International Relations Foreign Policy of Non-democratic Regimes
Randolph M. Siverson, Malcolm Easton
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0257


The literature on the foreign policies of non-democratic regimes has grown significantly in the last decades. To be sure, there is a tradition of analyzing the foreign policy of individual authoritarian states from the totalitarian regimes of the Axis, to the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. The literature on individual states is legion and too large to be considered here. What has developed more recently in the study of authoritarian states is a focus on the general behavior of these states and not just their individual policies, even though these policies are often puzzling and sometimes perplexing. One of the implications of this mode of analysis is that it is usually data based and often draws inferences from extremely large data sets, sometimes using hundreds of thousands of cases. This is not to say that there is something inherently wrong with the analysis of individual states, and indeed below we single out a few such studies. It is to say, however, that the general analysis of authoritarian regimes has yielded insights into their behavior that would never be found through the analysis of individual states. Finally, there is an odd difficulty in considering the literature on non-democratic regimes. A great deal of what we know about their behavior has emerged from the huge body of research on the democratic peace. So, we know that democratic states tend to win the wars in which they participate and hence non-democratic states must lose these. The list of comparisons could be a long one. The difficulty of these comparisons is to make non-democratic regimes a residual category of the behavior of the democratic governments. This in turn renders the behavior of these regimes as relatively opaque. While we cannot totally escape a comparison between these types of regimes, our primary focus will be on the research that centers on the behavior of authoritarian regimes themselves. For a bibliography on authoritarian regimes generally, see the Oxford Bibliographies in International Relations article by Vesna Danilovic, “Authoritarian Regimes.” The principal interests of those who study international politics are two: conflict and cooperation. Accordingly, after a few foundational items, we divide our organization of the literature into these two admittedly broad categories, with several subcategories in each to reflect particular strands of research.

Fundamental Works

Early work addressing solely authoritarian foreign policy is exiguous. However, broad accounts of various individual authoritarian regimes are so numerous as to defeat any reasonable consideration, and, moreover, is generally bereft of a theoretical apparatus. Leites 1952, a work on the development of the idea of an operational code, was originally developed to unlock the riddle of the Soviet Union, but the broad explication of it in Walker 1990 shows it to be plastic enough to be used on a variety of both transparent and opaque political systems. Adomeit 1982, an account of risk-taking in Soviet foreign policy, is notable for its intelligent use of then current concepts in the study of foreign policy. Similarly, Brody and Vesecky 1969 brings together concepts and data to examine Soviet foreign policy. Maoz and Russett 1993 is included here, despite our desire to focus on the authoritarian system itself, because it offers a classic explanation for the behavior of autocratic political systems, as does Bueno de Mesquita, et al. 1999, which does so in a rigorous theoretical structure that offers a number of testable hypotheses.

  • Adomeit, Hannes. Soviet Risk-Taking and Crisis Behavior: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis. London: George, Allen and Unwin, 1982.

    Distinguishing among a variety of approaches to the analysis of international politics, this study explores Soviet foreign policy behavior in the context of the 1948 and 1961 Berlin Crises and Soviet efforts to expand its area of influence in central Europe. The argument and analysis in the book is unusually well developed theoretically in an area that has often resisted informed theoretical analysis. Although now dated, there is an excellent bibliography on Soviet foreign policy.

  • Brody, Richard A., and John Vesecky. “Soviet Openness to Changing Situations: A Critical Evaluation of Certain Hypotheses about Soviet Foreign Policy Behavior.” In Communist Party-States: Comparative and International Studies. Edited by Jan F. Triska, 377–379. New York, 1969.

    This paper is a notable, and neglected, data-based analysis of the extent to which the Soviet Union responded to challenges it faced in foreign policy. The use of straightforward data to evaluate widely held views of Soviet behavior—called hypotheses therein—is evidence that the Soviets were not quite the puzzle they were often portrayed as being.

  • Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce, Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson, and James D. Morrow. “An Institutional Explanation of the Democratic Peace.” American Political Science Review 93.4 (December 1999): 791–807.

    DOI: 10.2307/2586113

    Although this research is mainly concerned with explaining the democratic peace it has important implications for the behavior of states that have small winning coalitions, which covers most authoritarian states. When states have small winning coalitions, leaders stay in power by rewarding their supporters with private goods—usually material goods—and this allows them to take risks in foreign policy. Failure that might topple a democratic leader can be mitigated by distribution of private goods.

  • Leites, Nathan. The Operational Code of the Politburo. New York: McGraw Hill, 1952.

    This is a classic early study on the manner in which Soviet foreign policy was guided by a set of informal general rules designed to fulfill the expansionist gains of the regime without endangering its survival. One rule, for example, that exemplifies the overall strategy is for the Soviets to push opponents hard but to draw back when resistance is met. The analysis is based mainly on the voluminous writing of Lenin and Stalin and is closely reasoned.

  • Maoz, Zeev, and Bruce Russett. “Normative and Structural Causes of Democratic Peace, 1946–1986.” American Political Science Review 87.3 (1993): 624–638.

    DOI: 10.2307/2938740

    This seminal article demonstrates that while democracies are not inherently less conflict prone than non-democracies, they are far less likely to engage one another in violent conflict or wars. While democratic norms are found to be more robust predictors of democratic peace than institutional measures of political constraints, the prevalence of both types of explanations suggests that system level explanations of international relations are facing a fundamental challenge.

  • Walker, Stephen G. “The Evolution of the Operational Code Analysis.” Political Psychology 11.2 (1990): 403–418.

    DOI: 10.2307/3791696

    The study presents an extensive, sharply focused consideration of the evolution of the Operational Code approach to the study of politics and in particular to the work of Alexander George in extending Leites’s original consideration beyond the Soviet Union to other states, typically democracies.

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