Why authoritarian states participate in liberal international interventions

Do troop contributions lead to democratic change in troop contributing countries as some argue? This is not necessarily the case as Martin Welz argues in a recent article on Chad’s contributions to international interventions.

Troop contributions of authoritarian states pose an empirical puzzle. For the participation in international interventions indicates the support for a liberal-cosmopolitan order that entails the protection of human rights on the international level, while authoritarian regimes deny such rights to their own citizens. The nascent research on this puzzle has produced contradictory findings. Some assume that the participation of authoritarian states in international interventions eventually leads to the implementation of a liberal-cosmopolitan order in such countries in the medium and long term. Others challenge that perspective and speak of a “myth of democratic peacekeepers” or go as far as to argue that troop deployment in fact impedes democratic change.

The article of Martin Welz adds substance to the latter finding through a study of Chad’s troop contributions during the reign of President Idriss Déby who came into power in 1990. The central argument is that Déby, who lacked domestic legitimacy and presided over a little-institutionalized state until his death in 2021, used the participation in international interventions for his own purposes, namely to stay in power. Déby made himself an indispensable ally of France (and to a lesser extent of the United States) and helped them to further their interests in the wider Sahel. He benefitted threefold from his alignment with France and his active stance in international interventions. First, he received large-scale funding that he could feed into his patronage network and strengthen the military; second, he could reduce tensions within the military by sending parts of it abroad; and finally and most importantly, he secured the support of major external actors that helped silencing national and international critique. In 2019, the French government even rescued the Chadian president, once rebels advanced toward the capital.

Indeed, the financial benefits for Déby were significant. France alone allocated €12 million per year for structural cooperation. In addition, donations and other forms of aid worth €53 million was available to be provided through the French forces which had a larger base in Chad. Particularly joining the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the Multinational Joint Task Force—two coalitions that seek to fight al-Qaida, Boko Haram, and their affiliates—was beneficial for Déby (and his fellow African presidents). Donors were willing to spend more on these mechanisms than they would have been prepared to offer if they had acted on a purely bilateral basis. Another source of foreign funding was the reimbursements paid by the United Nations for the peacekeepers. The 1,090 Chadian troops deployed in peacekeeping operations in 2014, for example, meant a reimbursement of an estimated US$17.4 million. These funds not only benefitted the military itself, but also Déby’s regime in two respects. On the one hand, Chadian troops became better equipped and trained, which helped the Chadian leader in his fight against domestic rebels and other challengers. On the other hand, these funds could be fed into the patronage network, thus resembling a kind of “rentier peacekeeping.” In the slipstream of military assistance, Déby’s Chad received large amounts of development aid, given its support for the Western agenda against terrorism.

Secondly, Déby’s benefitted from the participation in military operations as this allowed him to reduce tensions within the military and appease some parts of it. Sending troops abroad helped Déby to ensure that the military itself would not turn into a threat for his rule. Such a threat was looming since Déby had provided some positions within the military to his group, the Bideyat. This move mitigated some internal tensions within the group, yet it was costly and led to rivalries with other segments of the security apparatus.

Third and most important, Déby’s international reputation increased—as did the dependence on him. Even though oil revenues had generated funds to improve the military’s capabilities and secure Déby’s regime from within (Chad became a large oil exporter in the 2000s) external threats had been abound early in Déby’s rule. Chad had suffered from insecurity in its neighboring states and from a proxy war that had been partly fought on its soil on the one hand and French politicians had vigorously demanded the implementation of democratic norms in Chad on the other. It was the eventual alignment with France, the United States, and their counter-terrorism agenda that led to a situation in which Déby’s rule became significantly less challenged from abroad. Chad’s active participation in international interventions and Déby’s willingness to assume casualties—particularly in Mali, where his troops fought alongside France—were the main factors that brought that change. The Chadian president could translate the external recognition, visible, for example, through several visits of French presidents, into a stronger domestic position that overshadowed concerns about the legitimacy of his rule. At Déby’s funeral in April 2021 Macron dignified Chad’s late president as a “friend” and “courageous” soldier.

However, the international support for Déby and the dependence on his troops had a downside: it came at the expense of democracy and respect for human rights. The Chadian civil society was frequently frustrated with the unconditional support Déby had received from his international backers. Western governments ignored calls from national and international NGOs to hold Déby’s regime accountable for the human rights abuses and antidemocratic practices the president and his regime committed in Chad. The authoritarian rule was effectively strengthened. Déby was just too important—and it looks like same is true for his son, who succeeded him after his death.

Martin Welz is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Hamburg, Germany. He is author of “Omnibalancing and international interventions: How Chad’s president Déby benefitted from troop deployment”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

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