Feigning Weakness

Branislav L. Slantchev

International Organization, Vol. 64, No. 3. (July, 2010), pp. 357-388.


In typical crisis bargaining models, strong actors must convince the opponent that they are not bluffing and the only way to do so is through costly signaling. However, in a war strong actors can benefit from tactical surprise when their opponent mistakenly believes that they are weak. This creates contradictory incentives during the pre-war crisis: actors want to persuade the opponent of their strength to gain a better deal but, should war break out, they would rather have the opponent believe they are weak. I present an ultimatum crisis bargaining model that incorporates this dilemma and show that a strong actor may feign weakness during the bargaining phase. This implies that (a) absence of a costly signal is not an unambiguous revelation of weakness,(b) the problem of uncertainty is worse because the only actor with incentives to overcome it may be unwilling to do so, and (c) because of the difficulty with concealing resolve, democracies might be seriously disadvantaged in a crisis.


costly signaling, crisis bargaining, contests with incomplete information