

Most of us have been accustomed to seeing photographs of formerly warring leaders smiling and holding up jointly signed peace agreements. Indeed, the world has seen a new peak in the number of conflicts, with 50 or greater every year since 2014. Unfortunately, peace settlements have failed to curb the increase in conflict, and many result in a relapse in violence; since 2015, only one peace agreement has led to conflict termination, which was in  Colombia with the FARC in 2016 (Pettersson et al. 2019). Do leader endorsements of peace agreements have their intended effect, that is, do they increase civilian support? Given the high percentage of negotiated peace settlements that fail to deliver enduring peace, and evidence that public opinion can play a key role in determining settlement success or failure, we believe that answering this question — and more generally, understanding the drivers of civilian attitudes toward peace agreements — is of great import.

To evaluate our question, we took advantage of a brief lull in the ongoing ethnic civil war in South Sudan in 2016 to conduct the first-ever endorsement study of peace policies in an active conflict setting. A large extant literature on leader endorsements in non-conflict settings indicated, somewhat intuitively, that endorsements from ethnic in-group leaders should increase support for policies and that endorsements from ethnic out-group leaders should decrease support for policies. However, as we note in the paper, the application of these studies to a conflict setting was unclear, particularly in light of a large body of evidence showing how conflict can powerfully alter individuals’ emotions and priorities.

Our experimental results provided strong support for the out-group expectation: support for real tentative peace policies dropped precipitously where they were first endorsed by ethnic out-group leaders, and effects appeared to be greatest for those from the communities targeted most violently by that out-group. More surprising, however, was our finding that ethnic in-group leaders’ endorsements did not alter individuals’ support.

How should our results be interpreted? We argue that prolonged conflict and continued failed promises to deliver peace from both sides leads individuals to doubt both in- and out-group leaders, but with differential downstream effects. Conflict leads individuals to distrust out-group leaders and value security over other concerns, and they accordingly perceive an out-group leader’s endorsement as signaling that the leader anticipates a way to exploit the policy and further target one’s ethnic group in the future. In contrast, while conflict leads individuals to doubt the competence of in-group leaders and the credibility of their endorsements, it does not lead them to view in-group leaders’ endorsements as threatening. While an out-group leader’s endorsement signals that a policy is costly, an in-group leader’s endorsement does not convey new information about the policy’s costs or benefits.

Our study indicates that leader endorsements can result in lower levels of civilian support for peace agreements. How can support be increased? Our findings suggest that efforts to build in and communicate safeguards against out-group exploitation, and to increase inter-group trust, may be promising avenues for change. We encourage future work to further investigate how leader endorsements affect peace policy support in conflict settings, and in our own follow-up study, we consider how public opinion in turn affects elite decision-making. 

References 

Pettersson, Therese; Stina Högbladh & Magnus Öberg, 2019. Organized violence, 1989-2018 and peace agreements, Journal of Peace Research 56(4). 

About the Author(s): Nicholas Haas is a PhD Candidate, Department of Politics at New York University and Prabin B. Khadka is a PhD Candidate, Department of Politics at New York University. Their research “If They Endorse It, I Can’t Trust It: How Outgroup Leader Endorsements Undercut Public Support for Civil War Peace Settlements” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.