Earlier this month, news agencies reported that a Russian fighter jet flew within 10 feet of a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over the Black Sea.

U.S. officials described the Russian flyby as a “dangerous and unprofessional” maneuver that had “the potential to unnecessarily escalate tensions, and could result in a miscalculation or accident.” Russian authorities said that the incident occurred because the U.S. plane had turned off its transponder and that the Russian “pilots acted in strict conformity with air traffic international rules.”

Why the confrontational public rhetoric? After all, both sides could have kept the incident — an example of what we call “invisible crises” — from becoming public and settled the dispute through back channels. Even once the episode was publicized, U.S. and Russian officials could have tried to smooth things over in an effort to keep tensions from escalating.

Our recent research suggests that one reason countries use accusatory language and conflict rhetoric during this kind of episode is because they are appealing to international public opinion. Governments that accuse the other side of causing a dangerous event are typically viewed in a more positive light than if they simply try to defend their own actions. As a result, both countries have an incentive to accuse the other side of behaving badly, leading them to use fighting words, even if they don’t want the conflict to escalate.

How do governments report invisible crises?

Our research focuses on “invisible crises,” which we define as low-salience military confrontations like this one in remote locations, such as isolated islands and international airspace. Because of their geographical obscurity, the public and media usually don’t notice them — unless governments involved release information about the incidents.

Typically, when governments decide to go public about such crises, they are responding in one of two ways. In some instances, they justify their own actions, emphasizing their military’s routine, regular and legal behavior. We refer to these as positive responses. At other times, countries respond negatively, denouncing the opposing nation by calling its behavior “dangerous” or “unusual.”

But do positive and negative responses affect the way that the international public views each nation? This is an important question, because in an effort to maintain allies, coalition partners, mediators or supporters in the United Nations, countries want foreign nations’ citizens to see them favorably. This is why parties in disputes — for example, China and Japan — often make public statements in English in addition to their official languages.

To answer the question, we designed a series of experiments. In our first experiment, respondents in Japan read a fictional scenario that described a situation in which two anonymous countries’ aircraft had encountered each other in disputed airspace.

Subjects were then randomly shown one of several “official” statements about the incident, each designed to replicate different rhetorical strategies — saying nothing (silence), employing self-promotion (positive) or denouncing the other country (negative). Respondents were then asked how much they supported each side.

Going negative was clearly the best strategy. Respondents were inclined to “oppose” a country that remained silent in face of a silent opponent. If the same country denounced a silent opponent, however, the accuser was rated more favorably. Denouncing the other country was also most effective at undermining the opponent’s popularity.

Unilaterally denouncing the opponent gave readers an impression that the accuser had been acting legitimately for its own defense. Silence gave the impression that the government was hiding something.

We conducted a second set of experiments in South Korea and the United States. We used a design nearly identical to the first experiment, except that in the (still fictional) scenarios, the countries involved were identified as Japan and China. This allowed us to test whether the identity of the nation affected the influence of different rhetorical strategies.

It did. Korean respondents approved more of China when it defended its own actions and Japan remained silent. Moreover, China’s self-promotion against Japan’s accusation nullified the loss of support that would have otherwise occurred when Japan denounced China (see the upper-left panel in the figure below).

That wasn’t true among Americans, who reacted favorably to Japan’s self-promotion in the face of China’s silence (lower-right panel) while remaining uninfluenced by China’s self-promotion against Japan’s silence (lower-left panel).

The key difference between Korean and American respondents was that, when respondents are exposed to no rhetoric at all, Koreans tended to favor China, while Americans clearly favored Japan. This suggests that Koreans are influenced by China’s self-promotion because of their favorable prior attitudes toward China, whereas Americans appreciated only Japan’s self-promotion.

In a search for popularity among the international public, nations may have an incentive to escalate, not defuse, their rhetoric in the kind of “invisible” incidents that happen on a regular basis in international politics.

Shoko Kohama is an associate professor in political science at Hokkaido University. Kazunori Inamasu is an associate professor in social psychology at Kwansei Gakuin University. Atsushi Tago is a professor in international relations at Kobe University. The authors are co-principal investigators of the CROP-IT (collaborative research on political information transmission) project funded by JSPS (Japan Society for the Promotion of Science).