Why democracies may support other democracies – but not autocracies – against rebellions

csp_blog_16_13_goldman_adulofDemocratic peace theory has been extensively tested in cases of interstate war. It is important that we use these insights as well to better understand intervention in civil wars. Our research shows that it matters whether the regime fighting against rebels is a democracy or autocracy.

Democratic regimes are often seen as tolerant: they solve their domestic disputes by peaceful means, they keep civil liberties and political rights, such as freedom of speech or the equal right to participate in fair and open elections. Autocratic regimes, on the other hand, are far less tolerant, more suppressive, and generally more violent in their domestic politics. And if the international reflects the national, it only makes sense that we will see more violence coming from authoritarian, than democratic, countries. The ‘democratic peace theory’ turns this intuition into an academic pursuit, its most renown (dyadic) version: democracies do not fight each other. But even if true, and quite a few dispute it, why is it so? Explanations have roughly diverged into two branches: structural-electoral causes and normative, liberal, ones.

The structural rationale suggests, for example, that electoral considerations of the leaders make them more cautious about waging war because the domestic cost might be high: voters may well vote against them in the next elections. Therefore, when both leaders come from democratic political systems the probability of war is lower. The normative rationale suggests, on the other hand, that democratic leaders are socialized into a peaceful resolution of domestic conflicts, and externalize this liberal behavior to international politics. Therefore, when they face other democratic leader they trust each other to favor peace over violence.

Scholars have extensively tested both arguments. The large majority of the literature about the democratic peace theory have focused on militarized interstate disputes, say between France and Germany. Yet, the above claims have far more applications. For example, they can be applied to covert actions by democracies. One application, which we tested in this study, is that governments consider regime type when weighing intervention in civil wars.

4303718514_3cfaf0e7c3_bThe liberal hostility towards autocracies should drive democracies to avoid supporting embattled autocracies, perhaps even to support rebellions against them. Cases in point are the U.S. decisions to withdraw its support from the oppressive Iranian Shah and Nicaragua’s Somoza as well as the USA aiding rebels against the regime of Assad. On the other hand, democracies have occasionally also helped bring autocrats to power and keep them there. Cases in point are the France’s assistance to the Algerian regime, Israel’s backing of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (against Palestinian Liberation Organization rebels), U.S. support for various embattled dictators in developing countries (e.g. Indonesia’s Suharto throughout the anti-communist purge).

From a liberal normative perspective democratic government would be held as legitimate, being fairly elected by its constituency, while a violent organization which fight it would be seen as defying the liberal norms, its violent conduct deem illegitimate. Conversely, a non-democratic regime would not enjoy this liberal legitimacy—in the eye of democracies—and its rival might be seen as more legitimate despite its violent acts. Indeed, autocratic leaders are seen as being in a permanent state of aggression against their own people. Thus, the more an embattled regime is seen by the potential intervening democracy as adhering to appropriate norms, the more likely is intervention on its behalf, against the rebellious organization.

Compared to the normative account, the structural account seems less pertinent. If democratic leaders avoid sending troops to fight for a foreign government, they can minimize potential audience cost. Moreover, since supporting a foreign embattled regime is often veiled the democratic leader need not navigate the formal/official systems of checks and balances, or face as fierce an organized opposition or open public debate. Nonetheless, if the foreign intervention receives wide media cover, it may become a subject of public debate, an electoral factor particularly relevant for decision makers in democracies. Also, the more democratic the regime, the greater the likelihood that the opposition will be able to mobilize protest and exact a higher political price from the government for supporting a non-democratic government. Moreover, when a military intervention abroad is overt, it increases the number of institutions that must approve the decision.

We may thus hypothesize that democratic leaders considering support for non-democratic governments in their intrastate wars would take into account the negative institutional and public opinion implications, and be less inclined to lend a hand to such embattled non-democratic regimes. In the statistical analysis we conducted we found that autocracies almost never support democratic governments in intrastate wars. The results also support the prediction that democracies support embattled autocratic regimes much less than autocracies do (see figure). Put differently, the more democratic two states are, the higher the probability one would support the embattled other.

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In conclusion, these findings allow us to better understand democratic foreign policy and expand democratic peace theory empirical validity to more indirect and sometimes subtler forms of conduct. Democracies behave differently towards governments that face intrastate war, partly based on their regime type, and they are inclined to support governments, which are more democratic.

Ogen S. Goldman is a Lecturer at Ashkelon Academic College. Uriel Abulof is a Senior Lecturer of Politics at Tel Aviv University and an LISD research fellow at Princeton University. They are the authors of “Democracy for the rescue—of dictators? The role of regime type in civil war interventions”, Contemporary Security Policy, 37, 341–368. It is available here.