“Magic Democracy Words” Don’t Tie Their Speaker’s Hands

In an August 30 piece for BBC News, Shashank Joshi, a graduate student at Harvard University and associate fellow at a major U.K. think tank, argued that strong statements from American officials about Syrian president Assad’s loss of legitimacy would help advance the Syrian revolution by committing the U.S. to stronger courses of action. Joshi writes (emphasis added):

The Syrian revolution of 2011 could also have been one more of those many abortive uprisings whose blood flecks the history of the modern Middle East, yet could not change its course. Things are no longer so clear. The outside world is slowly getting its act together. The US finally issued its “magic democracy words” (a term coined by US Middle East scholar Marc Lynch) and called for President Assad to go. No-one expects that the words will wound themselves, but they tie American hands and thereby force the machinery of US foreign policy to churn out fresh ways of hounding Damascus.

This isn’t the only place I’ve seen it said that sharp pronouncements from American officials about a foreign leader’s right to rule or the need for regime change “tie American hands.” This might sound nit-picky, but that phrasing’s not quite right, and it makes a difference for how effective we might expect those “magic words” to be.

The language about hand-tying comes from game theory. In multiplayer games, each player’s course of action often depends, in part, on its expectations about what other players will choose to do. This interactive aspect of the game means that one player can influence the others’ choices by committing him or herself to following or eschewing a specific course of action. For that commitment to be credible, it has to be visible (or audible) to the other players. More important here, it also has to be something its maker can’t undo, or, if he or she can undo it, something that would obviously be costlier to undo than to follow.

A classic example of hand-tying comes from the game of chicken. Imagine a contest with two cars hurtling toward each other. If the cars smash into each other, both drivers lose badly. If both cars swerve, neither driver wins, and they both look a little cowardly. The only way to win the game is to hold the course longer than the other guy. To scare your rival into swerving first, you might commit yourself to holding course by, say, visibly locking the steering wheel into a fixed position. (To see this idea in action, watch Kevin Bacon on a tractor. Technically, that’s foot-tying, but you get the point.)

Credible commitments differ from weaker forms of signaling. Signals don’t foreclose any courses of action; instead, they affect other players’ beliefs about what course of action the signal’s issuer will choose. Game theory tells us that signals should have a weaker effect on other players’ actions than credible commitments do. They don’t lop any branches off the game tree; they just modify receivers’ beliefs about which branch of the tree they are probably heading down.

“Magic democracy words” are not credible commitments; they are signals. They are audible, but they neither lock in nor foreclose any specific policy options. After saying that a ruler like Assad must go, the U.S. government might do more to make that happen, but it can also do nothing, and it can even work to support that ruler’s continuation in office. Whichever path it chooses, it can also change course at any time. Doing so might somehow diminish America’s reputation, but the costs of a diminished reputation must be balanced against all kinds of other interests, many of which will probably weigh more heavily than ephemeral concerns about consistency and likeability. International relations is replete with flip-flops, hypocrisy, and duplicity, so it’s hard to imagine many situations in which reputational concerns would compel a government to pursue a course of action that was otherwise judged to be counter to its national interest.

To my mind, magic democracy words are more like trash-talking than hand-tying. They might get players and fans a little hot under the collar, but they don’t really tell us much about the action to come. Smart players and coaches will ignore the jawboning and will look for their signals in the play that follows instead.

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  1. Thanks for your insight on this topic you. Bringing the game theory facet into the picture helps to clear up the situation. There are a number of factors that would have to be present for “magic democracy words” to appear as commitments rather than just signals. Things such as the setting of the statements, the past actions of the speaker, the popular opinion, the domestic political climate, the international political climate, etc.”magic democracy words” are not always credible.

  2. Trey

     /  September 27, 2011

    Nice insights, Jay. As you know, I’m no firm believer in “magic words,” but I wonder if the signaling might be directed at the United States’ allies rather than only at Syria. Further, I also wonder if this is a case of the United States trying to alleviate pressure from allies rather than constantly deflecting questions about why the US government hasn’t denounced the Assad regime.

  3. I’ve had a good discussion with Jay on Twitter about this. But to the commenter above, just wanted to add that this (allies) was my intended focus. The next passage in the article (after the one excerpted here) was:

    “They also send a powerful signal – not to Mr Assad, but to US allies and partners who now know that there may be a cost to hedging their bets. For example, their firms may be caught up in sanctions, as has occurred in the course of US policy towards Iran”

    I grant that I shouldn’t have said “powerful”. But, technically, this is a case of commitment or tying hands, and not signaling. Even creating weak costs for inaction still qualifies as tying hands e.g. http://jcr.sagepub.com/content/41/1/68.abstract

    • Trey

       /  September 27, 2011

      Serves me right for continuing the proud internet tradition of responding without reading the source material. Thanks for the clarification.

  4. “Signals don’t foreclose any courses of action; instead, they affect other players’ beliefs about what course of action the signal’s issuer will choose” I totally agree with this but in practical terms, within the exemple cited, what does this mean? It means sending empty messages in order to change the other’s beliefs and most likely course of action based on these induced beliefs. So after all it is not about actions from those who send the ‘magic democracy words’ as much as expected actions from those who receive them.

    Best example is Saddam, when threatened by increasing sanctions, wanted the west to believe that he had WMDs in order to repel an invasion that wasn’t repelled after all because the west knew Saddam didn’t have any WMDs left.

    ‘amgic democracy words’ serve also a new paradigm in foreign policy: confrontation rather than mending and building ties. Confrontational foreign policy eliminates alternatives to war and therefore prepare the terrain for wars or more precisely ‘just wars’, that is, wars that are morally justified. The moral justification is based on the double effect theory. The theory tells us that when the negative consequences of wars are foreseen but not intended, a humanitarian war is morally justified and ‘just’.

    However, the doctrine of the double effect in Thomas Aquinas tells us that the distinction between forseen and intended consequences is useless when there are alternatives to the action judged, in this case the war.

    So the ‘magic democracy words’ serve two functions: 1) alter the actions of those whose beliefs were altered by the words and 2) cut bridges and eliminate alternatives to wars to work out a justification for hostile actions by those who uttered the words.

  5. The day after I wrote this post, I saw this tweet from @WomanfromYemen: “don’t underestimate the power of your words & support to #yemen. they boost our moral & give us hope that world is listening.” Her statement makes me wonder again about the effects “magic democracy words” might have on other audiences, for better (constructive encouragement) or for worse (false hope). A topic for another time…


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