Violent Regime Change: Causes and Consequences
- Dov LevinDov LevinDepartment of Politics and Public Administration, University of Hong Kong
- and Carmela LutmarCarmela LutmarSchool of Political Sciences, University of Haifa
The practice of foreign imposed regime change (FIRCs) is old, multicausal, and multifaceted. FIRCs have two main characteristics: they include some form of violent use of force to execute them (either covert or overt in nature), and their consequence is a change in the leadership of the polity in which they take place. FIRCs are frequently claimed to have major effects on their targets, such as inducing shifts towards the regime type preferred by the intervener, inducing intra-state violence, increasing cooperation with the target, and improving the economic welfare of the intervener. A review of the literature on the causes and effects of such interventions as well as the main existing datasets of FIRCs shows that significant progress has been made in our understanding of these phenomena with research on some aspects of FIRCs, such as their utility as a tool of inducing democratization, reaching a near scholarly consensus in this regard. Scholars studying this topic can adjust their current approaches (such as agreement upon a list of FIRCs, and the avoidance of conceptual over-stretching) in order to enable continued progress.
Foreign imposed regime change operations are as old as recorded history. Even in the premodern era, when the wholesale assimilation of foreign states was usually a more profitable venture for ambitious (or security-minded) rulers than at present, leaders frequently chose to change a foreign state’s leadership or regime instead. For example, following a big victory over the kingdom of Judea in 609 bce, the then Egyptian king Necho II removed the Judean king Jehoahaz from power, permanently exiled him to Egypt, and replaced Jehoahaz with his brother Jehoiakim. Eleven years later in 598 bce, following a similar sequence of events with the Babylonian empire, Jehoiakim’s son Yehoiachin was removed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II and replaced by his uncle Zedekiah. Then Yehoiachin and 10,000 members of the Judean political, economic, and military elites were permanently exiled to Babylon (Kings II: chs. 23–24).
Likewise, the ancient Indian guidebook to statecraft, the Arthashastra, written sometime in the 2nd to 3rd century bce, was already well acquainted with the full range of covert regime change operations. Kings facing powerful “demon-like” enemies were advised by the Arthashastra, among other things, to remove that foreign ruler from power through various covert means: from providing military aid to a “scion of the enemy’s family or an imprisoned prince,” to secretly sending a spy to poison that ruler (with the poison disguised, for example, as a love potion), to even having a spy, disguised as an astrologer, quietly persuade a high-ranking official within that ruler’s administration “that he is possessed of all the physiognomic characteristics of a king” and that he should launch a coup against him (Kautilya [Shamasastry 1915]: Book 12).
In the premodern Western world, foreign imposed regime changes (FIRCs) were also a quite common foreign policy tool. According to Owen’s (2010) definition, there were at least 122 overt attempts at regime change in Europe between 1510 and 1815. As for the covert ones, the Republic of Venice alone is estimated to have planned or attempted approximately 200 foreign political assassinations between 1415 and 1525. The British Queen Elizabeth I was, between 1570 and 1590 alone, the target of at least 20 (unsuccessful) covert assassination attempts launched by foreign powers (Thomas, 2000, pp. 109–110).
While the estimated number of FIRCs in the modern era varies greatly between scholars on this topic (see subsection on Datasets), it has been a quite commonly used foreign policy tool. According to the best available estimates, from 1816 to the early 2000s somewhere between 37 and 102 world leaders were deposed via an overt FIRC. Covertly, 18 to 24 leaders were removed in this manner by the United States during the Cold War. Not surprisingly, FIRCs have played a very consequential role in many important world events of the 20th and 21st centuries. The U.S.-sponsored covert coup d’état against South Vietnam’s leader Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963 is believed by historians to have played a critical role in creating the conditions within South Vietnam that led the Johnson administration to escalate its involvement in South Vietnam into a full-scale ground and air war two years later (Hammer, 1987). Sixteen years later the Soviet removal of Afghanistan’s leader, Hafizullah Amin, through an operation that combined a military invasion with an assassination, led the Soviet Union into a bloody quagmire in Afghanistan. This quagmire, together with the Soviet economic decline, played a key role in destroying the domestic legitimacy of the Soviet government and bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union (Westad, 2007). The widespread backlash against this Russian FIRC and post-FIRC occupation within Afghanistan and the wider Muslim world also played an important role in igniting the late 20th-century and early 21st-century wave of radical Islamic terrorism (Rapoport, 2004).
Nevertheless, until the 1990s this important foreign policy tool was all but ignored by social scientists, remaining the preserve of historians and qualitative scholars of covert operations interested in particular cases of such operations (for some examples, see Gasiorowski, 1987; Grieb, 1969; Immerman, 1982; Lotze & Dreisziger, 1984; Schmidt, 1971; Sigmund, 1977). Since then, however, and especially since the early 2000s, a large and growing literature in political science and in economics has developed, first on the various aspects of overt and then the covert operations of this kind. This article will discuss various aspects of this foreign policy tool, first defining it and describing the available datasets, then discussing the research on the causes and various effects of such interventions, and finally concluding with some proposals on ways to further advance the research on this topic.
As will be seen in the subsequent section, definitions of what exactly constitutes a foreign imposed regime change (or an attempt at one) abound. Nevertheless, all definitions of FIRCs share two major aspects. First, a FIRC involves a major change in the polity in question, at minimum in the identity of its most senior decision-maker, and at maximum also in the nature of the authority relations, its domestic economic system, and its main claims to legitimacy. Most scholars studying this topic see the whole spectrum of such changes as falling under a rubric of FIRCs, while a handful limit this term only to cases where at least a significant aspect of the target’s institutions, and not just its leader, were replaced as well.
Second, the process of imposition must involve some kind of violent act, or a threat of such an act accompanied by the tools of violent coercion needed for its execution. This act can be done directly by the armed forces or other officials of the intervening country, usually overtly. It can also be done by agents of the intervener mobilizing third parties (senior figures in the target’s military, existing or would-be insurgents, etc.) to enact such a violent imposition on its behalf, usually covertly. Scholars studying FIRCs in a systemic manner have traditionally included only overt violent acts done directly by the state in question. However, a growing number of studies on this topic include at least some such indirect violent, usually covert, methods.
Leaders or regimes can be removed, and are sometimes removed, by foreign powers through methods that do not usually involve violent acts by the intervener or by cooperative third parties. For example, foreign powers can try to bring about an undesired regime’s or leader’s downfall by imposing economic sanctions on that country (Allen, 2008; Marinov, 2005; Von Soest & Wahman, 2015). Likewise, they can intervene in a competitive election in favor of one of the sides contesting it and cause the undesired leader to lose that election (Corstange & Marinov, 2012; Levin, 2016). However, the generally non-violent nature of such methods have led them to be excluded by most scholars of FIRCs from their datasets and studies. As will be further discussed in the conclusions, the rare exceptions in this regard have frequently found these peaceful methods to differ in their effects from those of their violent brethren. Due to these issues, the exclusion of such peaceful methods makes both the concept of FIRCs more theoretically coherent and their study more empirically productive.
A large variety of datasets have been used in order to study foreign imposed regime change. The early wave of research on FIRCs usually utilized related existing measures of military interventions of various kinds (Herman & Kegley, 1998; Meernik, 1996; Peceny, 1999; Pickering & Peceny, 2006) or of Militarized Interstate Disputes (MIDs) (Bueno de Mesquita & Downs, 2006). Seeing such general measures as insufficient for the study of this phenomenon, multiple scholars have constructed separate datasets of FIRCs. Although varying in their definitions, datasets on FIRCs can be divided into three major categories: datasets that focus only (or largely) on successful overt FIRCs; datasets that focus largely on covert FIRCs; and datasets of either type that include both cases of successes and failures.
The first dataset of overt FIRCs (and of FIRCs in general) was constructed by Werner (1996). She collected data only on overt FIRCs occurring after inter-state wars, finding 26 such cases between 1816 and 1980. A FIRC was determined to have occurred following such a war if the leadership change occurred within one year of the war’s end, the foreign power chose or effectively determined the successor, and that successor effectively replaced the removed leader or regime. A subsequent extension of this measure by Lo, Hashimoto, and Reiter (2008) to 2001 found 11 additional cases of FIRCs under this criterion, for a total of 37 cases.
Peic and Reiter (2011) and Lo Hashimoto and Reiter (2008) also constructed a separate measure of FIRCs utilizing the Archigos leader dataset. A FIRC is defined as a situation in which a state directly arranges the removal of the leader of a foreign state via the use of force or a violent act but excluding overt and covert cases where such removal occurred by indirect means such as supporting a coup d’état (or a proxy war) in the target. Following this definition they find 42 cases of FIRCs between 1915 and 2004, all of which are overt in practice.
A third dataset of successful overt FIRCs, this one between 1800 and 2000, was created by Lutmar (2015). A FIRC is defined as a situation where there was a clear military force that was used by a foreign state to depose the foreign rival. Using this definition, she finds 91 cases of FIRCs during this period, of which 87 are overt and the remainder covert.
A fourth dataset of successful overt FIRCs was created by Enterline and Greig (2005, 2008a, 2008b) using a set of indicators regarding the origins of a country’s regime in the Polity 3 dataset. Overt FIRCs are defined more widely here than in the other datasets in this section in regard to the targets of such efforts, with Enterline and Greig including both new regimes imposed on an existing state by a foreign power following a victory in an inter-state war as well as regimes imposed on a soon to be independent colony by the outgoing colonial power. They identify 94 such cases overall between 1816 and 1994, 43 of which (under the Polity 3 criteria) are imposed democratic regimes.
A fifth such dataset, including successful overt and some covert FIRCs, was constructed by Downes (see, for example, Downes and Monten ). A foreign imposed regime change is defined as the forcible or coerced removal of the effective leader of one state by the government of another state. Covert FIRCs were only included in cases where the role of the intervener in the operation (through military and monetary aid, personnel, etc.) was seen by the authors as being large enough to have determined the outcome of the interventions. They find 109 such overt and covert FIRCs between 1816 and 2008, 102 of which are overt and the remainder covert.
As can be seen in the preceding descriptions, most existing datasets of FIRCs either completely exclude covert operations done for this purpose or only include a rather small number of them. Two exceptions exist to this pattern. The first is a dataset constructed by Berger, Corvalan, Easterly, and Satyanath (2013) of successful U.S. and Soviet covert operations during the Cold War period (1947–1989). Berger et al. (2013) include as covert operations both installation operations and support operations (either post-installation or independently). Covert installation operations include assistance at any level to coups d’état, assassinations, the creation of or assistance to insurgent groups targeting the undesired regime, and the spreading of propaganda in the target designed to independently incite or aid such violent regime change attempts. They also include some covert yet peaceful interventions in elections. The exact range of activities included under covert support operations (either as the follow-ups to the installation operations or as stand-alones) are described in a less clear manner but they seem to mostly include acts such as assistance in the construction and/or training of the target’s intelligence and security agencies, assistance in some operations conducted by the target’s security and intelligence forces against anti-regime dissidents, and the covert provision of money and weapons to the target’s leadership and/or security agencies. Berger finds 62 American covert operations of these kinds, of which 24 are installation operations (sometimes with some post-installation support) and 38 are support-only operations. They also find 24 Soviet covert operations of these kina ds, 14 of which are installation operations and the remainder support-only operations.
A second dataset, also including both successful and unsuccessful American interventions of this kind, was constructed by O’Rourke (2013). O’Rourke defines a covert FIRC as an operation where the intervening state does not acknowledge its role publicly, which is designed to replace another state’s effective political leadership by significantly altering the composition of that state’s ruling elite, its administrative apparatus, or its institutional structure. O’Rourke includes under covert FIRCs various violent or coercive regime change operations such as assassinations, sponsoring coups d’état, or arming or aiding dissident groups. She also includes a dozen cases of peaceful attempts to affect election results. Cases where multiple such regime change attempts against a particular leader or regime occurred concurrently or in close succession (such as the various unsuccessful American attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro or aiding Cuban exiles to conduct a military invasion against the regime) are grouped together as a single multiyear operation. She finds 63 American covert FIRCs during the Cold War period (1946–1989), 24 of which were successful and 39 of which failed.
Aside from these two covert FIRC datasets, only two other datasets include unsuccessful FIRCs. One such measure by Owen (2003, 2010) focuses on overt attempts (successful or not) to promote a new regime (and not solely a new leader) between 1510 and 2010. An overt FIRC of this kind was defined by Owen as a forcible effort by the intervener to create, preserve, or alter the political institutions within the target. As for unsuccessful FIRCs, attempts are coded based upon statements to this effect prior to or during the FIRC. Focusing first on the early modern European state system, and then on the modern state system, Owen found 209 FIRCs of this kind in the past five centuries, 87 of which occurred between 1816 and 2010.
A second such measure with overt and a few covert regime change attempts (both of leaders and regimes) is that by Willard-Foster (2018). A FIRC attempt is defined as the decision by one state to abandon bargaining with another and to forcibly remove that state’s leaders or political institutions with the intention of restoring the target state’s sovereignty. Willard-Foster found 132 such attempts, 109 of which were successful and 23 of them unsuccessful. All of the unsuccessful FIRCs were overt operations.
Causes of Foreign Imposed Regime Change
To understand the causes of FIRCs, a brief survey of the effects of leaders and regimes on their polities as well as the interactions between both factors is needed. In regard to the eruption of armed conflicts, the regime type of both would-be participants has famously been found to have major effects in this regard (i.e., the Democratic Peace Theory) (Russett, 1993). The regime type is also found to be an important explanatory variable for states’ behavior given leaders’ incentives. For example, losing wars generates different consequences in terms of leaders’ tenure in various regime types (Bueno de Mesquita & Lalman, 1992; Bueno de Mesquita & Siverson, 1997). Thus, democratic leaders face higher costs than dictators in case they lose a war or if war is costly. This argument was later expanded to what is known as the institutional explanation for the democratic peace (Bueno de Mesquita et al., 1999). If democratic leaders are more likely to be removed from power in the event of a defeat in war, they will place less expected value on wars (Bennett & Stam, 1996; Reiter & Stam, 1998, 2002; Schultz 1999, 2001). Furthermore, anticipating these possible consequences, democratic leaders engage only in wars in which they think there is a high probability of winning.
Similar findings exist regarding the importance of leaders and regimes for the resolution of ongoing disputes and rivalries. For example, Greig (2001, p. 697) argues that “the reevaluation of rivalry policy is more likely to occur in the wake of broader political changes in the governmental structure of one of the rivals. As these political changes occur, a wide range of policy beliefs and assumptions begin to be reevaluated and replaced” (see also Lieberfield, 1999; Steadman, 1991). Schelling (1966, pp. 85–86) points out that persuading a government to shift to a more cooperative strategy may require “some change in the complexion of the government itself, in the authority, prestige, or bargaining power of particular individuals or factions or parties, some shift in executive or legislative leadership.” Thus, leadership change on one or both of the sides in a certain conflict may present a moment in a conflict more conducive to policy change. Indeed, there is growing evidence that conflicts in which one or both of the participating countries experienced (non-FIRC) leadership changes (especially to leaders who are not culpable in the conflict’s eruption) are likely to be conducive to the initiation of negotiations to mediation and to their eventual resolution (Croco, 2015; Bercovitch & Lutmar, 2010). This relationship is also found to be stronger in democracies than in non-democracies (Croco, 2015; Bercovitch & Lutmar, 2010). Likewise, a growing wave of quantitative research on “leader effects” has been providing increasing amounts of systematic, empirical evidence in support of the notion that leaders’ various characteristics “matter.” For example, growing quantitative evidence exists for the effects of leader characteristics such as age (Bak & Palmer, 2010; Horowitz, McDermott, & Stam, 2005; Potter, 2007), past experience as a rebel or revolutionary leader (Colgan, 2013), the executive’s education (Barcelo, 2018), and their military experience (Horowitz, Stam, & Ellis, 2015) on various aspects of their country’s foreign policy (such as the chances of entering a militarized dispute). Likewise, effects of leader characteristics have been found also on various domestic policies such as, for example, economic growth (Jones & Olken, 2005). This research adds to long-standing qualitative research in political psychology that finds that the psychological characteristics of particular senior decision-makers can have major effects upon the policies that their countries enact (see, for example, Friedlander & Cohen, 1975; George, 1969; Keller & Foster, 2012; Saunders, 2009; Vertzberger, 1998).
Given these findings regarding the frequent effects of leader and regime characteristics and of the potential effects of (internally caused) leader and regime changes, a belief by decision-makers that causing or inducing such a leadership or regime change in a foreign country can have desirable effects for the intervener is not implausible on its surface. Research on the specific reasons why countries choose to use this option in practice has been surprisingly scarce given the frequent use of this option. As Willard-Foster (2018, p. 14) mentions, “Almost no studies examine the causes underlying the full spectrum of FIRC. This is surprising, given that strong states have been trying to attain their foreign policy aims by removing and replacing militarily weak foreign leaders for centuries.” While this foreign policy tool has been used widely by the great powers, and by smaller states, to obtain desired policy outcomes, there has been little systematic research on it until recently.
Studying the causes of FIRCs is important for several reasons (Willard-Foster, 2018). First, FIRCs can take various forms, and studying the conditions under which one can occur can have crucial implications for policymakers. Second, whereas most studies on FIRCs focus on their various implications, those cannot be examined separately from their causes as they can undeniably determine their consequences. Thirdly, studying it in a systematic way can teach us also how to avoid it. As Willard-Foster argues (2018, p. 15), critics of this practice claim that these are mostly wars of choice, and as such, their initiation goes against the logic of the rationalist explanations for war, namely that when there is an enforceable agreement the sides can reach, then leaders would always prefer this outcome rather than fighting. However, given that leaders may choose this option over reaching a bargain because of difficulties in achieving and enforcing it (Willard-Foster, 2018, p. 15), it is important to study when this is more likely to occur.
Willard-Foster (2018) wonders why states engage in FIRC despite the costliness of this practice, and give up on less violent options such as bargaining even though the target states are militarily weaker than the initiators in 75% of the cases she examined. She argues that it all depends on the strength of the targeted leader’s domestic political opposition. According to Willard-Foster (2018, p. 7), when a conflict of interest arises between a strong and weak state, the stronger state frequently tries to pressure the weaker one to accept a settlement. However, the targeted leaders have a strong incentive to resist or renege afterwards on these settlements if they expect that compliance will weaken them at home. In that situation, if leaders accept terms that weaken an already tenuous political position, their domestic opponents may challenge them. Moreover, the stronger the domestic opposition is, the more tempting it will be for the initiator to launch a regime change, anticipating greater vulnerability of the targeted leader. Hence, if the domestic opposition is weak, the challenger will not initiate regime change. Willard-Foster also tries in her theoretical argument to allow for gradations of FIRCs, distinguishing between full regime change and partial regime change.1
A different explanation is offered by Owen (2010). Qualitatively analyzing a dataset of overt FIRCs going back five centuries, as well as in-depth analysis of particular cases, Owen argues that overt FIRCs are more likely to occur in eras of high ideological polarization, which are, in turn, due to great power wars or high regime instability of domestic origins. They are further driven by transnational ideological networks (or TINs), elites in the relevant states that have a deep underlying desire to spread their regime type through the use of force. In such eras a FIRC is both an effective way to keep a given country as an ally or to turn it into an ally and the policy tool most likely to be chosen for this purpose.
FIRCs and the Democratic Peace
According to Jack Levy, the democratic peace proposition is “the closest thing we have to an empirical law in the study of international relations” (1989, p. 88). The proposition posits that democracies are less likely to fight one another, but are not “nicer” in general, that is, they are as prone to fight with non-democracies as non-democracies are. Moreover, they are more likely to win the wars they fight (Bueno de Mesquita et al., 1999; Dafoe, Oneal, & Russett, 2013; Gartzke & Weisiger, 2013; Maoz & Russett, 1993; Mousseau, 2013; Ray, 2013). This research agenda has produced numerous publications, and continues to capture the attention of scholars in international relations.
However, despite its continued dominance in the international relations scholarship, a significant lacuna emerged as scholars paid almost no attention to the inherent contradiction between the proposition’s tenets and the fact that some democracies meddle in other democracies—mostly by initiating covert actions (Downes & Lilley, 2010; Poznansky, 2015). Poznansky (2015, p. 1) contends that “even some proponents concede that the use of covert force between democracies presents a major challenge to the thesis, especially those variants that focus on norms-based explanations,” then cites some of those rare admissions (Kinsella, 2005, p. 455; Lipson, 2003, p. 3; Reiter & Stam, 2002, pp. 159–163).
Poznansky (2015) offers a possible interesting explanation for this seeming contradiction: he advances a “dynamic democratic peace”—the stasis-decay framework, which builds on the expectations democracies have about the regime trajectory of other democracies. If democracies expect that their democratic opponent’s regime will persist, then the well-known constraints of the democratic peace will apply, namely, the shared values that prevent them from resorting to the use of full force. However, if democracies foresee a possibility that their democratic rival’s regime is unstable, and the regime’s survival trajectory is negative, then the peaceful resolution of their conflict will be in peril, as leaders will be more willing to take the risk and resort to the full use of force by using covert operations to depose a democratically elected leader.2
A different approach is taken by Downes and Lilley (2010). Rather than seeing this lacuna as requiring further theoretical development of the democratic peace literature, covert FIRCs are seen instead as a useful empirical tool for adjudicating between the different explanations for it. They accordingly try to apply different explanations for the democratic peace to a prominent case of such a covert FIRC (Chile 1970–1973), claiming that this case provides no support for some prominent explanations (such as the normative and institutional explanations) and mixed support for the selectorate explanation.
Bueno de Mesquita et al. (2003, ch. 9) found that democracies are more likely to fight over policy issues, and dictatorships over material issues such as territory in order to provide private goods to the elite that keeps the leader in power. Their results reveal an interesting distinction between regime types in terms of their war objectives. This also indicates that we should expect democracies to be more likely to install puppets (instead of leaving losing leaders in power) than are dictatorships. This follows the rationale that democracies prefer a leader in the vanquished state who will implement favorable policies. Dictators do not fight over policies (or emphasize this goal less), therefore the postwar institutional arrangements would be less important for them once they gained territory or other sources of wealth. Moreover, we should also expect democracies to install dictators because such new leaders are not accountable to a large winning coalition and thus are more likely to implement policies that are favorable for the winner.
Following the same line of reasoning, Lutmar (2004) shows that victorious dictatorships are less likely to install puppets than democracies because once they fight they prefer to get resources rather than influencing policies. Moreover, once they install a puppet, they would be more likely to install dictators as well because they know that if the fighting resumes, democracies are much more dangerous in terms of possible outcomes than dictators—democracies are more likely to win (if, indeed, they choose to fight), and if they win the war, they will also be more likely to depose the leader in the losing state. Moreover, it is a well–established empirical fact that dictators who lose wars in a moderate way still stay in power, whereas dictators who lose wars disastrously are “kicked out” of office and punished (Goemans, 2000b). This leads me to hypothesize that dictators who win wars, and depose the losing leader, will be more likely to install a dictator puppet.
We know that the two main distinctions between the two regime types are accountability to their constituents. The second feature is a consequence of the first—by being accountable to a different size group, the leaders would care about different kinds of goods. In democracies, the winning coalition is large and so the leaders need to provide public goods to please the domestic constituencies. In dictatorships, the ruling elite on which the leader’s survival depends is small and so it is most efficient to provide them with private goods as the means to stay in power.
Based on all of the above, Lutmar (2004) shows that if a dictator loses a war, he will be more likely to be left in power and to agree to (almost) any winning leader’s demands. The dictator knows that if she follows (i.e., implements) the winning leader’s policies, he would still be able to keep his seat provided he supplies “goodies” to the ruling elite. Moreover, she also knows that the average survival rate of dictators is pretty high and that given the low likelihood of her being thrown out of office, her choice of whether to implement the winner’s preferred policies will be pretty easy without having to endure high costs. She also shows that knowing all these probabilities also influences dictators’ calculations as to whether to initiate wars and when to terminate them.
Moreover, the fact that large winning coalition systems fight for policy, and the expectation that policy compliance is likely to be higher when the rival is from a small winning coalition system—we can find an additional explanation for the democratic peace. If democratic states fight for policy, they will be more likely to fight against those they are most likely to achieve policy compliance from. Democratic rivals will be constrained by their domestic audiences in their ability to cooperate; thus, the level of compliance will be lower when facing democratic opponents. Anticipating this, democratic leaders facing democratic rivals will be more likely to avoid escalation and will resort to peaceful conflict resolution.
Another interesting finding is that democracies are not “nicer” than non-democracies in the way they treat their adversaries and in their tendency to interfere in the internal affairs of others. While the majority of targets of depositions were (and still are) non-democracies, the deposing states are almost equally divided in the 20th century between the two regime types (Downs & Monten, 2013; Lutmar, 2004). This is a major shift in the way we analyze the incentives of different regime types in various stages in the process of war. Whereas the democratic peace finding shows that democracies do not fight each other, but are not less prone to get involved in conflicts, the findings here suggest that democracies are likely to depose foreign rivals, and that those depositions are more likely to occur the longer both leaders are in power (Lutmar, 2004). This is quite intuitive, as we should expect that some time has to pass before the relationship takes a negative turn.
Depositions of foreign leaders are more likely to occur the longer both leaders are in power (Lutmar, 2004). Moreover, the goal of the deposers is not always necessarily to install a democracy. On the contrary, if we assume that leaders embark on these foreign policy adventures, and given that foreign imposed regime change is just one of several foreign policy tools at the leader’s disposal, one can easily see why democratic leaders would rather install a non-democratic leader than a democratic system, because the former will not be accountable to her constituencies, and thus it will be easier to extract foreign policy concessions from her (Bueno de Mesquita & Downs, 2006).
Covert Interventions and Secrecy
One of the more puzzling questions in the study of FIRCs is explaining why states resort to covert interventions when deposing foreign leaders. In other words, why do states decide to secretly employ this tool of foreign policy? The immediate answer would most probably be that this might prevent further escalation, if things do not necessarily go according to plans. However, there are alternative explanations, and one of these is that international law plays a major role in determining whether the intervention would amount to covert regime change (Poznansky, 2019). Poznansky argues that leaders are more likely to pursue a covert FIRC when they lack a legal exemption from the non-intervention principle, such as a credible self-defense claim or authorization from an international body. In those situations, brazen violations of the non-intervention principle (as overt FIRCs usually are) involve significant hypocrisy costs and damage a state’s credibility. That, in turn, makes a covert FIRC, which doesn’t have these costs (if unexposed), a far more appealing option for deposers.
This argument speaks to the literature on the appeal of secrecy in conducting state affairs (Brown, 2014; Carson, 2018; Colaresi, 2014; McManus & Yarhi-Milo, 2017; Spaniel & Poznansky, 2018; Yarhi-Milo, 2013), and also emphasizes the importance of international law in shaping states’ behavior (Brown, 2014; Colaresi, 2014; McManus & Yarhi-Milo, 2017; Spaniel & Poznansky, 2018; Yarhi-Milo, 2013). It shows that even though international law may fail in preventing states from using force, it does succeed in shaping how this force is used (O’Rourke, 2013, 2018). Hence, the choice to pursue covert action can be the result of fear of violating international law.
Other explanations for covert FIRCs focus on very different factors. A second argument by O’Rourke (2013) asks three questions in regard to covert FIRCs. First, what makes a state initiate a regime change operation despite the fact that this is a costly and dangerous endeavor? Second, why do states prefer to conduct these operations covertly rather than overtly? Third, assuming those actions are foreign policy tools attempting to change the target states’ behavior, how successful are they in achieving these goals? Focusing on the first question and on American covert FIRCs, she proposes a fourfold explanation of the motives that drive states to launch regime change—offensive operations, preventive operations, hegemonic operations, or humanitarian operations. She argues (2013, p. 3) that whereas the first three motives serve national security interests, the fourth one is different—but is also very rare.
A third argument by Kibbe (2002) explores decisions by U.S. presidents to covertly depose foreign governments, and attempts to determine why they keep doing so despite the tremendous risks associated with such practice. She divides the decision into two phases: in the first stage, the president has to decide whether or not to act; in the second stage, she needs to determine the type of action she will take.
Although much attention has been given to military intervention, political scientists have offered no theoretical explanation for the use of covert action instead of military intervention, sanctions, economic aid, propaganda, or diplomacy as an instrument of statecraft.”
Kibbe then examines covert action decision-making by two presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, and for each she looks at two cases where they chose to use covert action and one case where they decided against it (Indonesia 1957–1958, Cuba 1959–1961, and Egypt 1955–1957 for Eisenhower, respectively, and Cuba Operation Mongoose, British Guinea 1961–1963, and Laos mid-1961 for Kennedy, respectively). She claims that in those cases where covert FIRCs occurred, American decision-makers had preexisting negative psychological schemas about the leader or country in question, mental pigeonholes in which each threatening leader or country was placed, that pushed them to choose this option over others when the situation seemed to require a change in U.S. foreign policy towards that actor.
The discussion on the calculations of decision-makers in choosing a course of action leads us to the next step, which is the type of institutional arrangements leaders would like to see instead of the ones they have deposed. After all, we should assume that when leaders embark on such costly and risky foreign policy adventures, they have a clear idea in mind of what they would like to see replace the governance structures they have deposed. Paris (2015) suggests that intervening states are more likely to promote governmental structures and institutions similar to those in their own state. This is an interesting argument, as it goes contrary to Bueno de Mesquita et al. (2003) and the predictions of the selectorate theory, that is, that democracies are more likely to install dictators, because by doing do they can assure their compliance given their lack of accountability to domestic audiences. Paris (2015) concludes by calling for further research on historical cases—in particular non-Western ones.
This leads to a detailed discussion of the various effects of FIRCs. Whereas the previous discussion on the post-deposition preferred governance structures is important, the next section turns to a description of the short-term and long-term effects of FIRCs on several issue areas on the dyadic level as well as on additional variables.
Effects of Foreign Imposed Regime Change
Foreign operations that change the identity of the leader in power and/or important aspects of the institutions of a certain country can have major effects on the country in question. Not surprisingly, the possible effects of covert and overt FIRCs have been an increasingly important topic of study. Research on this issue so far has focused on four major possible impacts: the effects on the target’s post-intervention regime type, the effects on intra-state violence of various types, the effects on cooperation with the intervener, and the economic benefits—if any—derived by the intervener from such activities.
The Effects on the Target’s Regime Type
In a 1913 private conversation with the British Ambassador, U.S. president Woodrow Wilson described his policy towards Mexico as “teach[ing the] South American Republics to elect good men!” This policy led a year later to an American FIRC in Mexico and elsewhere (Grieb, 1969, p. 134). Ninety years later, president George W. Bush justified the upcoming invasion of Iraq by claiming that “America’s interests in security, and America’s belief in liberty, both lead in the same direction: to a free and peaceful Iraq . . . we will ensure that one brutal dictator is not replaced by another” (Bush, 2003).
The prominence of such goals in the public and private justifications for many American-led FIRCs, together with the two most famous “success stories” in this regard of post-World War II Germany and Japan, have caused this question to be the most heavily studied aspect of FIRCs. Research on this topic has occurred in two major waves. The first wave, in the mid- to late 1990s, limited its focus to overt American military interventions. It found evidence for the effects of FIRCs on the target’s post-intervention regime to be highly conditional upon whether the United States planned to promote a democratic regime or not. When the former was the case, the chances of the target becoming more democratic were significantly higher.
For example, in the first systematic analysis of this question, Meernik (1996) found that American military interventions only led to liberalization in the target when the president who launched it had openly declared that democracy was one of the goals of the United States in this act. American military interventions where democracy was not one of the explicit goals did not have such an effect. Similar results were found by Herman and Kegley (1998). Peceny (1999a, 1999b) further developed the analysis of this topic by examining whether such American military interventions led to an outright transition to democracy, coding American commitment to this goal as the taking of concrete steps for this purpose such as sponsoring elections in the target. He found that Cold War American interventions where such efforts were made increased the probability of a country transitioning to democracy by 1993 from 53% to 89%.3
The second wave of research on this topic, ongoing since the mid-2000s, further developed the analysis of this question to include other interveners, other techniques of violent regime change, and more specialized measures of FIRCs. Although a wide variety of measures and methods were utilized, a clear consensus has emerged: FIRCs are ineffective as a democracy promotion tool except, at best, under very special conditions.
For example, in one of the first articles of the second wave, Bueno de Mesquita and Downs (2006) expanded their purview to all interveners, both democratic and non-democratic, between 1946 and 2000. They found that even interventions by democratic interveners do not lead to any sustainable improvement in the target’s level of democracy. An expanded follow-up analysis by Peceny (Pickering & Peceny, 2006) of the effects of military interventions by two other democratic powers (Britain and France) found neither power to have significant effects in this regard. Furthermore, a statistically significant positive effect of American interventions was found to be an artifact of an extremely small number of American interventions in the Caribbean during the period of analysis (1946 to 1996).4 A third paper on mostly overt FIRCs by Downs and Monten (2013) also made sure to correct for possible selection effects in regard to the countries most likely to be targets of such operations. They found that FIRCs don’t usually turn their targets into democracies—even when done by democratic interveners who invest considerable resources for this purpose (i.e., institutional FIRCs). The only exceptions are the few unusual cases of institutional FIRCs in countries that already had or developed the various domestic preconditions for a successful indigenous transition to democracy—such as high levels of wealth, ethnic homogeneity, and previous experience with democracy. Indeed, only four cases of American institutional FIRCs (Germany and Japan after World War II, Panama 1989, and Grenada 1983) were clear success stories in this regard.5
On the covert side, Berger et al. (2013) examined the effects of covert American and Soviet FIRCs during the Cold War. They found that immediately after such an intervention the level of the target’s democracy decreased by 6% on average and further declined, during subsequent periods of the intervener’s influence, by another 14.2% over the following five years and 23.7% over the following two decades. Interestingly, the negative effects of American covert FIRCs are larger and consistently robust, while the effects of the Soviet ones become insignificant in some specifications. Likewise, Colarasi (2014) found that when a victorious rebel group had received significant military or financial aid from a rival state during a civil war (usually covertly and frequently as part of a FIRC), post-civil war democratization is far less likely, with the adjusted Polity 4 (xPolity) score seven years after the end of the war being nearly 3.5 points lower on average.6 In a closely related statistical analysis, based on the historical track records of countries similar to successful overt FIRCs in the early 21st century (Afghanistan and Iraq), an unsuccessful covert FIRC (Syria), and other plausible future targets of such American FIRCs (such as Iran), Moon (2009) predicted the probability of transition to a full democracy of the countries in question following successful FIRCs as being between 0.058% and 1.7%.
According to the second wave of research on this topic, FIRCs seem to usually be ineffective in this regard for multiple reasons. Bueno de Mesquita and Downs (2006) argue that this is the result of the incentive structure that even democratic leaders face in which the provision of various economic and political policy benefits from the military intervention is usually a far higher priority to their winning coalition than the successful democratization of the target. A democratic regime in the target, by restraining the imposed leader, could reduce the ability of the intervener to gain those benefits. Accordingly, even democratic interveners will usually limit their efforts in this regard to creating an empty façade of democracy. Other scholars argue that the imposed leader, out of a desire to stay in power, is unlikely to independently build the needed democratic institutions (Downes & Monten, 2013). Accordingly, unless the intervener puts significant efforts into constructing new democratic institutions, a transition to democracy is unlikely. However, even in those cases, the success of such efforts is highly dependent upon domestic conditions that are conducive to democracy, which are, in turn, usually missing in part or in full among most targets of FIRCs. As a result, FIRCs will rarely lead to democratization.
As for covert FIRCs, Colarasi argues that this effect is due to the potential or realized damage to the current leader’s legitimacy caused by the past reception of such assistance. Publics in the target country will usually tend to see such foreign assistance as evidence that the current leader is a puppet of the rival intervening state, leading to a significant reduction in its popularity and its chances of winning a competitive election. Knowing this, leaders who won with such assistance will have a strong incentive to avoid democratization in order to prevent other political groupings from exploiting that fact during an election campaign. Indeed, even if the assistance remained a secret afterwards, the fear that its existence will eventually be exposed during an election campaign by a muckraking free press (or opposition research by the opposition parties) will discourage such leaders from permitting democratization.
To this growing consensus in the second wave there is only one partial exception. Enterline and Greig (2008a) examined the survival chances of new democracies imposed by FIRCs and found that about 70% of them survived past 10 years, and those that, as a result of this imposition, had strong democratic institutions rarely collapsed after their 18th year. However, the survival rate of these imposed democracies beyond 20 years is highly dependent upon the domestic conditions in the target, with 60% of targets with high ethnic diversity collapsing within a decade and 75% of poor imposed polities collapsing within 20 years. Furthermore, the vast majority of imposed democracies in this sample (38 of 43) are the result of such an imposition in a colonial territory by the outgoing colonial power rather than by a foreign power towards an already independent state. Given the completion of the process of decolonization around the world (with a few minor exceptions), the rarity of such imposed democracies by non-colonial powers in Enterline and Greig’s sample is not a very positive indictor as to the expected success rate of such possible attempts in the future.
Likewise, in another closely related study by Enterline and Greig (2005) (the only study on this topic to date) on the regional effects of such democratic imposition attempts, the authors found that impositions that only lead to partial democracies (or authoritarian regimes) actually reduce the chances of their next-door neighbors becoming democratic by 55%. However, impositions that result in full transitions to democracy have no democracy inducing effects. Accordingly, unless the FIRC is a full success in regard to democratization, it is more likely to hinder rather than help to promote democratization in other countries—and success in this regard will have no positive spillover effects on other states’ chances of democratization.
The Effects on Intra-State Violence of Various Types
In late 1914, a few months after Woodrow Wilson successfully removed Mexico’s leader Victoriano Huerta and evacuated all U.S. troops from Mexico, the various Mexican rebel/revolutionary groups began to fight each other. That led the ongoing Mexican Revolution to enter its bloodiest phase, with the fighting expanding to all parts of Mexico and claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans (Meyer & Sherman, 2013). In 1960, both the American and Belgian governments attempted to covertly assassinate Patrice Lumumba, then leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Shortly afterwards, the DRC descended into its first civil war, which lasted five years and is estimated to have cost the lives of nearly 100,000 citizens of the DRC (Namikas, 2015). In 2003, shortly after the American-led FIRC in Iraq, a six-year-long civil war ensued against the occupying American forces and the newly installed Iraqi government. Likewise, following the American invasion, Iraq suffered from a massive upsurge in terrorist attacks by an Al Qaida affiliate and other groups, many of which used suicide tactics.
A growing amount of evidence from various strands of research indicates that such consequences of FIRCs are not unusual. As for civil wars, Peic and Reiter (2011), for example, find that overt FIRCs increase eightfold the base probability of an eruption of civil war in the target, with FIRCs that follow an inter-state war and impose major institutional changes (i.e., not just changing a leader) being the most likely to have such effects. A second study by Downes and Monten (2013) found FIRCs to increase the probability of civil wars in a far wider set of situations. FIRCs that imposed a new leader without changing the overall target’s regime type (regardless of having occurred in the aftermath of an inter-state war or not) were found to increase the probability of a civil war erupting in it by 271%. A third study by O’Rourke (2017), focusing only on American covert FIRCs, finds that such FIRCs marginally increase overall the chances of civil war in their targets. Rather surprisingly, however, when distinguishing between successful and unsuccessful covert operations, only the effects of the unsuccessful covert operations have strong and significant negative effects, while the successful covert FIRCs have no significant effect.
FIRCs seem to increase the probability of civil wars erupting for multiple reasons. As for overt FIRCs, Peic and Reiter (2011) argue that these effects are due to the tendency of such FIRCs to wreck the target state’s infrastructural power, weakening its ability to maintain a monopoly of violence as well as to provide various services to its population. Likewise, attempts at significant institutional changes lead to considerable dissatisfaction among segments of the population—regardless of whether those changes try to create a democracy or a different type of regime. As a result, FIRCs create both grievances and opportunities for would-be rebels to start an insurgency against the new government. Downes, in contrast, argues that the civil war-inducing effects of FIRCs are largely due to the grievances that they create. Leaders imposed by FIRCs will usually try to promote various foreign and domestic policies desired by the intervener. Attempts to promote intervener-friendly policies will, however, frequently create grievances strong enough to generate an insurgency unless the intervener tries to set up new institutions to repress or legitimize the newly installed leader and succeeds in this endeavor. As for covert FIRCs (O’Rourke, 2017), even unsuccessful ones are expected to increase the chances of civil wars erupting due to the strife that such FIRCs generate as part of their attempt to covertly destabilize and remove the incumbent.
As for terrorism, all of the research in this regard so far, following the lead of Pape (2003, 2005), has focused on the effects of FIRCs on one of the newest and deadliest forms of terrorism—suicide terrorism. Pape, based on qualitative analysis of multiple terrorist campaigns that used suicide tactics, argued that occupations, either by a foreign power or what is perceived as an occupation by parts of the population (by the internationally recognized sovereign of that territory), are one major factor that causes the appearance of suicide terrorism. According to Pape, such occupations tend to generate severe nationalist grievances that make some people in the occupied country or territory willing to carry out such attacks—and leaders of the terrorist groups in question willing and able to utilize such methods. Subsequent quantitative research on this topic has largely confirmed Pape’s insight regarding cases of foreign occupation—which is usually a part of overt FIRCs. Collard-Wexler, Pischedda, and Smith (2014), for example, find that such occupations lead to an increase of 17.45 times in the number of suicide attacks against the occupier, almost all occurring within the target(s) of the FIRC. Likewise, Santifort-Jordan & Sandler (2014, p. 995), in a general analysis of the causes of suicide terrorism, find foreign occupations to increase the frequency of domestic suicide attacks by 246% and transnational suicide attacks by 103%.7 Finally, using a larger measure of political instability that combines civil war and terrorism as well as riots, domestic coup attempts, and large-scale protests, Enterline and Greig (2008b) find that FIRCs increase the probability of the occurrence of such instability by between 43% and 63%. Likewise, a post-FIRC occupation increases the probability of such instability by an additional 23%.
Effects on Cooperation
As noted in thesection Causes of Foreign Imposed Regime Change, one of the main reasons why states conduct FIRCs is out of the hope or belief that it will lead to a target government that is friendlier or more cooperative than the existing one is. In practice, results have varied across different cases. The American FIRC in Mexico helped lead to worse U.S.–Mexican relations for a generation, punctuated with various acts of outright enmity between the two countries (Levin, 2015, pp. 266–267). Likewise, the 1953 covert U.S. FIRC in Iran is a well-known contributing factor to the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the strongly anti-American regime that followed (Gasiorowski, 1987). In contrast, the U.S. FIRCs in Japan and Germany in the aftermath of World War II are widely believed to have played a key role in both countries becoming close allies of the United States.
The limited systemic research so far on this question has also found very conflicting results on whether that goal is usually achieved in practice. The first paper on this topic by Lo, Hasimoto, and Reiter (2008) examines the effects of overt FIRCs that follow an inter-state war on the duration of peace (i.e., time until the next inter-state war) between the intervener and the target. It finds that such overt FIRCs are very effective in this goal, significantly reducing the chances of a new war erupting between the two countries for nearly 40 years afterwards. Overt FIRCs that also lead to a change in the target’s regime type have an even longer-lasting effect.8
However, another article on this topic by Downes and O’Rourke (2016), using post-FIRCs MIDs as a measure of cooperation, finds that in most situations FIRCs lead to no improvement or even more conflictual relations. In the case of overt FIRCs, and covert FIRCs overall, FIRCs that install a new leader but don’t change the overall regime (leadership FIRCs) lead to less friendly relations with overt leadership. Such FIRCs, the most common subtype in their data, nearly double the probability of a MID, while covert leadership FIRCs triple it. FIRCs that also try to change the target’s regime (institutional FIRCs) have no significant effects. Only in the cases of overt FIRCs that restore a previous leader to power (restoration FIRCs) do post-FIRC relations significantly improve between the two countries.
In contrast, a third study on this topic by Lutmar (2015), using United Nations General Assembly voting and alliance portfolio similarity as metrics of cooperation, finds that the effects of overt FIRCs are conditional on the post-FIRC regime type. The more authoritarian the post-FIRC regime is, the more cooperative the target country will be and vice versa.
With such sharply conflicting findings over whether cooperation is actually achieved in practice, it is simply too early to know whether, and under what conditions, this goal is usually achieved by the intervener. Greater agreement over which exact cases should be counted as FIRCs, as well as what should be seen as the most appropriate metric of cooperation in such circumstances (or the one closest to most intervener’s desires), is required.
Some scholars and pundits have long claimed that some Western-led FIRCs were done for the purpose of benefiting them economically and/or to the benefit of certain firms that invested (or hoped to invest) in the country in question. For example, some have argued that the U.S. covert FIRC in Chile was mainly done due to lobbying by, and in order to benefit, American firms heavily invested in Chile who feared that the newly elected leader of Chile, Salvador Allende, would expropriate their investments in that country (Qureshi, 2009). Likewise, some opponents of the U.S. overt FIRC in Iraq in 2003 claimed, in the run-up to the war and its aftermath, that the George W. Bush administration chose to remove Saddam Hussein from power mainly due to its connections to the U.S. oil industry and the hopes of the latter to gain lucrative contracts for drilling new oilfields and supplying existing oil production operations from a more friendly pro- American regime (see, e.g., Juhasz, 2013; Macewan, 2003). Far more limited research has been done so far on whether such economic benefits to the intervener, whether the preplanned fruits of increased post-FIRC cooperation or an unanticipated positive “side effect,” were actually gained in practice following such operations.
In regard to the covert FIRCs, interest in this question has largely come so far from economists. One study (Dube, Kaplan, & Naidu, 2011) investigated stock market returns in five cases of successful and unsuccessful U.S. covert FIRCs (Chile 1973, DRC 1960, Cuba 1961, Guatemala 1954, and Iran 1953) for American firms whose property was nationalized in the country in question. They found that, in the four to 16 days following the secret CIA authorization but before the operation was conducted, the stocks of these firms rose on average by an extra 9–13%, with the special exception of the (partially exposed) covert Cuban operation. A subsequent robustness check checking for the effects of the separate (and eventually successful) Belgian covert FIRCs in the DRC in 1961 found even larger effects, with an extra increase for affected Belgian firms of between 27% and 46%. These effects are seen as being due to the high-level connections many of these firms had within the CIA, or their government in general, providing them with private information regarding the future of their investments that they then exploited for short-term economic gain. However, this study didn’t examine these firms’ stock market returns after the conclusion of the intervention (if successful) or other post-FIRC indications of firm-specific or intervener-specific gains.
A subsequent study by Berger et al. (2013) examined that wider question in regard to U.S. covert operations during the Cold War era. It found that following such successful operations, during periods of American influence, U.S. exports to the target increased by 28.3%. In a subsequent micro-foundational analysis of the exact causes of these higher U.S. exports, they found statistical evidence tying it directly to increased target government purchases of uncompetitive American goods—indicating that this increase was largely an economic “payback” by the installed leader for the U.S. covert FIRC in their favor. However, a subsequent replication of Berger et al.’s (2013) study (Coric, 2016) using an alternative GDP measure found that the increased trade between the intervener and the target can be better explained as the result of unrelated changes in the target’s tariff policies following a successful covert operation rather than due to the covert operation itself.
As for the overt FIRCs, one study by Lutmar (2015) in regard to such FIRCs throughout the world during the 20th century finds that their effects are conditional on the post-FIRC regime type. The more authoritarian the post-FIRC regime is, the more trade will increase between the intervener and the target country and vice versa. This effect is believed to be due to the fact that the less constrained the leader is, the more they will be able to cooperate and “pay back” the intervener economically. A second study, however, reached the opposite conclusion. Focusing only on the (mostly overt) U.S. FIRCs in Latin America between 1873 and 2007 as a “most likely” case of finding such economic effects, Zachary, Deloughery, and Downes (2017) find that these interventions have led to an overall decline of 45% in the amount of U.S. trade with the target. A larger decline in trade occurs in countries where the United States imposed a democratic regime (55% decrease) than in countries that became or remained authoritarian (42% decrease). A subsequent check for possible firm-specific benefits focuses only on banana imports to the United States from Latin America in the first half of the 20th century—a product then heavily dominated by U.S. firms frequently accused of lobbying for (and causing) such operations (Schlesinger & Kinzer, 1982). It finds no effects of FIRCs in this regard. Zachary et al. (2017) explain these surprising results as being due to post-FIRC turmoil. The FIRC (or the subsequent domestic reactions to it) frequently leads to significant destruction of property, increased worker absences, and lower consumer confidence and domestic investment. Those things in turn depress the economy and reduce foreign investment in the country in question—both of which lead to a decrease in trade between the United States and the target.
The limited evidence available so far does indicate that, regardless of the main motivation for the FIRCs in question, at least some of the corporations in question were able, in the immediate term, to benefit from them via “insider trading,” using information they received from their high-level government connections. It is still too early to tell, however, whether such benefits extended to the affected corporations after the intervention. Indeed, some of the firms that were supposed to gain the most following particular cases of FIRC frequently failed to do so. For example, in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war, the Iraqi government installed by the United States shut out all American oil firms when it doled out contracts for its oilfields (Walt, 2009). Likewise, the more general effects on the intervener’s post-FIRC trade with the target are still too mixed to reach any firm conclusions in this regard.
After decades of being an ignored topic in the social sciences, a large and growing systemic literature on foreign imposed regime change has developed in international relations and, to a lesser extent, in economics. All of the various contributions to this literature have greatly increased scholarly understanding of the causes of FIRCs, of their effects, and of their overall frequency. As a result, research on this topic is beginning to reach maturity. On the most heavily investigated aspect of this phenomenon so far, the ability of FIRCs to change a target’s regime into a democracy, this literature is approaching the gold standard of the social sciences. In other words, the literature has developed a near consensus regarding a strong, repeatedly replicated, theoretically plausible and coherent, and policy-relevant finding—that FIRCs are not an effective way to promote democracy except in the rather rare circumstances where the target (as in the cases of post-World War II Germany and Japan) already has most of the domestic preconditions for such a successful indigenous transition. Likewise, there is growing and increasingly strong evidence that the aftermath of FIRCs frequently leads to significant outbursts of various types of political violence in the target ranging from suicide terrorism and riots to full-blown civil wars. Scholarly consensus is not yet in sight regarding the exact causes of this phenomenon or its effects on post-target cooperation or on its economic benefits to the intervener. Nevertheless, the existing research on this topic has already made significant progress in developing the general theoretical and empirical contours of the future scholarly debates on these questions.
Continuation of this steady progress in studying FIRCs would be further aided by scholars of FIRCs adjusting their approaches to this topic in four major ways. First, an agreed-upon list of successful foreign imposed regime change operations should be developed and widely utilized. Some of the disagreements regarding the effects of FIRCs in some respects (such as regarding cooperation) seem to be, at least in part, derived from the somewhat different datasets of FIRCs being used by different scholars. A common list of FIRCs would speed up the process of reaching a scholarly consensus on many important questions in this regard. At a minimum, a list of core cases that fit all major definitions of FIRCs can be constructed, with the more controversial cases noted separately. In the case of overt FIRCs, that would include, among other cases, the U.S. FIRCs in Germany and Japan at the end of World War II and the 2003 war in Iraq, while the more controversial cases, such as those conducted by a departing colonial power or when the target loses even its nominal sovereignty shortly afterwards, would be separately noted for possible robustness checks. In the case of covert FIRCs, the core list could include the cases of covert FIRCs for which the evidence is indisputable (such as, for example, in Guatemala 1954 or Iran 1953), while cases for which there is less solid evidence of foreign involvement, that are support-only operations, or about which there is an ongoing dispute over how significant the intervener’s role was, would be noted separately.
Second, and related to the first point, research on FIRCs, especially the covert ones, must be careful to avoid overextending this concept. The growing inclusion of covert yet violent (either directly or indirectly) regime change attempts has greatly improved the nature of scholarly understanding of this phenomenon. Including both main variants also moves the definition of FIRCs much closer to how decision-makers frequently understand this concept. However, the inclusion of various non-violent methods of regime change must be carefully avoided. Such non-violent interventions may be utilized for different reasons and have very different effects (such as leading to regular rather than irregular leadership changes) than their more violent brethren. Accordingly, including non-violent methods of replacing leaders together with violent FIRCs in one measure may lead to unintentionally misleading conclusions in some cases and should be avoided. For example, a few covert yet peaceful partisan electoral interventions are included as covert FIRCs in some covert intervention datasets (Berger et al., 2013; O’Rourke, 2013). Some subsequent analyses using these datasets have found, however, that some secondary (Downes & O’Rourke, 2016, pp. 71–72) and primary (O’Rourke, 2017, p. 240) results change significantly, usually in the expected direction, when the covert electoral interventions are excluded from the measure of FIRCs. Less perceptive and careful scholars however would have perhaps failed to notice these potential issues with the inclusion of partisan electoral interventions within their measure.
Instead of trying to include such non-violent phenomena in an overextended concept of a FIRC, scholars interested in such phenomena should study them separately, trying to better understand the similarities and differences between them and their violent brethren. Data on such non-violent methods, used as separate secondary controls in statistical studies, could help provide more accurate estimates of the effects of FIRCs in various cases. Such analysis could also help identify situations where such related phenomena can potentially enable a more careful identification of the different casual effects of FIRCs, such as separating between the effects on a given target of removing a given leader or regime and the effects of inter-state or domestic violence (such as a coup d’état). Third, more in-depth integration of cases of unsuccessful FIRCs, especially overt ones, into the research on FIRCs should be done. Some attempts at regime change, both overt and covert, fail to achieve the goal of removing the leader and/or regime in question. Such unsuccessful cases have been frequently integrated into some studies of covert FIRCs where failures seem to be a common occurrence (Dube et al., 2011; Downes & O’Rourke, 2016; O’Rourke, 2017). However, thus far analyses that include unsuccessful overt FIRCs have been limited to research on the reasons why such regime change operations are done (Kibbe, 2002; Willard-Foster, 2018). Further inclusion of unsuccessful FIRCs (or failed treatments) in the analyses as a control or in subsequent robustness checks will provide an even better counterfactual to the cases of successful FIRCs (or successful treatments), thus increasing our trust in subsequent results. It will also help in some cases in adjudicating between different explanations for the same outcome.
Finally, further research on this topic should also pay attention to other important questions about FIRCs that have been little studied thus far. Most of the scholarly research on FIRCs has focused on their consequences on their target state. However, as can be seen in the example of the Soviet Union and Afghanistan noted in the introduction, some important effects of FIRCs in the modern world can be on the intervening state itself. For example, what are the effects of costly or unsuccessful FIRCs on the tenure of the leader who initiated this operation or on the stability of her regime? Furthermore, what effects do FIRCs usually have on the subsequent power or international standing of the intervening state?9
More attention should also be given to the impact of FIRCs on third states that are not the immediate target of the FIRC but are within the target’s wider region. In the only pioneering study on this topic to date, Enterline and Greig (2005) examined the effects of FIRCs on regional democratization. However, FIRCs in one state may have other important potential consequences and spillover effects, such as leadership turnover without democratization, economic crises, and an increase in the incidence of terrorism. Additional research on both aspects will further enrich our understanding of this important phenomenon and ensure that policymakers thinking of conducting such operations get a fuller picture of its potential consequences.
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1. Owen (2010) examines 500 years of forcible regime change, but unlike the studies mentioned previously, in which the goal is replacing the leader in the target state, he focuses more on institutional change, that is, transnational ideological divisions as the source of such practices.
2. See a strong critique of Poznansky in Barkawi (2015).
3. For this interpretation of Peceny’s result, see Walker and Pearson (2007, p. 48).
4. Similarly, a finding by Escriba-Folch and Wright (2015, pp. 233–235) in a wider study on foreign pressure on authoritarian survival that FIRCs increase the chances of democratization in non- personalist regimes seems to be driven by two of these U.S. intervention cases in the Caribbean (Panama in 1989 and Haiti in 1994) and two Pakistani cases—one of which the authors themselves admit is a false positive. Furthermore, they find that FIRCs in personalist regimes seem to have the opposite effect.
5. Nomikos (2013), in a critique and reanalysis of this paper, claimed that Downes and Monten underestimated the number of success stories by defining too narrowly an institutional FIRC (which should have included words and not just deeds). However, even under Nomikos’s wider definition, the additional “success stories” (nearly all Western European democracies liberated from occupations at the end of World War I and especially World War II) fit Downes and Monten’s narrow exception (as they themselves note in their response); in other words, they are the rather rare situations of non-democratic countries that had all of the precoditions to (re)democratize on their own via domestic efforts (wealthy, ethnically homogeneous, etc.).
6. Similar patterns are also found when the rival state, in a regime support operation, aided the rival government and helped it remain in power.
7. These two studies also note another possible factor leading to such subsequent increase in suicide attacks: the tendency of such occupation forces to be very hard to attack due to body armor, heavily guarded bases, and so forth, which makes such attacks one of the few ways many terrorist groups will be able to inflict harm on these forces.
8. Similarly, a reanalysis of the Downes and O’Rourke paper with the exclusion of a contentious Chinese FIRC (Su, 2018) finds overt FIRCs to increase cooperation between the target and the intervener.
9. For some promising early research on this topic, see Ashford and Denison (2019).