Diverting domestic turmoil

Ashani Amarasinghe


When faced with intense domestic turmoil, governments may strategically engage in foreign interactions to divert the public’s attention away from pressing domestic issues. I test this hypothesis for a globally representative sample of 190 countries, at the monthly level, over the years 1997-2014. Using textual data on media–reported events retrieved from the GDELT database, I find robust evidence that governments resort to diversionary tactics in times of domestic turmoil and that such diversion takes the form of verbally aggressive foreign interactions, typically targeted at ‘weak’ countries and countries closely linked along religious, linguistic and geographic dimensions. Strategically important trade partners are unlikely to be victimized. These findings suggest that diversionary foreign policy is, in fact, systematically practised by governments as a strategic tool, and that such diversion is exercised in a manner that may not lead to large scale costs or risks of retaliation.

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