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War and the Reelection Motive: Examining the Effect of Term Limits

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Journal of Conflict Resolution

Published online on


This article investigates the relationship between term limits and international conflict. Theories of political survival and diversionary war both imply term limits should play a role in international relations, whereas "permanent referendum theory," largely motivated by work in American politics, suggests otherwise. Drawing on these theories, we formulate and test competing hypotheses regarding term limits and international crises. Using dyadic militarized interstate disputes data and information on forty-eight democracies with term limits, we uncover strong evidence to support the claim that leaders reaching final terms in office are more likely to initiate conflict than those still subject to reelection. Moreover, we find that the likelihood of conflict initiation is significantly higher during times of recession, but only in the absence of binding term limits. While binding electoral terms and economic downturns are both independently associated with increased levels of conflict initiation, in concert their conditional effects actually counteract each other.