In Toppling Foreign Governments, Melissa Willard-Foster argues that as long as domestic opposition drives leaders to resist the demands of stronger states, the strong are likely to opt for regime change, seeing it as more cost effective than negotiations.
2019 | 344 pages | Cloth $79.95
Political Science / Military Science
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Why the Strong Impose Regime Change on the Weak
Chapter 2. How States Impose Regime Change
Chapter 3. Testing the Logic of Foreign-Imposed Regime Change
Chapter 4. The Cold War: American Policy Toward Bolivia and Guatemala, 1952-54
Chapter 5. The Cold War: Soviet Policy Toward Poland and Hungary, 1956
Chapter 6. The Post-9/11 Era: Regime Change and Rogues, Iraq 2003, Libya 2003, and Libya 2011
1. Foreign-Imposed Regime Change, 1816-2007
2. A Game Theoretic Model of Regime Change
On March 19, 2011, eight years to the day after the start of the Iraq War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) began launching airstrikes at Libya in the third American-led attempt in a decade to topple a foreign leader. After two costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, few would have predicted President Barack Obama would lead the United States into another attempt at regime change. As a senator, he had opposed doing so in Iraq, insisting Saddam Hussein posed no imminent threat and could be contained given the weakened Iraqi economy and military. Like Saddam, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi posed no threat to the United States. He had weakened his own military in order to coup-proof his regime. He also no longer had the allies or the chemical weapons he had once possessed to protect himself. Qaddafi's military vulnerability should have given him the incentive to seek a settlement and avoid a war that he could not win. But if Qaddafi, like Saddam, could have been coerced and contained, why was the United States pursuing regime change again?
The failure to establish stable, friendly regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya has led scholars and politicians alike to question the wisdom of foreign-imposed regime change (FIRC), and perhaps for good reason. Studies show FIRC (or simply "regime change," as I will also refer to it) increases the risk of civil war in the target state and rarely creates democratic regimes. In addition, studies examining whether FIRC improves relations with the target state show mixed results. But despite FIRC's dubious record, regime change has been a persistent feature of the international system for centuries. It has taken many forms throughout this history—from foreign-instigated coups to large-scale military invasions, but whatever the form, the goal has been the same: to change the policies of other states by changing their policymakers.
Regime change, however, is but one arrow in the quiver from which states can draw to achieve their foreign-policy objectives. And, as recent American experience suggests, it can be a costly one. Rather than replacing the opposing side's leaders, states could bargain with them instead. The state seeking change could use coercion and/or inducement to obtain a favorable deal, formal or otherwise. It could also soften some of its demands to attain its most central policy aims. It could even give up on those aims altogether and accept the status quo—in essence, accepting a deal on the target's terms. Conflicts between states can be resolved in a variety of ways. Why do states take on the costs and risks associated with regime change to resolve their conflicts, instead of pursuing these other options?
Standard accounts in the historical and intervention literature suggest a seemingly straightforward answer to this question. States depose foreign leaders because they expect they can install like-minded ones with whom they will not have to bargain. Accordingly, much of this scholarship focuses on the policy objectives underlying FIRC, rather than on why states use it to obtain their objectives. What remains unclear is why a state would risk blood and treasure to install a more pliant leader when it could use presumably less costly means, such as coercion and/or inducement, to change the preferences of the current leader. Even when a state must apply limited military force to coerce a foreign leader into a settlement, it could still avoid the potentially heftier costs of installing a new leader by bargaining instead.
The question of why states forsake bargaining for regime change becomes all the more puzzling when we consider that leaders typically targeted with regime change should be relatively easy to coerce into settlements. The history of FIRC is replete with militarily weak and friendless heads of state, like Saddam and Qaddafi, toppled after wars they could not win. I define FIRC as the decision by one state to abandon bargaining with another and to remove that state's leaders or political institutions with the intention of restoring the target state's sovereignty. Of the 133 cases in this study, 75 percent (see the lightly shaded regions in Figure 1) involve major powers attacking minor ones. Regional powers also frequently undertake regime change as well, but they too target weak states. In fact, on average, regimes targeted for change have a mere 11 percent of the imposing state's military capabilities. Although states also target the equally powerful, that parity disappears by the time they achieve the military victory necessary to impose regime change. Hence, unequal power is a near-universal feature of FIRC. Though this asymmetry of power makes an imposed change feasible, it should also make that change unnecessary. To avoid being overthrown, militarily weak leaders who are bereft of allies should back down when confronted by stronger states. Instead, FIRC targets sometimes appear to invite their fate by defying stronger states. To fully understand FIRC, we must, therefore, explain why it occurs when it should be least necessary.
The Logic of Foreign-Imposed Regime Change
This book explains why states choose to overthrow foreign leaders or regimes rather than bargain with them. In so doing, it addresses three related questions: (1) Why do the weak resist the strong? (2) Why do the strong respond by imposing regime change? And, (3) when is FIRC aimed at deposing a leader versus at upending or transforming political institutions? The answers to all three questions, I argue, hinge on the strength of the targeted leader's domestic political opposition. When a conflict of interest arises between a strong and weak state, the stronger state may pressure the weaker one to accept a settlement. Targeted leaders, however, have an incentive to resist or renege on these settlements whenever compliance will weaken them at home. If leaders accept terms that compromise their already tenuous political positions, their domestic opponents may challenge them. These opponents could be rivals within the regime or insurgents seeking to overthrow it. Opposition can also be latent, ready to erupt if the leader's concessions provoke widespread anger. No matter its form, the stronger this opposition already is, the more successful its domestic challenge will likely be and, thus, the more resolved the targeted leader will be to reject the foreign power's demands. Even when defeated in war and forced to accept imposed terms, leaders may later renege to shore up their domestic political power.
Two conditions must be met for a foreign power to achieve its aims at the bargaining table and reject attempting regime change. First, the foreign power must give the target reason to concede by proving that the foreign threat the target faces is greater than its domestic one. Although the foreign power may have a greater military capacity, the targeted leader may not believe the more powerful state will use its full capabilities. To make its threats credible, the stronger state can use "costly signals," actions so costly that less resolved actors would avoid them. By mobilizing troops or acquiring arms and allies in preparation for war, a foreign power could convince others of its determination to fight. To be sure, costly signals may not always convince the target to back down. When targeted leaders face particularly intense domestic threats, they may risk war, hoping to hold out in a protracted conflict. Yet, even in these cases, foreign powers often can convince militarily weak leaders to concede by applying coercive force or, in extreme cases, defeating the target militarily. Once the foreign power achieves a military victory, it should be able to force the targeted leader to accept its terms.
Second, once the targeted leader submits to a settlement, the foreign power must give that leader reason to abide by it. If the agreement requires the weaker nation to implement politically risky policy changes, its leader might try to avoid doing so once the stronger state's initial threat diminishes. A variety of enforcement mechanisms can be used to monitor the targeted leader's adherence to the agreement and punish violations of it. The foreign power, for example, could call on a third party to ensure the agreement is carried out. Or, it could keep its own troops mobilized or stationed on the target state's soil to maintain a credible threat to renew hostilities if cheating occurs.
When these two conditions are met, a lasting settlement with the targeted leader should be feasible and regime change should be unnecessary. The problem, however, is that the measures necessary to achieve these conditions can be costly for the foreign power. These expenses entail a variety of costs—not just financial ones, but also political, military, diplomatic, reputational, humanitarian, and opportunity costs. For example, mobilizing troops can impose diplomatic and domestic political costs on the stronger state if its allies or domestic public oppose war. Even when the foreign power's public and allies support belligerencies at the outset, the long-term stationing of troops might later become unpopular, making enforcement measures politically and diplomatically costly over time. Nonmilitary coercion, such as economic sanctions, can also entail costs beyond financial ones. If sanctions take a humanitarian toll on the target state's people or hurt an ally's commercial interests, they might alienate allies and/or damage the foreign power's international reputation. The foreign power could soften its demands to let the targeted leader save face. However, even these dispensations could cost the foreign power by upsetting its public, angering its allies, damaging its reputation, and/or generating humanitarian costs.
The size of the costs the foreign power incurs to achieve a sustainable bargain depends on the strength of the targeted leader's domestic opposition. The stronger this opposition, the more extensive the measures the foreign power must take to convince the target to accept a politically risky settlement: the larger the army it must mobilize, the bigger the coalition it must build, the harsher the sanctions it must employ, and/or the more bombs it must drop to force compliance. This means that it can be especially costly to coerce leaders facing strong opposition at home into lasting settlements, because their incentive to resist or renege forces the foreign power to spend more to obtain their compliance.
The strong must, therefore, choose. They can either invest in the measures necessary to obtain and enforce a settlement, or they can attempt regime change. Given that their targets are typically militarily weak, the strong are often inclined to exploit their power advantage and forcibly impose the leaders they want. But there is something else that also tempts policymakers to pursue regime change—the target's domestic opposition; that is, the force also driving the target's resistance. Politically weak leaders can appear not only costly to coerce into lasting settlements but also comparatively cheap to overthrow. The stronger the domestic opposition, the greater the burden it can carry in helping the foreign power impose regime change. This presumes, of course, that the opposition is willing to collaborate with the foreign power. Yet, even when their interests are imperfectly aligned, the opposition is often willing to trade policy concessions for foreign assistance in attaining power. When the opposition causing the leader to resist also opposes the foreign power, other opposition groups are often willing to collaborate. Thus, domestically weak leaders should be especially prone to FIRC. Their domestic vulnerability increases the stronger power's expected costs of obtaining a settlement with them, while simultaneously decreasing its expected costs of overthrowing them.
Leaders without opposition will not necessarily concede to a foreign power's demands. Their decision to make concessions (or not) depends on other factors as well. If they have the means to defend themselves from military or economic coercion, for example, they may resist, even though they face no domestic threats. Leaders may also resist for fear that concessions will create domestic opposition. However, all else being equal, politically strong leaders can be expected to make greater concessions than leaders facing stiff opposition, because compliance costs them less. Foreign powers are also more likely to negotiate with these leaders because there is no alternative to them. In contrast, when faced with politically weak leaders, not only is the foreign power less likely to exact concessions, but also it can install the opposition as an alternative bargaining partner.
I do not contend that FIRC is cheaper than negotiating an enforceable settlement. Rather, I offer a rational choice argument that explains why a foreign power's expected costs of negotiating might be less than its expected costs of FIRC. Such expectations can turn out to be wrong, and, indeed, in some instances but not all, they are wildly off the mark. Yet, as I show in this book, neither miscalculation nor misperception—on either side—is necessary for FIRC to occur. Contrary to conventional wisdom, even rational policymakers with complete information may pursue regime change, based on the expectation that a bargain will be too costly to achieve.
Skeptics might note that rational choice arguments rest on the heroic assumption that human beings are utility maximizers who choose among competing strategies based solely on their relative costs and benefits. This criticism is understandable but misplaced. By starting with idealized assumptions, rational actor theories can show what would happen in a world populated by decision makers unhindered by misperception, emotion, or psychological bias. These theories show that even in this perfect world, rational actors might still choose to fight. This means that even if we could reduce our leaders' misperceptions, emotions, or psychological biases, they might still attempt to overthrow foreign leaders rather than negotiate with them.
In this book, I bracket discussion of why states' interests diverge to focus on the question of why they use FIRC when their interests diverge. States may enter into disputes for any number of reasons, but the causes of those disputes do not necessarily dictate the means used to resolve them. Policymakers, for example, may prefer to replace the opposing side's leader in an ideological dispute, but they may be forced to bargain if they cannot defeat that leader militarily. Similarly, policymakers may be inclined to negotiate when a dispute arises with a longtime ally, but they may find themselves pursuing regime change if that ally suddenly refuses to cooperate. Although my argument indicates that domestic forces play a pivotal role in determining the strategies states use to resolve their disputes, it does not reject the possibility that other forces could explain why those disputes occur. Psychological bias, ideological competition, credibility problems, bureaucratic pressures, and miscalculation could each generate a dispute, but how that dispute gets resolved, I argue, depends on the target's domestic opposition. The argument in this book is meant to complement theories on the causes of interstate disputes by helping us better understand when those disputes will end in FIRC.
In addition to explaining why states choose FIRC, this book also addresses how states impose it. I argue that whether they remove the leader or change political institutions depends on the type of opposition the targeted leader faces. All else being equal, strong states prefer to effect what I call full regime change, the installation of an entirely new set of political institutions. To do so, they work with those I call external opposition groups. These groups are composed of domestic opponents who live either in the target state or in exile, and who are disadvantaged by the current regime and, therefore, have an incentive to overthrow it. External opposition groups are often motivated to collaborate with the foreign power. However, they can be costly to install, because they cannot seize power from within. Full regime change, therefore, often requires the foreign power to launch an invasion or assist rebels in obtaining a military victory over the government.
When the external opposition lacks sufficient strength to overturn the government, the greater power might instead turn to the leader's internal opposition to bring about partial regime change. This involves removing the target state's leader or top policymakers, whether by convincing regime insiders to launch a coup or by pressuring the leader to resign. Partial regime change also involves risk for the foreign power. Internal rivals are often less willing to accommodate the stronger power's policy aims because they are vulnerable to some of the same domestic political costs as the targeted leader. As a result, even when a leader's internal rivals are willing to launch a coup, the foreign power may have to maintain incentives to ensure their cooperation over time. When a coup is not feasible, the foreign power may attempt to coax the leader into stepping down. Successful attempts to coerce the leader's resignation, however, are surprisingly rare. Not only is it difficult to convince leaders whose supporters remain loyal to sacrifice power, but this approach is also less likely to leave behind a stable, friendly regime. I address the benefits and costs associated with both approaches to regime change—full and partial—in Chapter 2. Figure 2 diagrams my argument.
Why Study Foreign-Imposed Regime Change?
In the years since President George W. Bush's administration ordered the invasion of Iraq, a rich literature has blossomed attempting to explain the causes of that war. Yet only a handful of studies, most of which predate the Iraq War, examine the causes of FIRC writ large. Although these studies offer valuable insight, they tend to focus on only one specific type of FIRC, such as that which occurs after a major war, entails covert methods, or involves just the removal of the target's institutions rather than its leaders. Few studies examine the causes underlying the full spectrum of FIRC. This is surprising, given the frequency with which states, particularly strong ones, have sought to use regime change to attain their foreign policy aims. Since becoming a major power in 1898, the United States has been involved in a total of thirty-eight regime-change attempts. Since 1816, the United Kingdom has undertaken nineteen regime change attempts; the Soviet Union/Russia, seventeen; Germany, fifteen; and France, thirteen (see Appendix 1).
The vast majority of studies on FIRC examine its consequences rather than its causes. These are of undeniable importance, but the causes of FIRC could very well determine the nature of the consequences we observe. If FIRC is more likely to occur in states already experiencing domestic instability, then we might expect that domestic instability commonly follows FIRC. If so, it would be wrong to infer that FIRC causes domestic instability, though we could conclude that FIRC does little to correct for it. We might also find that FIRC seldom creates democratic regimes because the domestic instability that plagues the target state hampers efforts to democratize the target. The methods states use to impose FIRC may also affect the outcomes we observe. Partial regime change, for example, may enable a foreign power to obtain its short-term objectives relatively cheaply but may fail to produce lasting change. It may also be less likely to resolve the underlying domestic struggle for power that led to regime change, and so leaves the target susceptible to additional FIRC attempts. In short, we must study the causes of FIRC in the many forms it can take to fully understand its consequences.
The study of FIRC is also important for understanding whether and when it can be avoided. Critics of the decision to impose regime change in Iraq, and later, in Libya, argued that these were wars of choice, not necessity. The dominant rationalist explanations for war, however, imply that there is no such thing as a war of choice, because if an enforceable bargain were attainable, policymakers would choose it. War, according to these theories, occurs because information or credibility problems impede a bargaining agreement. War, therefore, results because a peaceful bargain is impossible, which makes war unavoidable and, hence, not a choice. This book challenges the conventional view that states would prefer a bargain if one were possible. Instead, I show that while bargaining agreements often are feasible between states of asymmetric power, the costs of obtaining and enforcing them can make these agreements undesirable. This may prompt policymakers to choose war, even though a peaceful settlement is possible.
Studying FIRC also paves the way for new insights into international relations theory. Neorealism, which typically sees international conflict as stemming from structural forces, such as a change in the balance of power, has difficulty explaining why nations would expend resources to replace foreign leaders and regimes. If security threats are mainly determined by growth in another state's military power or alliances, then replacing its leadership should do little to diminish the threat that it poses. By explaining why policymakers care about who rules in a target state, this book expands our understanding of why states fight.
Although my argument has implications for the study of all conflict, I focus on FIRC because it represents a unique and particularly puzzling type. Wars can be fought for many reasons and in many different ways, but FIRC is unique in that it excludes a settlement with the enemy. In this sense, FIRC is akin to what Thomas Schelling calls "brute force," which differs from coercive force not so much in degree as in intent. Brute force involves taking what you want. In contrast, coercion entails the use of negative incentives to ensure an opponent prefers to give you what you want. Although both can involve military hostilities, coercion is aimed at achieving an agreement with the opposing side's policymakers, while brute force is aimed at eliminating those policymakers altogether. Even when coercive methods are used to obtain agreements that require regime change, the goal is still to remove the leader rather than continue dealing with the leader. Schelling argues that the advent of nuclear weapons made war more of a "bargaining process" in which coercive force dominates. And yet the persistence of FIRC shows that some conflicts still very much involve brute force. The strong still sometimes take what they want by imposing the leaders they want. This book explains why.
I test my argument against two sets of alternative explanations: those that suggest policymakers, at least on one side, are too deluded to avoid FIRC and those that suggest that actors cannot avoid FIRC even when rational. These explanations are common in the conflict literature and historical accounts of individual cases but only sometimes appear in studies on the causes of FIRC. I focus on them because they can explain why states would use FIRC, despite its costs, rather than negotiate with the targeted state's existing leaders.
More typically, scholarly work focuses on the policy aims states seek to attain when pursuing FIRC. These can include ideological goals, humanitarian aims, security interests, economic incentives, or domestic political gains. Although these arguments can tell us why states enter into disputes, they do not tell us why those disputes end in FIRC. If regime change is too costly to impose, states may be forced to set aside their ideological convictions, normative values, or interests, however defined, and negotiate with the target. Even when it would seem their goals can only be attained through FIRC, they could still reduce those goals, if necessary, to negotiate deals that satisfy less ambitious aims. Targeted leaders have incentive to negotiate as well. If they could anticipate their fate, surely they would rather preempt it by negotiating. Why conflicts of interest arise between states is an undeniably important question, but only arguments that can explain why states overthrow leaders to resolve their conflicts, when they should neither need nor want to, can fully explain FIRC.
The first alternative approach suggests that policymakers are too blind to the true costs of FIRC to know they should avoid it. Two arguments commonly used to explain why policymakers enter into conflicts they later come to regret assert that either psychological bias or pressure from bureaucrats and/or lobbyists can cause leaders to err in their judgments. These theories imply that policymakers, whether misled by their own biases or by self-serving domestic actors, choose regime change because they lack the ability to make judgments in the state's best interest. Psychological-bias arguments and arguments focusing on bureaucratic and/or interest-group pressure are often used to explain the targeted leader's behavior as well. Leaders like Saddam and Qaddafi are said to resist because they are too delusional or too deceived by domestic actors to know when to back down.
Arguments that emphasize misperception may be helpful in explaining the origins of conflict, but the logic of these arguments is limited when it comes to explaining FIRC. Biased policymakers may be prone to disputes, but not all disputes end in regime change, which suggests that even biased policymakers sometimes choose to settle. Biases may also cause actors to underestimate the costs of FIRC, but this does not necessarily mean that actors with better judgment would have chosen differently. They might merely pursue FIRC differently. Although the many high-profile cases of failed regime change might suggest that the choice to pursue FIRC is the product of flawed judgment, such thinking rests on a "fallacy of the converse" in which the converse of an argument is erroneously assumed to be true. Just as we cannot assume that a cancer victim is a smoker simply because smoking causes cancer, neither can we assume that regime change stems from poor judgment because poor judgment can lead to failed regime change. FIRC can fail for a variety of reasons, even when the decision-making that led to it was based on strategic logic.
A second problem with arguments attributing FIRC to errors in judgment is that they cannot explain regime-change cases that end successfully. Regime change may have a poor reputation, but successful cases are more than mere outliers. American policymakers, for example, generally achieved their aims by imposing regime change on Germany (1945), Japan (1945), Grenada (1983), and Panama (1989). And although the Soviet Union's attempt at regime change in Afghanistan failed disastrously, its attempts in Mongolia (1921, 1984), Hungary (1956), and Czechoslovakia (1968) were more successful. Likewise, France successfully used regime change to protect its interests in Spain (1823) and, much later, in Gabon (1964), as did the United Kingdom in Iran (1941) and Iraq (1941). Success, of course, can have many meanings, but if defined to mean that the imposing state achieves its central policy aims, then not all regime change ends in failure. As such, there is little reason to infer that poor judgment causes it.
Just as not all policymakers pursuing FIRC do so because their judgment is poor, not all targeted leaders suffer regime change because they foolishly challenge a more powerful state. Although some defy the foreign power's demands until deposed, others offer concessions but are overthrown anyway. Czechoslovakia's Alexander Dubček, for example, indicated he was planning to resign in a phone call with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev on August 13, 1968. Yet just one week later, Brezhnev ordered a massive military invasion to overthrow him. Similarly, in 1909, Nicaraguan President José Santos Zelaya made concessions, including his own resignation, to prevent a conflict with the United States. Instead, the United States persisted in backing Nicaraguan rebels until they seized power. These cases suggest that even if defiant leaders were to make concessions, they might still get deposed.
In this book, I show that psychological-bias models and bureaucratic and/or interest-group models, although potentially helpful in explaining why conflict occurs or why a chosen policy fails, fall short when it comes to explaining why states pursue regime change. Neither the quantitative nor the qualitative evidence I review in this book supports the argument that biased decision-making leads policymakers to pursue FIRC. Indeed, in the case studies, I show that the very same policymakers, faced with two similar cases at roughly the same time, might choose to negotiate in one instance but impose regime change in the other. So even when we would expect little variation in policymakers' biases or bureaucratic/lobbyist pressures, different outcomes may result. I also show that the experience of a failed FIRC does not necessarily deter policymakers from trying it again. Rather than inferring that FIRC fails, policymakers may simply conclude that it should be carried out in a different way. Psychological-bias arguments and bureaucratic and/or interest-group theories may still inform our understanding of various other aspects of FIRC, but to understand the choice to pursue it, we need to look elsewhere.
The second set of alternative arguments I address stems from the rationalist literature on war. The two dominant rational actor approaches tell us that conflict arises either because there are problems of incomplete information (one side doubts the other's threats) or problems of credible commitment (one side doubts the other's promises) that make an enforceable bargain impossible to achieve. Several arguments employ the problem of credible commitment to explain FIRC. In separate studies on wartime termination, Dan Reiter and Alex Weisiger contend that states seek regime change when they doubt the defeated leader will uphold a settlement. Similarly, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and his coauthors argue that popular leaders will depose other popular leaders because the latter cannot be trusted to stick to a politically unpopular settlement. Other arguments focus on the role of incomplete information in driving asymmetric conflict, which commonly characterizes FIRC. According to these arguments, the weaker side's doubts about the stronger side's threats cause the weak to resist, which causes the strong to choose war.
I do not argue that the standard rationalist arguments are wrong, only that they are incomplete. Credible-commitment and incomplete-information problems help us understand why bargaining is difficult and thus why conflicts arise between states. But these theories on their own do not explain why states continue fighting when they have the means to overcome the problems that impede a settlement. I show that if the weaker party doubts the stronger side's resolve, as occurs in cases marked by the incomplete-information problem, the more powerful state can demonstrate its resolve by using costly signals or applying limited force to make its threats more credible and convince the target to concede. When the victor doubts that the vanquished will uphold a settlement, as occurs when the credible-commitment problem is present, the victor can employ enforcement mechanisms to obtain the target's compliance. It can use third-party inspectors or its own troops to force the target to carry out the settlement terms. In fact, the unequal power relations that characterize the conditions under which regime change occurs should make resolving problems of information and commitment easier. The strong have the military capacity to make their threats credible and also to enforce the terms they impose on weak states. The question thus remains, why do the strong sometimes fail to use this capacity to obtain enforceable agreements that would spare them the costs of regime change?
My argument builds on the standard rationalist arguments by showing why states fail to use costly signals, limited force, and enforcement mechanisms when they could. I draw from a small and often overlooked set of rationalist models that illuminate the paradox that threatening to use force can be more costly than using it. These "costly peace" models show that coercion can be expensive when states confront rivals who are either highly resolved to resist or must be coerced indefinitely to comply. The costs of peace can cause policymakers to prefer war.
What these models do not clarify, however, is when the strong will see coercing the weak as more costly than war. Weak leaders may be relatively cheap to defeat, but because of this weakness, they should also be relatively cheap to coerce, even indefinitely. At the same time, leaders who are highly resolved to fight may be costly to coerce, but they should also be costly to defeat because their resolve makes them willing to fight longer and harder. What we lack is a theory that can explain why a leader would be committed to resist (and thus costly to coerce) but, at the same time, comparatively cheap to defeat. In this book, I show that a leader's domestic opposition can make the difference, making the leader at once more resolved to resist and more vulnerable to regime change.
Defining Regime Change
FIRC can take a variety of forms. Some cases involve large-scale military invasions, such as those undertaken by the Allies in Germany and Japan during World War II and by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1979. Others entail support for insurgents, much like the 1909 American intervention in Nicaragua, American support for the Nicaraguan Contras during President Ronald Reagan's administration, or NATO's overthrow of Qaddafi in 2011. FIRC can also include foreign-orchestrated coups such as the Soviet-sponsored communist takeovers in Czechoslovakia and Poland or US covert operations in Albania in 1949, Iran in 1953, and Chile in 1973. Paradoxically, FIRC can also occur through a negotiated agreement. In 1994, for example, President Bill Clinton threatened an invasion to convince Haiti's military junta to step down.
These cases may not appear on the surface to be alike, but they share at least three important traits. I use these traits as conditions to identify cases of FIRC for this study. First, policymakers in the imposing state have explicitly abandoned negotiations that would allow the target state's leader(s) to remain in power. Second, policymakers in the imposing state have implemented a specific plan to replace the target state's leaders and/or political institutions. Third, policymakers target a sovereign state and intend to restore sovereignty to that state. I explain each of these conditions below.
First, to qualify as an instance of FIRC, policymakers in the imposing state must reject any bargaining agreement with the targeted head of state that would leave that leader in power. This distinction makes it possible to distinguish between cases in which the stronger power's primary aim is to change the opposing side's policies and those in which the goal is to change its policymakers. This is an important distinction because countries can threaten regime change when it is not their primary goal. In the 1980s, for example, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) made plans to topple Qaddafi, but President Reagan made clear that if Qaddafi abandoned his support for terrorism, the United States would abandon regime change. Reagan's main goal was a change in Libya's policies, not necessarily in its top policymaker. States may also sponsor rebels to coerce policy change. The United States and Iran backed a Kurdish rebellion in Iraq to pressure Saddam Hussein into signing the 1975 Algiers Agreement. To identify sincere threats to impose regime change, I look for evidence that the imposing state refused to abandon regime change in exchange for policy change.
States may also demand regime change as part of a negotiated settlement, as the Clinton administration did in Haiti. Although states employ coercive bargaining tactics to attain these settlements, these cases qualify as FIRC. The foreign power is determined to oust the leader rather than accept an agreement that would let the leader remain in power. To exclude these cases would be to eliminate from the data instances in which the foreign power shares the same goal as other states seeking regime change but adopts different methods. I distinguish instances of coerced regime change by looking for evidence that the imposing state explicitly demanded that the targeted leader step down. The settlement ending the Franco-Prussian War, for example, obligated France to hold new elections. In contrast, Germany's 1940 invasion of France, which coincided with a change in French leadership, is not included because France's Vichy regime assumed power before seeking an armistice.
In addition to the methods used to impose regime change, the extent of political change can vary as well. States may either remove the target state's top leaders, or they may transform its political institutions. Some studies exclude leadership change from the definition of regime change because the target state's institutions are left intact and, therefore, its regime, traditionally defined as a set of political institutions, does not change. However, this distinction conflates how regime change ends with how it is pursued. Foreign powers sometimes depose leaders to produce institutional change. The United States, for example, helped facilitate Iran's transition from a constitutional monarchy to an authoritarian state through leadership change in 1953. By removing that country's popular prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq, and supporting the Shah, the United States obtained institutional change, but it did not impose institutions. In Chapter 2, I discuss the various ways in which states effect regime change, including what level of force they use and whether they transform the target state's institutions or simply depose its leaders. The data used in Chapter 3 include both types of FIRC.
The second criterion for regime change requires that policymakers implement a plan explicitly aimed at replacing the target state's leaders or political institutions. By requiring that the initiator implements a plan of action, I can exclude cases in which policymakers call for regime change largely for symbolic or domestic political reasons. After the 1979 revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for regime change in Iraq and encouraged Iraqi Shi'a to revolt, but the Iranian government did not pursue a direct course of action aimed at removing Saddam Hussein from power. After Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, however, Iran counterinvaded and actively pursued regime change in Iraq. As this case also shows, attempts to pursue regime change need not be successful. In my data, I include cases in which states eschewed bargaining and pursued regime change but ultimately abandoned that aim. These cases are important to include because the conditions that cause states to pursue regime change should apply regardless of whether their attempts succeed or fail.
Finally, for a case to qualify as an instance of FIRC, there must be evidence that the attempt to overthrow the leader or regime was driven at least as much by foreign actors as by domestic ones. To make this distinction, I use evidence that the foreign power sent its own personnel to the target state, provided military aid that the opposition needed in order to act, or assumed a controlling stake in the operation. For example, the United States' effort to assist the White movement in Russia following the communist revolution involved thousands of American troops and thus is included as a regime-change attempt.
The third and final condition requires that the initiator intends to restore sovereignty to the target state. In contrast to annexation or colonization, in which the target state or territory remains under the direct control of the intervening state, regime change involves the installation of a new or restored sovereign government. I identify cases of regime change by looking for evidence that the foreign power was not planning to exercise permanent control over the target state. The foreign power may rule its target temporarily, but it must at least plan to restore sovereignty. Nazi Germany, for example, ruled the Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark (after 1943) through military governors but did not plan to annex or dissolve these states, as it did Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Poland. The former qualify as regime-change events, the latter do not. In some instances, a third state may help an ally annex another. The United States, for example, attempted to overthrow the North Korean government to bring it under the jurisdiction of the South. In these cases, I code the third state as engaged in regime change because it seeks to replace one government with another. I do not, however, code the state annexing the other as engaged in regime change because it does not intend to restore the target's sovereignty. In cases with multiple initiators, I include only those primarily responsible for the regime-change attempt.
FIRC is also distinct from state creation. Newly liberated states or states created by secession do not qualify as instances of regime change because there is no sovereign regime to depose. I also exclude attempts to eliminate nonstate actors, such as the so-called Islamic State, because these are not sovereign states ruled by internationally recognized governments. In sum, whether it succeeds or fails, regime change constitutes an attempt by a state to replace the leadership of a sovereign state to which it intends to restore sovereignty. Though the foreign power's aim may be to produce policy change, its purpose is to install leaders more willing to embrace that change.
Method and Case Selection
I use several methods to establish the logic of my argument and test its empirical validity. The argument itself is based on a game theoretic model. To keep the argument accessible to readers unfamiliar with game theory, I lay out the informal version of the argument in Chapter 1 and present the model in Appendix 2. I also derive hypotheses from my argument, which I test with both quantitative and qualitative evidence alongside alternative arguments. For the statistical analysis, I test my main hypothesis—that domestic opposition in a target state increases the likelihood of FIRC—on a data set that includes 133 cases of attempted FIRC (see Appendix 1). These tests help establish the generalizability of my argument, showing its ability to explain a large number of cases, even when controlling for alternative explanations.
Statistical tests, however, are less effective in testing an argument's causal logic. For this, I rely on a series of case studies. If my argument is correct, I should find evidence that when leaders faced significant domestic opposition, they resisted complying with foreign demands that could put their political power at risk. I should also find that, as long as the opposition was not more opposed to the foreign power than the leader, the foreign power attempted to use the opposition to overthrow the leader. When the leader did not face significant domestic opposition, I should find that the foreign power agreed to some form of settlement. This settlement may have taken a variety of forms, ranging from one that involved concessions from the targeted leader to one that resembled the status quo or even entailed concessions from the foreign power. Findings that would challenge my theory include evidence that leaders facing strong domestic opposition acquiesced to politically costly demands without an equally strong incentive from the foreign power to do so. Evidence that the foreign power rejected regime change and pursued negotiations in such instances would also challenge my theory. Additionally, the theory would also be falsified if a foreign power attempted to overthrow a targeted leader without the existence of a strong, friendly domestic opposition.
I use a most-similar case design in which I analyze similar events that share a number of features but differ in their outcome—one ending in a settlement, the other in regime change. First, I compare the response of President Dwight Eisenhower's administration to liberal governments in Guatemala and Bolivia in 1954. I next look at the Soviet Union's response to nationalist governments in Poland and Hungary in 1956. Finally, I examine the US decisions to impose regime change on Iraq in 2003 but negotiate with Libya, only to pursue regime change in Libya eight years later.
By choosing cases that share numerous traits, I can test my argument's causal logic while controlling for alternative hypotheses. For example, in each case study, the targeted leaders' regime types and ideologies are similar, which suggests that neither factor can explain the decision to pursue FIRC in these cases. The target state's geostrategic location (i.e., within or outside the imposing state's sphere of influence) is also similar in each case, which suggests that stronger powers might be just as likely to negotiate as to overthrow leaders within (or outside) these regions. Finally, the same individual(s) made policy in the stronger state during roughly the same time period. Because it is unlikely that policymakers' personalities, views, biases, or domestic pressures varied much during the time frames involved, it is also unlikely that these influenced the divergent outcomes.
Variation across the cases also allows me to introduce additional controls. I have paired states with different regime types to control for arguments suggesting that certain combinations are more likely to lead to FIRC. In the studies of American involvement in Bolivia and Guatemala, a democracy squared off against two democratically elected leaders. In the cases of the Soviet responses to Poland and Hungary, the more powerful state was a nondemocracy, whereas its targets were popularly supported communist leaders. In the study of US responses to Libya and Iraq, the stronger nation was democratic and its targets were not. The cases also vary in terms of the structure of the international system. The first two cases occurred during the Cold War, a period of bipolarity, whereas the last took place in the post-Cold War era, a period of unipolarity in which the United States faced no peer competitors. The cases vary as to the timing of the decision to pursue regime change too. In the first and last cases, the decision to pursue FIRC in one instance preceded the decision to negotiate in the other. In the second case, the decision to pursue negotiations preceded the decision to pursue FIRC. Finally, to maximize the range of cases, I have chosen ones that varied in the amount of force used and the type of regime change pursued. The first case involves a covert operation aimed at partial regime change. The second involves a military invasion aimed at partial regime change, and the third set includes two cases aimed at full regime change, one involving a military invasion and the other a foreign-backed insurgency. Table 1 shows the three cases studies and the control variables.
Another element dictating case selection is the availability of primary source materials. Access to meeting minutes, memos, and various other governmental documents allows for better insight into the policies as they were conceived at the time. The CIA and State Department have released a wide variety of materials related to the deliberations of the most central players in Guatemala and Bolivia. The minutes of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU CC) Presidium are available for the discussions about Poland and Hungary. They shed light on how Soviet decision makers weighed their policy options during the two uprisings. Finally, in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq, researchers acquired access to translated and transcribed recordings of high-level meetings between Saddam Hussein and his top advisers. Access to all these materials enhances our ability to interpret the behaviors observed.
Outline of the Book
Chapter 1 presents my argument. I explain why strong states opt to remove foreign leaders or regimes in weak states rather than negotiate settlements that would allow them to retain power. I also explain how targeted leaders respond when they know another nation seeks to depose them. I end with a discussion of alternative arguments, from which I derive testable hypotheses. In Chapter 2, I expand my argument to explain how stronger powers choose between overthrowing the target state's leaders and overhauling its domestic institutions. I also address the costs and risks associated with these different forms of regime change and why decision makers sometimes anticipate regime change to be cheaper than it actually is.
In the chapters that follow, I subject my argument to a series of empirical tests. Chapter 3 presents the statistical tests of my hypothesis that the probability of FIRC increases with the strength of the target's domestic opposition. I also discuss the quantitative measures that I use as proxies for the opposition's strength and the variables for alternative arguments.
Chapters 4, 5, and 6 present the case studies. In Chapter 4, I compare the Eisenhower administration's policies toward the revolutionary governments of Guatemala and Bolivia, the first having seized power in 1952, just as the first covert plot to overthrow the other was materializing. Both governments depended on the support of Marxist and communist factions, passed major agrarian and political reforms, and implemented policies that threatened the economic interests of American investors. Though the Eisenhower administration overthrew Guatemala's Jacobo Árbenz in 1954, it chose to support the Bolivian government, offering it what would become the largest per capita aid package in the world at that time.
In Chapter 5, I compare the Soviet Union's 1956 decision to negotiate with Poland's Wladyslaw Gomulka with its choice a few weeks later to overthrow Prime Minister Imre Nagy of Hungary. Both Poland and Hungary experienced anti-Soviet protests, and both leaders responded with reforms to placate protestors and quell unrest. Nikita Khrushchev initially reacted to the Polish uprisings with threats of force and an attempt to push aside Gomulka. Yet ultimately, he conceded to Gomulka's reforms. In Hungary, Khrushchev did the opposite. He initially accepted Nagy's reforms, including multiparty elections. Overnight, however, Khrushchev changed his mind and launched an invasion to depose the Hungarian leader.
Finally, in Chapter 6, I examine the differing American approaches to former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. In the first two cases, I focus on the Bush administration's decision in 2003 to impose regime change on Iraq but to renounce it in Libya, which had also supported terrorism, maintained programs for weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and used chemical weapons. I then compare these cases with the Obama administration's decision in 2011 to support an international coalition to topple Qaddafi. In addition, I examine previous US attempts to negotiate with and overthrow each leader.
In the Conclusion, I summarize my argument and explain how it expands our understanding of both regime change and war. I then discuss my theory's major foreign policy implications. The first implication is that when the foreign power's threat to impose regime change lacks credibility, the targeted leader can become more difficult to overthrow and to coerce. If the targeted leader anticipates the foreign power will use covert and/or indirect methods, or that it may be bluffing, the leader may take defensive measures to make regime change more costly to impose. By aligning with the foreign power's rivals, conducting domestic purges to wipe out potential political rivals, or acquiring WMD, targeted leaders may be able to safeguard their regimes. States making idle threats or using covert and indirect methods to impose regime change can, therefore, exacerbate a "rogue" state's roguish behavior.
My theory also has implications for the coercive-bargaining literature. Conventional wisdom holds that politically weak leaders are more vulnerable to coercion than those with strong domestic support. My argument, however, indicates just the opposite. Politically weak leaders require additional incentive to comply when the opposing side's demands could undermine their already fragile power. Politically secure leaders, in contrast, can make those concessions without jeopardizing their political survival. Although they may have other reasons to resist, all else being equal, their domestic strength should make them easier to coerce. My theory also suggests that what is commonly defined as a failure of coercion is often not a true failure of coercion. Rather, coercion may appear to fail because states tend only to use it when it is least likely to work—that is, when they lack a credible threat to use force. Once their threats become credible, however, they are often no longer interested in negotiating but prefer, instead, to impose regime change.
Lastly, although my theory is not designed to explain the success or failure of regime change, it suggests a number of reasons why FIRC may fail to deliver the substantial benefits and low costs policymakers often expect. In particular, the stability of an imposed regime depends on whether the former regime and its supporters can still pose a threat to it. When faced with domestic opposition, a new leader may prove just as unwilling or unable to cooperate as the former one. As a result, whether regime change pays off will depend on whether the foreign power invests the resources necessary to eliminate the domestic instability in the target state that led it to seek regime change in the first place.
One implication of this result is that regime change may appear more successful when preceded by a major war. A decisive military defeat makes it harder for the regime's members and supporters to organize a challenge to the new one. In contrast, when regime change is imposed rapidly and with little fighting, as often occurs when great powers target weak states, instability may be more likely. In these instances, if the former regime and its supporters escape and are offered little incentive to recognize the new regime, they may launch an insurgency to challenge it. The foreign power may then find itself stuck in a quagmire as it supports its protégé. If it fails to provide this support, the new regime may be forced to concede to the opposition, potentially putting it at odds with the foreign power.
Nevertheless, even when the costs of regime change turn out to be higher than anticipated, this does not necessarily mean that states would have chosen to negotiate if better informed of those costs. Negotiated agreements can be costly to attain and maintain too. If policymakers are also reluctant to pay those costs, then their attempts to negotiate a sustainable agreement will fail also. Indeed, neither regime change nor coercive bargaining has a strong track record of success, in part because states seldom want to pay the variety of costs often required to make them work. States, therefore, will not necessarily abandon regime change when they experience failure, because they may have already concluded that coercion does not work either. Instead, their past experiences may simply convince them to adopt different regime-change policies. The fact remains that the conditions that lead policymakers to believe coercion is more costly than regime change are ever present. The world is full of militarily weak and politically vulnerable leaders. Regime change, as such, is a constant temptation. For this reason, FIRC has been an enduring feature of the international system and, for better or worse, will likely remain so.