Dissertation Project: "Partisan Polarization and International Politics"

My dissertation project is about partisan polarization and its consequences for international politics. A central finding in the study of international relations is that democratic states have more stable foreign policies and are better at making credible international commitments. However, I argue that cases of extreme domestic polarization can result in significant changes in foreign policy positions and undermine the reliability of democratic commitments. Nowhere is this process more evident than in the United States, where the past thirty years have been characterized by partisan divergence on military alliances, relationships with foreign allies and adversaries, and U.S. engagement in international institutions. While the focus of research on polarization in the American context has largely been on its implications for domestic politics, this project demonstrates that polarization has tangible impacts on U.S. foreign policy and on broader patterns of international cooperation and conflict. Drawing on elite interviews, observational and experimental public opinion research, and computational text analysis, I demonstrate how polarization represents a challenge to democratic states with a particular emphasis on its implications for U.S. national security policy.




To what extent does transparency in foreign policymaking matter to democratic publics? Scholars and policymakers have posited a normative commitment to transparency in the conduct of foreign affairs, an assumption baked into many existing models of international politics. This paper tests the existence of a “transparency norm” in international security using two original survey experiments about covert action. The first experiment recovers attitudes towards a covert operation by holding the circumstances, cost, and outcomes of a conflict constant and manipulating whether foreign involvement was public or kept secret. The second experiment unpacks an “ends” and “means” trade-off by exploring whether there are conditions under which covert action is unacceptable to the public, regardless of policy outcomes. The findings demonstrate that democratic publics have only a weak preference for transparency: citizens care substantially more about the outcomes of U.S. foreign policy rather than the process by which the policy was created.

STATUS: Published at The Journal of Politics. Paper available HERE. Ungated version HERE.

PRESENTED AT: 2018 International Studies Association Conference in San Francisco, CA. Received 2018 Alexander George Award from the ISA Foreign Policy Analysis Section. Runner-up for the 2020 Best Research Article Prize in US Foreign Policy & Grand Strategy from the America in the World Consortium (AWC).


(co-authored with Ala' Alrababa'h and Isaac Webb) 


How do the perceived motives of donor states shape recipient attitudes towards foreign aid in a conflict zone? We identify two frames that characterize the motives of foreign powers involved in an ongoing civil conflict in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. These frames portray foreign actors as either providing aid to alleviate suffering during conflict (humanitarian frame) or to increase their power and influence in the recipient country (political influence frame). In a survey experiment conducted throughout Ukraine, we demonstrate how these frames impact attitudes towards foreign assistance from the European Union and the Russian government. We show that both frames increase support for foreign aid from the European Union but have no influence on views of Russian aid. Counter to conventional expectations, we demonstrate that aid provided for geopolitical, strategic reasons can at times be viewed as a positive, stabilizing force---even more than foreign aid provided for humanitarian reasons. 

STATUS: Published at International Studies Quarterly. Paper available HERE. Ungated version HERE

PRESENTED AT: 2017 American Political Science Association Conference in San Francisco, CA


(co-authored with Lindsey Reid, Kelly Kadera, and Mark Crescenzi) 


The spread of civil war poses serious risks and costs. We argue that conflict environments, which vary across time and space, can systematically exacerbate the spread of civil war. As conflict in a state’s neighborhood becomes more spatially proximate and as lingering effects of conflict accumulate over time, that state’s risk of civil war onset increases. To theorize and test this argument, we construct the Conflict Environment (CE) score, a concept that taps into spatial and temporal dimensions of violence in a state’s neighborhood. Using the CE score in established empirical models of civil war onset, we demonstrate that a dangerous conflict environment consistently elevates the risk of civil war, outperforming traditional measures of nearby violence, even when domestic factors are taken into account.

STATUS: Forthcoming at The Journal of Global Security Studies. Paper available HERE. Ungated version HERE

Under Review



A prominent explanation for increasing partisan polarization over U.S. foreign policy is the decline of a common, external threat. Scholars of international security suggest that a bipartisan consensus over foreign affairs eroded following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet threat. This “external threat narrative” has attracted renewed academic and political interest in the current hyper-partisan era. Yet despite the ubiquity of the external threat narrative in the security studies literature, the theoretical assumptions it makes have not been evaluated in a systematic way. This paper identifies two mechanisms through which threats could induce bipartisanship: credibly revealing information about an adversary that causes policymakers to respond in a bipartisan manner (an information mechanism) and increasing social cohesion by heightening the salience of national identity relative to partisan identity (an identity mechanism). In three short studies, I outline and test the observable implications of these mechanisms. To evaluate the information mechanism, Study 1 asks whether international crises lead to partisan convergence in Congressional rhetoric around the state the triggered the crisis. To evaluate the identity mechanism, Study 2 assesses whether foreign threats reduce the partisan gap in presidential approval ratings. Study 3 considers the micro-foundations of both mechanisms through an original survey experiment about a security threat posed to the United States by China. Collectively, the studies show that the external threat hypothesis has limited ability to explain either polarization in U.S. foreign policy or affective polarization among American public. The findings cast doubt on predictions that the emergence of new foreign threats will create partisan unity.

STATUS: Invited to Revise & Resubmit. Latest version available HERE.

PRESENTED AT: 2019 American Political Science Association Conference in Washington, D.C, 2019 Peace Science Society Annual Meeting, and 2020 International Studies Association Conference (cancelled). Received the 2019 Stuart A. Bremer Award from the Peace Science Society Annual Meeting. Honorable mention for the 2021 Patricia Weitsman Award from the International Studies Association, International Security Studies Section.


(co-authored with Jeremy Weinstein) 

Existing studies of human rights reforms in international relations consist mainly of cross-national analyses that assess the extent to which international law or advocacy organizations change human rights practices. This literature has largely set aside the role of “human rights diplomacy” (HRD)—efforts by government officials to engage publicly and privately on human rights with their foreign counterparts—in changing human rights practices because many diplomatic actions are not publicly observable. To fill this gap, we exploit a unique opportunity to assess the relative effectiveness of HRD in practice: a high-profile, coordinated effort by the U.S. government in 2015 to free twenty female political prisoners (the #Freethe20 campaign). We compare the release rates of the twenty featured prisoners to two control groups: (1) twenty women who were initially considered by the U.S. State Department for inclusion in the campaign but ultimately left off the list and (2) all female political prisoners imprisoned simultaneously in the countries targeted by the campaign. Both approaches demonstrate that women featured in #Freethe20 were released from prison at a significantly faster rate than their peers. We then explore the mechanisms behind human rights diplomacy. Drawing on a quantitative analysis of online searches and media mentions as well as in-depth interviews with U.S. officials, we find minimal evidence that releases were driven by sustained public attention. Instead, the evidence suggests that the campaign worked because of coordinated private diplomacy around the featured prisoners.

STATUS: Invited to Revise & Resubmit.

PRESENTED AT: 2018 Journeys in World Politics Workshop at University of Iowa, 2018 Annotation for Transparent Inquiry Workshop in New York, NY.


(co-authored with Haemin Jee and Hans Lueders) 

Across the world, multiple democracies have recently experienced an erosion of their democratic institutions. To date, however, we lack a shared understanding of the concept of “democratic backsliding” in theory and practice. While the term is ubiquitous in scholarly work and public discourse, how backsliding is conceptualized and measured varies widely. This paper provides a framework to distinguish between processes of backsliding across three arenas of democratic politics derived from foundational goals of democratic governance: freedom of choice, freedom from tyranny, and equality in freedom. We illustrate the usefulness of this framework with application to contemporary cases of democratic decline in the United States, Hungary, and Mexico. Overall, we argue that a common conceptual understanding of backsliding is critical to building cumulative knowledge about its causes and consequences. Our framework enables scholars to identify and explain cases of democratic backsliding in a systematic and explicitly comparative way.

STATUS: Under Review

PRESENTED AT: 2018 Midwest Political Science Association Conference in Chicago, IL


(co-authored with Ala' Alrababa'h) 


Scholars and practitioners debate the effectiveness of various strategies of post-conflict justice, but how do citizens impacted by conflict evaluate these policies? The conflict in eastern Ukraine presents an opportunity to shed light on public attitudes towards the “peace- versus-justice” debate. In a survey experiment fielded across Ukraine, including in the separatist-controlled areas, we provide respondents information about whether separatists or pro-government forces allegedly committed more war crimes during the conflict. We examine how this treatment impacts respondents’ evaluations of three post-conflict strategies: international trials, domestic trials, and amnesty policies. We find surprisingly little evidence that inter-group bias conditions attitudes towards these policies. Instead, our results demonstrate substantial support for international law. Ukrainians believe international law is more likely to bring both peace and justice, suggesting they are not mutually exclusive objectives. Our findings suggest international law may be particularly effective in post-conflict democracies where citizens perceive state institutions as weak or corrupt.

STATUS: Under Review

PRESENTED AT: 2018 International Studies Association Conference in San Francisco, California and 2018 American Political Science Association Conference in Boston, MA. Runner-up for the 2018 Kenneth Boulding Award from the ISA Peace Studies Section. 

Working Papers


(co-authored with Carl Gustafson and William Marble)

Although political parties are central to democratic governance, we have little definitive knowledge about how they affect outcomes in international relations. Cross-national, quantitative approaches examine the association between the party in power and a given foreign policy outcome, controlling for state level characteristics. However, this research design cannot rule out potential confounders, such as public opinion, the structure of the media, or the presence of organized interest groups. We use an alternative strategy—a series of election-based regression discontinuity designs—to compare how otherwise similar states behave in international politics as a function of whether they elect a right-wing or left-wing executive. Using estimates of political ideology derived from party platforms, we find little evidence to support the claim that right-wing leaders are more likely to use militarized tools in foreign policy: they are not consistently more likely to use military force, initiate interstate disputes, or increase defense spending. However, we do find evidence that parties systematically differ in their propensity to use non-militarized tools in foreign policy. Left-wing leaders are more likely to use instruments of “soft power” by engaging in international organizations, joining non-aggression and consultation pacts, contributing to development assistance and humanitarian operations, and investing in diplomatic exchange.

STATUS: Working Paper

PRESENTED AT: 2020 American Political Science Association Conference in San Francisco, CA (virtual).


How does partisan polarization in the United States affect foreign perceptions of U.S. security commitments and global leadership? Using a survey experiment fielded to 2000 British adults, I demonstrate that priming respondents to think about U.S. polarization negatively impacts their evaluations of the U.S.-U.K. bilateral relationship and U.S. foreign policy. These impacts are stronger for the long-term, reputational consequences of polarization than for immediate security concerns. In other words, while foreign allies may not necessarily believe a polarized America will renege on existing security commitments, perceptions of extreme polarization make other countries less willing to engage in future partnerships with the United States and more skeptical of its global leadership in the long run. I further demonstrate that the negative reputational consequences of polarization are driven by perceptions of preference-based, ideological polarization rather than identity-based, affective polarization. I argue that these results suggest that American allies anticipate that increasing divergence between the Republican and Democratic Party creates uncertainty around U.S. foreign policy in the future.

STATUS: Working Paper

PRESENTED AT: 2019 International Studies Association Conference in Toronto, CA and 2020 Workshop on "Domestic Polarization and US Foreign Policy" at University of Heidelberg (scheduled). 



Democracies are typically thought to be reliable allies and credible adversaries in international politics. In part, this is because democracies maintain consistent foreign policy across successive executives. Institutional features of democratic states---including regularized leadership turnover, electoral accountability, and a system of executive constraints---provide incentives for political parties to pursue moderate foreign policy agendas and prevent democratic leaders from reneging on international commitments. However, I argue that this logic breaks down in cases of extreme partisan polarization, which can erode both vertical and horizontal checks on executive power, resulting in significant changes in foreign policy preferences and outcomes. This paper uses cross-national measures of partisan divergence over ideological preferences (``Right-Left" spectrum) and foreign policy preferences (``Hawk-Dove" spectrum) to assess the conditions under which leadership turnover affects: (1) roll-call votes at the UN General Assembly, (2) membership in international organizations, and (3) membership in military alliances. I find that executive turnover is associated with foreign policy instability when democracies are politically polarized. My findings suggest that domestic polarization may pose challenges for international cooperation. 

STATUS: Working Paper

PRESENTED AT: 2018 Peace Science Society International Annual Conference in Austin, TX

© 2023 by RACHEL MYRICK. Proudly created with Wix.com

  • Facebook - Grey Circle
  • Twitter - Grey Circle
  • Google+ - Grey Circle
  • LinkedIn - Grey Circle