Forum Final Response
September 21, 2011
With Responses From
Sep 21, 2011
7 Min read time
I thank the respondents for their excellent commentaries. Rather than try to answer all of the points raised by the distinguished group of experts, I will address several common themes.
First, however, I wish to clarify a few things. James Fearon assumes that because I examine the effects of regime change on civil war, leader survival, and democratization that I also claim that regime change is undertaken to avoid civil war, install long-lasting leaders, or democratize targets. This is not my argument (although democratization is sometimes an aim of intervention). States enact regime change for multiple reasons. One prominent motive is to prevent a rival power from extending its influence, which is what drove the U.S. interventions in Latin America during the Cold War, mentioned by Fearon. Given that states overthrow foreign governments—for whatever reason—I focus on understanding the consequences.
Similarly, Greg Grandin argues that I endorse a state’s right to intervene in another state’s affairs, and that I fail to question the professed motives of leaders for carrying out regime change. On the contrary, I do not endorse any particularly policy; I merely describe what has been the practice of states since time immemorial. States have interfered and will continue to interfere in each other’s business when they believe it suits their interests, and I elaborate on the consequences of one form of intervention. I agree with Grandin’s point that leaders’ motives are not always what they say they are. With respect to democratization, however, it cannot be denied that the United States attempted it in some cases—the Dominican Republic (1916–24), West Germany and Japan after World War II, Panama at the end of the Cold War, and Iraq and Afghanistan today. That these U.S. interventions did not, on average, end up promoting democracy is not necessarily evidence that U.S. leaders did not try.
Finally, Joanne Landy charges (among other things) that I assume “stability” is a virtue that justifies intervention and that U.S. regime changes are motivated by idealism. I simply pointed out that U.S. leaders value stability—by which I mean the absence of conflict—in many regions of the world, especially Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. Maintaining stability has long been the government’s motive for stationing U.S. military forces in these areas. Nor do I say that past U.S. interventions were motivated by idealism—most, clearly, were not—only that U.S. leaders have listed idealistic reasons (e.g., spreading democracy, preventing mass killing) for some of their current interventions.
Those issues clarified, I am sympathetic to three themes that emerge in several of the responses. First, regime change is not only ineffective but counterproductive, often with disastrous consequences. On the question of democratization, Neta Crawford writes that U.S. regime changes promote superficial forms of democracy, can lead to autocratic rule and violence, and harm democracy at home. John Tirman contends that “violence begets violence” and that the indiscriminate use of force by U.S. troops in Iraq fueled the insurgency and fostered negative perceptions of U.S. forces. Mary Kaldor argues that all violent regime change—not only that perpetrated by outside actors—generates further violence.
Regime change is typically a choice, not a necessity.
As I note in my article, foreign-imposed regime change is often followed by civil war and violent transitions between leaders. Supporting Tirman’s point, regime changes inflicted simultaneously with defeat in war are especially likely to lead to internal conflict. My research finds that externally imposed leaders are also more likely to be overthrown than leaders brought to power by a coup or revolution. In addition to the factors that Crawford mentions, regime change overseas can harm democracy at home when leaders circumvent democratic procedures in covert operations and lie to cover up such operations or generate public approval for overt interventions.
Second, Crawford, Kaldor, and Landy point out that if the United States wants to spread democracy, it has tools other than forceful regime change at its disposal: withdrawing support from autocratic allies and encouraging peaceful movements for regime change. Although I do not think that spreading democracy should be a high priority for U.S. foreign policy, to the extent that U.S. leaders wish to promote democracy abroad, there is evidence (from academic studies and recent events in the Middle East) that nonviolent protest is a better route to obtaining regime change and democratization than are violent means, and that foreign aid targeted directly at democratic reforms rather than the economy or civil society more broadly can be helpful.
Finally, Tod Lindberg makes the important point that one cannot fully assess the consequences of regime change without examining the alternatives and their possible outcomes. Regime change might be bad, but following some other course of action (including doing nothing) could be worse. Similarly, Fearon argues that U.S. leaders know very well that upending foreign leaders leads to calamitous consequences, yet go ahead because they perceive the benefits to outweigh the costs.
Lindberg is no doubt correct, but evaluating the possible outcomes of all alternative courses of action in more than one hundred historical cases of regime change would tax the capabilities of even a large team of researchers. Research on regime change thus needs to be read in conjunction with literature on the relative effectiveness of other forms of intervention, such as positive inducements, coercive threats, sanctions, and airpower. I argue that foreign-imposed regime change raises the likelihood of several undesirable outcomes, but I do not say it is always the worst option. Lindberg points out that regime change may be unavoidable in certain situations. I agree, but it is important to realize how rare those cases are: regime change is typically a choice, not a necessity. How frequently leaders feel the need to make that choice varies with their conception of U.S. interests. Given current conventional wisdom holding that the security of the United States is affected by events occurring almost everywhere, and given the enormous capacity of American power, there is a great temptation to engage in regime change.
The perspective from which the consequences of regime change are evaluated—the intervener’s or the target’s—also matters. Overthrowing the Arbenz regime in Guatemala may have served American interests (although this is debatable), but surely it did the Guatemalan people much harm. The same can be said of many other cases of regime change. In my essay I look primarily at the effects of regime change on targets of intervention. More broadly, however, it is not obvious that regime change promotes friendly relations or reliable allies. Although interveners and targets rarely fight wars later on, militarized disputes involving the threat or low-level use of force occur in about one-fifth of cases. In fact, the high frequency of civil conflict suffered by regime change targets poses a threat to the interests of the interveners. Central American states in the nineteenth century were forced to intervene repeatedly in their neighbors after leaders imposed in previous interventions failed to behave as expected or were overthrown. Many allies acquired via regime change are highly dependent on their patrons and become a drag on their economies, as Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe were. Others exploit their vulnerability to force patrons to provide exorbitant amounts of aid, as the Shah of Iran did. Still others, such as Chile, embarrass patrons by committing massive human rights violations. It is possible, as Fearon suggests, that the Bush and Obama administrations weighed all these possible deleterious consequences when deciding to overthrow foreign governments, but history suggests that most leaders have not.
My sharpest disagreement is with Joseph Nye on the current situation in Libya: he argues that President Obama’s policy choices with regard to Libya represent an example of smart strategy.
Obama has declared that the U.S. objective is regime change rather than simply protecting civilians and providing humanitarian relief. The United States has also recognized the rebel coalition as the legitimate government of Libya. The Obama administration would like somebody else to get rid of Qaddafi, but even as the rebels march on Tripoli, the hard work of regime change may well result in protracted conflict. By coming down on the side of regime change, the president has committed the United States to the rebels’ aims, which they cannot achieve on their own. The longer the war goes on, the more pressure the United States will face to act decisively to remove Qaddafi. Obama has thus placed U.S. policy on a slippery slope; eventually we will face a choice between escalation and a humiliating retreat. A smarter strategy would have been to lend rhetorical and moral support to Libyans opposed to Qaddafi and provide humanitarian assistance, but leave the job of deciding what to do with their country to them.
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September 21, 2011
7 Min read time