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.

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.

Armies should be self-aware when using historical lessons

CSP_Blog_16_08_Eric Sangar (Small)Military strategy is often informed by lessons from the past. Which lessons armies pick up and use, however, depends on organizational filters. Due to organizational layering, armies may collect contradictory lessons leading to incoherent policy.

The study of success and failure in past wars has been closely intertwined with the emergence of strategic thought. Prominent strategic thinkers, such as Machiavelli, Clausewitz, or Liddle Hart, have relied on history of past campaigns to analyze and improve warfare in the present. And during the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been lengthy debates on which lessons from the past have been neglected, and which have been applied wrongly.

However, so far there have been no systematic attempts to theorize how armies learn from their historical experience. In my article “The Pitfalls of Learning from Historical Experience”, I propose a pioneering theoretical argument to explain why the British Army discussed historical lessons for the Afghanistan mission (ISAF) in a contradictory way.

Why contradictory? Using research papers written by staff officers as well as doctrinal pamphlets, I observe two strands of historical experience that dominated the internal debate on lessons for the Afghanistan mission: the Anglo-Afghan Wars of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the colonial counterinsurgency campaigns conducted after 1945, including Malaya. However, this debate is characterized by a significant difficulty: due to fundamental differences in their nature, the two strands of lessons cannot be integrated into operational strategy without losing coherence.

The lessons from the Anglo-Afghan Wars are about the assumption that the Afghan society is so different that any military approach needs to be tailored to the local Afghan context. For instance, the Land Warfare Centre’s pamphlet presenting lessons from the Anglo-Afghan Wars states:

The Afghans are a proud and independent people who resent foreign interference and especially foreign militaries that they construe as occupation forces. They have always resisted external forces and attempts to change traditional ways; […] there is room for reintegration and possibly reconciliation but only when the use of force against insurgents has applied enough pressure on the insurgent/tribesman that his options are limited enough to make him want to move from one side to the other.

By contrast, the suggested lessons from the post-1945 campaigns assume that there is a set of universally applicable principles that, if implemented coherently, are a central condition of success. In the words of an officer,

not only are the principles contained in British COIN doctrine relevant to modern COIN operations they are also applicable to a wide range of conflict situations, from peacekeeping to general war.

This contradiction – between the adaptation to the perceived specificity of the Afghan context and the adherence to a universal set of principles – has also had implications for coherent operational decision-making. For the initial deployment of British forces to Helmand province in the Summer of 2006, the British Army had prepared an integrated civil-military plan influenced by many of the principles that were formalized in the aftermath of the Malaya campaign. However, operational commanders decided to deviate from this plan only few weeks after their arrival. This can be explained by a perception of a historically violent Afghan society, where the Taliban insurgency could only be stopped through the determinate use of force.

Why do these apparently rather incompatible sets of lessons coexist in British military thought and practice? It is important to understand the stages of internal evolution of military organizations, which determine what kind of lessons are selected and transmitted at specific points of time. I introduce the concept of ‘layered organizational culture’. This expression relates to the idea that existing sets of ideas and organizational routines will determine how a military organization processes new experiences.

As organizational culture changes, so will the ways in which experience is handled. However, earlier layers of organizational culture continue to interact with more recent ones. This can lead to the sub-optimal co-existence of inherently incompatible lessons. When contemporary military organizations study experience from different stages of their historical experience, it often results in recommendations that are perceived to be legitimate although they are taken from greatly diverging contexts of organizational needs and perceptions.

The history of the British Army’s efforts to learn from its colonial experience illustrates this argument well: during the Victorian era, although the bulk of the British Army was deployed in permanent garrisons all over the Empire, a systematic evaluation and transmission of lessons gleaned from colonial operations did not happen. Experience was compartmentalized within locally deployed regiments, and there were no attempts to build a universally applicable doctrine. Internal debates across the army dealt almost exclusively with strategy and tactics for interstate warfare on the European continent.

The perhaps only ‘universal’ lesson transmitted from colonial operations was that every context was unique, and that local commanders had to show initiative in order to tailor strategy to local requirements. As a result, the defeat during the First Anglo-Afghan War was attributed to the specificity of the local context, that is the xenophobic and warlike nature of Afghan society, and adaptation to this ‘alien’ context was the main lesson transmitted within organizational memory.

Organizational culture regarding the use of colonial experience changed after 1945. This was a result of changes in the Army’s force posture. The strategic reserve forces that were rapidly shipped from one colonial uprising to the next did not have the time to develop that sense of local awareness that was perceived to be necessary for success. Instead, from the Malaya campaign onwards, doctrinal thinkers started to look for principles that could be easily taught and applied across diverging contexts. But this new layer of organizational culture interacted with the one rooted in the Victorian Army. As a result, ground commanders continued to enjoy a tremendous amount of autonomy with regards to the interpretation and implementation of the ‘classical’ principles of British counterinsurgency doctrine.

What lessons can be gleaned from the use of lessons by the British Army in the context of the ISAF mission? It would be neither realistic nor helpful to abandon the study of historical experience altogether. But doctrinal thinkers should be more aware that experiences transmitted from the past are ‘filtered’ through the lens of specific configurations of organizational culture that were dominant at the time when an experience was made. This would require working more closely with military historians and sociologists, who can help to answer why specific observations and recommendations have been recorded from past campaigns. History may indeed become a toolbox – but one that can stimulate increased organizational self-awareness and help to avoid the pitfalls of learning from the past.

Eric Sangar is a FNRS Research Fellow at the Tocqueville Chair in Security Policy of the University of Namur, Belgium. He is the author of “The Pitfalls of Learning from Historical Experience: The British Army’s Debate on Useful Lessons for the War in Afghanistan”, Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming. It is available here. He is currently analyzing the influence of collective memory on uses of history in the realms of media discourses on armed conflict, foreign-policy making, and military strategy.

Something Must Be Done, But What? On Humanitarian Interventions

CSP_Blog_16_04_AbeWhen confronted by shocking images of gross human rights violations, massacres and massive flows of refugees, many people may shout: ‘something must be done!’ Unfortunately, such tragic images are, on a daily basis, coming out of Syria and northern Iraq where the Islamic State reigns, and many other places all over the world. Moreover, thanks to the development of inexpensive communicative devices, such tragic images are spread worldwide at a historically unprecedented speed.

However, cries for ‘something must be done’ will soon be followed by the question: ‘but what?’. One key consideration is the legitimisation of intervention by the international community. Foreign intervention breaches of the principles of sovereign integrity and non-use of force, both of which are stipulated in the Charter of the United Nations. Whilst action can be legitimised by UN Security Council authorisation, often agreement in New York is difficult to achieve.

By questions of legitimacy do not end with UN authorisation. Foreign military intervention may bring about casualties among local civilians and soldiers of intervening states, even it was mandated to bring a conflict to a close. So we may experience a situation in which proponents of intervention use lethal force and, at the same time, voices calling for troops to be withdrawn from battle will become louder.

This question has been repeatedly posed since the end of the Cold War. One of the first instances was the war in Bosnia (broadly speaking, the former Yugoslavia). In this case, international action was strongly urged as it was stated: “Shame in Our Time, in Bosnia” (The New York Times, 21 May 1992). As the intervention continued, nevertheless, other voices were increasingly raised, warning about the dangers of becoming deeply involved. After all, Western governments were subjected to public criticism for failing to stop the war and, at the same time, for dragging their public into a foreign war.

Former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind described this difficulty by stating that:

‘something must be done’ may not be sustained if involvement in a bitter conflict in a country in which no vital national interests are at stake results in casualties. The clamour for action can turn, almost overnight, into an equally vigorous clamour to ‘bring our boys home’.

Why do such ‘dilemmas’ appear, even when action is required genuinely for humanitarian reasons? Supposedly, this is because we are living in a world where information and normative concerns are globalised, but the political system remains unchanged. The traditional international system has been established with the rule of non-intervention and the principle of non-use of armed forces to make inter-state relations more stable. Meanwhile, information recognises no territorial borders and in domestic politics its unrestricted flow has created an agenda too inhumane to ignore. This gap between a geographically-constrained world and a globally spreading world generates dilemmas for state decision makers.

In my article I analyse this dilemma in the case of Bosnian intervention and I discuss the consequences it had for NATO. These questions remain, however, critically important today. The intervention of the international community in Libya in 2011, for example, was very much inspired by the idea that ‘something must be done’ to protect civilians against the Gaddafi regime. On the other hand, the international community has been reluctant to further provide support to Libya after the NATO missions were done.

Yuki Abe is an Associate Professor at Kumamoto University, Japan. He is the author of “Norm dilemmas and international organizational development: humanitarian intervention in the crisis of Bosnia and the reorganization of North Atlantic Treaty Organization”, Contemporary Security Policy, Vol.37, No.1, pp.62-88. It is available here.