International Relations Foreign Policy of Non-democratic Regimes
Randolph M. Siverson, Malcolm Easton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2020
  • 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.

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    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.

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  • 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.

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    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.

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  • 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: 10.2307/2586113Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    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.

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

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    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.

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

    DOI: 10.2307/2938740Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    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.

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

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    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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Over the past twenty years, researchers have built up enough empirical data on the theoretical differences among autocratic regimes that the field has developed new explanations for international conflict that explicitly include models of non-democratic institutions. The inclusion of models of non-democratic institutions has yielded new insight into old topics. Theories of war now ask the question, is one side of the conflict a military regime? Has the authoritarian leader recently come to power through a revolution? Or does the regime have an incentive to engage in diversionary war as a means of placating domestic audiences? Other areas of study employ autocratic institutions as conditioning variables, adding another layer to already existing explanations. Autocratic leaders may signal their resolve when engaging in conflict differently than democratic leaders or they might show systematically different tendencies to acquire nuclear weapons.

Authoritarian Institutions and Conflict

In the past it has been standard to treat all authoritarian states as being the same, differing perhaps in name but not in behavior. Often there has been the implicit assumption that the leaders of these states have great latitude. There are reasons now to doubt this. Since one of the most important developments to have emerged from the most recent scholarship on authoritarian regimes is that there are some remarkable differences across them, it is no longer viable to simply treat all authoritarian regimes as being the same and coded in all data analysis as a 0 to distinguish them from democratic states that are coded as 1. The first such attempt to explore these differences on foreign policy, and particularly on conflict involvement, was Lai and Slater 2006, which proposed a four-fold categorization of regimes as strongman, junta, machine and boss in order to explain foreign policy choices. Weeks 2012 and Weeks 2014 use a set of categories with the same names to explore variation in state participation in disputes. Debs and Goemans 2010 uses three categories that differ from those above: civilian, military, and royal dictatorships to understand war participation.

  • Debs, Eugene, and H. E. Goemans. “Regime Type, the Fate of Leaders, and War.” American Political Science Review 104.3 (August 2010): 430–445.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055410000195Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The thrust of this paper’s argument is that leaders in states where former leaders have been treated harshly after leaving office will be more cautious in their foreign policy choices in order to avoid exile, prison, or execution. Leaders of authoritarian states are generally dealt with more severely when they leave office (that is, exile, prison, and execution) than democratic leaders. Thus, the risks of policy failure for authoritarians is greater than it is for democratic leaders.

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  • Lai, Brian, and Dan Slater. “Institutions of the Offensive: Domestic Sources of Dispute Initiation in Authoritarian Regimes, 1950–1992.” American Journal of Political Science 50.1 (January 2006): 113–126.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2006.00173.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Explores variation in institutional restraint among authoritarian regimes and argues that they are less developed among military regimes than among single-party states, thus leading to greater ability to initiate international disputes. Four types of authoritarian regimes are identified: machines, bossism, juntas, and strongmen. The results strongly support the conclusion that military regimes in the last two of these categories are more inclined to initiate disputes. Distinguishes between authoritarian regimes and uses these distinctions for empirical analyses.

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  • Weeks, Jessica L. “Strongmen and Straw Men: Authoritarian Regimes and the Initiation of International Conflict.” American Political Science Review 106.2 (May 2012): 326–347.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055412000111Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Focuses on evidence that civilian regimes have the ability to restrain leaders in their policy choices, whereas personalist and military regimes typically do not. Another result consistent with this argument is that single-party states are not significantly different than democratic states in dispute initiation.

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  • Weeks, Jessica L. Dictators at War and Peace. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014.

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    This book represents both a further analysis of the data in the paper immediately above as well as an extensive consideration of the specifics of a number of cases that illuminate in narrative detail the points raised in the analysis. Interesting reading throughout.

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Revolutions, Authoritarians, and Conflict

Abrupt changes in domestic political arrangements usually bring new leaders into office who, along with their supporters, may have revisionist goals that go beyond things internal to the state. Coglan 2013 makes a general argument about revolutionary leaders and is then joined by Coglan and Weeks 2015 in offering a compelling analysis that singled out the personalist revolutionary leaders as among the most conflict prone. Carter, et al. 2012 and Mansfield and Snyder 2002 are broader in their scope with the former looking at the increase in the depth of state penetration into the economy and the latter examining the consequences for international conflict of authoritarians who offer the trappings of democracy.

  • Carter, Jeff, Michael Bernard, and Glenn Palmer. “Social Revolution, the State and War: How Revolutions Affect War-Making Capacity and Interstate War Outcomes.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 56.3 (2012): 439–466.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022002711431796Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Revolutions are seen as modernizing events that produce stronger state structures that allow for the increased mobilization of economic and population resources that may then be devoted to external military purposes. These enhanced capabilities allow post-revolutionary states to enjoy better outcomes in conflicts.

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  • Coglan, Jeff D. “Domestic Revolutionary Leaders and International Conflict.” World Politics 65.4 (October 2013): 656–690.

    DOI: 10.1017/S004388711300021XSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues that revolutionary leaders who establish personalist regimes (for example, Mao, Castro, Gadhafi) are more likely than other types of autocratic leaders to initiate international disputes because of their ambition and risk tolerance. Both monadic and dyadic statistical analyses support the argument.

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  • Coglan, Jeff D., and Jessica L. P. Weeks. “Revolution, Personalist Dictatorships, and International Conflict.” International Organization 69.1 (Winter 2015): 163–194.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020818314000307Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Joins the two research streams in the paper immediately above. The main thrust of the argument is that revolutions destroy domestic political structures and usher in personalist regimes that lack the institutions necessary to constrain a leader with risk-taking propensities and revisionist international aims. Drawing upon a blend of their previous individual data sets over the period 1950–2000, the analysis produces results that are consistent with their argument.

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  • Mansfield, Edward D., and Jack Snyder. “Incomplete Democratization and the Outbreak of Military Disputes.” International Studies Quarterly 46.4 (2002): 529–549.

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    Incomplete democratic transitions are revealed to be a cause of military conflict. This conclusion is an important caveat to arguments that prize democracy as solution to international conflict. Before adopting unfettered democratic institutions, autocratic states often enter a period where leaders tout nationalistic or populist ideologies that lead to greater international conflict.

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Military Regimes and Conflict

Are boys (i.e., generals) with toys (i.e., guns) dangerous neighbors to have? There is a certain level of plausibility to thinking this way. Military forces are skilled in the use of weapons and may be more likely to resort to their use rather than diplomatic bargaining. While the papers above (see Authoritarian Institutions and Conflict) dealing with variation in conflict across regimes include military regimes, because military organizations are specialists in the use of force, there is a natural expectation that they may be more inclined than other regimes in its use. Hence, several studies focus on the behavior of these regimes. There is a degree of correspondence between this research and that reported on regimes more generally. Like Weeks 2012 and Weeks 2014 (both cited under Authoritarian Institutions and Conflict), Sechser 2004 finds military regimes more inclined to conflict than others, attributing this, like Weeks, to the weakness of institutional constraints, but Kim 2017 suggests the inclination for conflict is due to the presence of military regimes in what might be termed “dangerous neighborhoods.” Siverson and Johnson 2017 look not at the rate of conflict, but in how long it takes military leaders to initiate a dispute, with results indicating they are “trigger happy.”

  • Kim, Nam Kyu. “Are Military Regimes Really Belligerent?” Journal of Conflict Resolution 62.6 (2017): 1–28.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022002716684626Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Research has indicated that military regimes are more inclined toward violence than other forms of autocracy (see, among others, Lai and Slater 2006, cited under Authoritarian Institutions and Conflict). This paper, however, argues that it is not the regime that generates conflict but the territorial threats in geographic area in which the military regime is located. The results indicate that once territorial threats are taken into account the association between conflict and military regimes is absent and that civilian dictatorships are more violent.

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  • Sechser, Todd S. “Are Soldiers Less War-Prone than Statesmen?” Journal of Conflict Resolution 48.5 (2004): 746–774.

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    The answer to the question posed in the title is that due to the lack of institutional constraints they are indeed more inclined to conflict.

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  • Siverson, Randolph M., and Richard A. I. Johnson. “Trigger Happy: Military Regimes and the Timing of Conflict.” Conflict Management and Peace Science (2017): 1–32.

    DOI: 10.1177/0738894216673614Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The question raised here is not whether military regimes participate in more conflicts and disputes, but rather whether after the leaders of military regimes enter office they initiate these acts more quickly than the leaders of other types of autocracies. Drawing on three authoritarian regime typologies and examining the time to the initiation of any dispute and the initiation of violent disputes, the results show that in comparison to other authoritarian leaders the subset of states with military leaders is distinctly trigger-happy.

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Diversionary War

The basic idea motivating this area of research is that states, or more recently leaders, initiate international conflict to distract the attention of domestic audiences from the ills of the state, whether they are ethnic unrest, poor economic performance, fear of a coup or revelations of corruption, among others. One striking characteristic of this research is that virtually every form of government and every domestic problem has been seen as a cause of diversionary behavior. Given that authoritarian regimes are often found in states that face intermittent economic problems and domestic unrest it is not surprising that they should be singled out for attention. Belkin and Schofer 2005 provides an early analysis suggesting that regime security reduces diversionary behavior. Chiozza and Goemans 2003 offers a similar result tied to the leader’s security in office. Kanat 2013 is bereft of data analysis and focuses only on a single case but is worth reading for the light it casts on a controversial leader’s attempts to distract his population. Pickering and Kisangani 2010 indicate that military regimes (see Military Regimes and Conflict) and personalists are more likely to engage in diversionary behavior, while Powell 2012 echoes those who see regime security as mitigating diversion.

  • Belkin, Aaron, and Evan Schofer. “Coup Risk, Counterbalancing, and International Conflict.” Security Studies 14.1 (2005): 140–177.

    DOI: 10.1080/09636410591002527Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    An early consideration of the question of diversionary conflict in authoritarian regimes that are often the subject of coup d’états. In response to their potential insecurity in office leaders are asserted to counterbalance their security services or enter into international conflicts. The data analysis indicates that states with counterbalanced security organizations enter into more low-level military conflicts.

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  • Chiozza, Giacomo, and H. E. Goemans. “Peace through Insecurity.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 47.4 (August 2003): 443–467.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022002703252975Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The diversionary theory holds that leaders will have incentives to initiate disputes to divert domestic attention away from internal problems. This research uses a large data set on leaders over the period 1919 to 1992 to study the probability of a leader losing office and initiating a dispute. Contrary to the standard diversionary idea the results show that leaders are less likely to initiate disputes if they have a high probability of losing office, a result that is particularly evident in democracies.

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  • Kanat, Kilie B. “Diversionary Foreign Policy in Authoritarian States: The Use of Multiple Diversionary Strategies by Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War.” Journal of Strategic Security 7.1 (2013): 16–32.

    DOI: 10.5038/1944-0472.7.1.2Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Using a single case study, the paper explores the methods in which leaders can use multiple policy options to divert attention away from domestic problems. Focusing on the tactics of Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, the paper argues that he pursued multiple strategies to distract the population from serious domestic economic challenges.

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  • Pickering, Jeffrey, and Emizet F. Kisangani. “Diversionary Despots: Comparing Autocracies’ Propensities to Use and Benefit from Military Force.” American Journal of Political Science 54.2 (April 2010): 477–493.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2010.00442.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Drawing on political incentive theory (also known as the selectorate theory; see Bueno de Mesquita, et al. 1999, cited under Fundamental Works) this research uses data on three types of authoritarian regimes to examine the effect of elite unrest on conflict involvement over the period 1950 to 2005. The results indicate that single-party regimes are less inclined to engage in diversionary behavior than military or personalist regimes.

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  • Powell, Jonathan M. “Regime Vulnerability and the Diversionary Threat of Force.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 58.2 (December 2012).

    DOI: 10.1177/0022002712467938Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Expands on the earlier work of Belkin and Schofer 2005 that coup risk in authoritarian regimes can lead to diversionary behavior. The arguments advanced in this paper are two. First, that coup proofing— creating multiple security organizations within the state—can minimize the desire to use diversionary behavior. Second, autocrats offer private goods to armies to tame them and thereby protect themselves. Achieving these goals reduces incentives for autocrats to engage in diversionary behavior.

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Autocracies and Signaling

Signaling is an important means for states to communicate with each other about their positions on issues that are either in conflict or may become subjects of conflict. The appearance of certain words in a speech or a change in the disposition of military forces can signal to another state either resolve or a willingness to communicate without explicitly saying so. It is important, therefore, that signals can be read by other states, but since authoritarian states are usually opaque it may be that their signals are more difficult to read than those of more transparent states. Fearon 1995 outlines the fundamental tension that can lead states which prefer peace to engage in conflict. In non-democracies this tendency can be exacerbated because making credible commitments and signaling resolve can be associated with greater uncertainty than in democratic regimes. Weeks 2008 reports results suggesting that only some autocracies face this difficulty. Kinne and Marinov 2013 link effective signaling to the existence of semi-legitimate elections in authoritarian regimes.

  • Fearon, James D. “Rationalist Explanation for War.” International Organization 49.3 (Summer 1995): 379–414.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020818300033324Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues that war can take place between states even when there are outcomes both states would prefer to war. First, states have private information about both capabilities and their resolve to use them. Second, avoiding war may require credible commitments, and states may be unable to uphold these. When a state is authoritarian, its signaling will be subject to greater uncertainty, and more frequent, and significant, regime shifts may make continuing commitments of a previous regime less credible.

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  • Kinne, Brandon J., and Nikolay Marinov. “Electoral Authoritarianism and Credible Signaling in International Crises.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 57.3 (2013): 359–386.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022002712446124Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Kinne and Marinov blurs the theoretical distinctions between authoritarian regimes and democracies when they make the case that some autocrats that hold nominally competitive elections can issue more credible signals to international opponents as a consequence. The credibility of the signaling varies with the actual electoral threat posed by domestic elections to the incumbent. These properties are not tied to a particular regime category but are arguably a fundamental institutional characteristic across all regime types.

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  • Weeks, Jessica L. “Autocratic Audience Costs: Regime Type and Signaling Resolve.” International Organization 62.1 (Winter 2008): 35–64.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020818308080028Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Democracies are not more successful in signaling their resolve than authoritarian regimes when they are disaggregated, exceptions being personalist regimes and some forms of monarchy. Finds evidence that democracies, single-party states, military regimes, and dynastic monarchies all generate audience costs while personalist leaders and non-dynastic monarchs can impede elite coordination and are less credible when making threats.

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Nuclear Weapons

The literature on the diffusion of nuclear weapons is vast, as are the explanations for why states pursue acquisition. Sagan 2011 is an analysis of incentives for diffusion, which provides a broad survey of the reasons why uncertainty exists about regime type and diffusion. However, drawing upon the analysis of a relatively small data set, Way and Weeks 2014 sees personalist authoritarians as the main actors in this domain.

  • Sagan, Scott D. “The Causes of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation.” Annual Review of Political Science 14 (2011): 225–244.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-polisci-052209-131042Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Provides a broad overview of the topic while pointing out that recent scholarship suggests that democracies are slightly more likely to acquire nuclear weapons than authoritarian regimes. However, because of the strategic aspect involved in adhering to various non-proliferation agreements, the role of regime type and nuclear proliferation is far from certain.

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  • Way, Christopher, and Jessica L. P. Weeks. “Making it Personal: Regime Type and Nuclear Proliferation.” American Journal of Political Science 58.3 (July 2014): 705–719.

    DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12080Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    What does regime type have to do with whether a state seeks to acquire nuclear weapons? While previous research on this question has been inconclusive, the analysis advanced in this paper is that regime type is extremely important and that those states who are most inclined to initiate programs to develop nuclear weapons are “highly centralized, ‘personalized’ dictatorships.” An assertion that is bone out in the data analysis.

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Just as international relations has incorporated non-democratic regimes into their explanations of international conflict, the influence of authoritarian institutions on theories of international cooperation has grown significantly over the past twenty years. The spread of democratic institutions since the end of the World War II has given way to theories involving the counter spread of autocracy as both an institutional alternative and an ideological counterweight to democracy. At the same time dictatorships have also become the focus of theories examining the unintended consequences of their institution’s design. Some scholars theorize that international agreements might benefit from autocratic rule, and that some forms of authoritarian government have lower propensities to engage in conflict, suggesting an autocratic peace. Just as theories of international conflict have added autocratic institutions to existing theories and developed new ones, theories of international cooperation have found a number of new explanations that involve non-democratic regimes.

Autocracy Promotion

The study of authoritarian foreign policy is to an extent informed by the major trends associated with the foreign policy of democratic regimes. A number of authors have emphasized the push toward democratic institutions that swept international relations in the 1970s, the collapse of authoritarian governments in Eastern Europe in 1989, and the Arab Spring in 2011. However, when these waves failed to give rise to long-lasting institutional change, or when authoritarian institutions proved to be more durable than expected, a number of scholars argued that autocrats may be finding ways to spread non-democratic forms of governance to their neighbors. Recent work on this topic, such as Way 2015 and Yakouchyk 2018 has failed to find evidence of a unified intent to replicate authoritarian forms of governance in neighboring states. Bader, et al. 2010; Way 2015; and Whitehead 2014, find that autocrats may be more interested in promoting regional stability and rulers, regardless of regime type, that support their own regime. One of the more interesting theories posited is that autocrats may benefit from being surrounded by states with similar domestic incentive structures, but that they suffer from the same set of uncertainties that plague democracy promotion. Way 2015 argues that autocratic regimes that promote regime change or even support leaders with authoritarian tendencies can find themselves exporting political instability that throws future gains into question, or suffering the unintended consequences of such promotion, such as accidentally spurring greater political competition. Von Soest 2015 finds that the appearance of autocracy promotion may be the byproduct of a more self-serving and opportunistic motivation by autocratic leaders to limit the spillover of democratization and gaining sympathetic geostrategic allies. Ambrosio 2010 and Tansey 2016 emphasize the importance of correctly operationalizing and parsing the type of international influence that are supposed to promote or lead to an authoritarian international order. The former lays out a number of theoretical mechanisms through which authoritarian diffusion could operate, while the latter focuses on the importance of clarifying the intent of a state actor through the careful selection of cases and evidence. Jackson 2010 contributes to the discussion of external influences on the spread of non-liberal government by examining cases where Russia has spread autocratic rule. She concludes that when domestic political elites are receptive—or incentivized—to adopting new ideas and practices associated with authoritarian regime type, the promotion of authoritarian forms of government will be more successful.

  • Ambrosio, Thomas. “Constructing a Framework of Authoritarian Diffusion: Concepts, Dynamics, and Future Research.” International Studies Perspectives 11.4 (2010): 375–392.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1528-3585.2010.00411.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Serves as a foundation for future research on the dynamics and contributing factors of authoritarian diffusion. The authors outline a number of mechanisms that contribute to the spread of a particular regime type, such as the appearance of legitimacy and the attractiveness of autocratic norms based on the economic and political successes of that form of government.

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  • Bader, Julia, Jorn Gravingholt, and Antje Kastner. “Would Autocracies Promote Autocracy? A Political Economy Perspective on Regime-Type Export in Regional Neighborhoods.” Contemporary Politics 16.1 (2010): 81–100.

    DOI: 10.1080/13569771003593904Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Taking up the question of whether autocratic neighbors are even favorable for authoritarian rulers, this article adopts a political economy framework in order to unpack a more complex set of preferences for authoritarian foreign policy. Specifically, autocrats are shown to prefer stability over regime convergence, but will promote the latter when the status quo has already been disrupted.

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  • Burnell, Peter, and Oliver Schlumberger. “Promoting Democracy - Promoting Autocracy? International Politics and National Political Regimes.” Contemporary Politics 16.1 (2010): 1–15.

    DOI: 10.1080/13569771003593805Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    An introduction to the topic of authoritarian promotion and the resurgence of autocratic forms of government in the face of failed democratic consolidation. This introduction to a special issue of Contemporary Politics traces out a number of research questions and their relevance to current theoretical research on both international relations and authoritarian regimes.

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  • Jackson, Nicole J. “The Role of External Factors in Advancing Non-liberal Democratic Forms of Political Rule: A Case Study of Russia’s Influence on Central Asian Regimes.” Contemporary Politics 16.1 (2010): 101–118.

    DOI: 10.1080/13569771003593920Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Outlines a number of important domestic variables that bolster and reinforce autocracy as well as how Russia, as a dominant regional power, influences these variables. While partly dependent on the receptivity of domestic elites, Russia’s promotion of certain ideas and norms has the intent if not the result of strengthening authoritarian governance.

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  • Tansey, Oisin. “The Problem of Autocracy Promotion.” Democratization 23.1 (2016): 141–163.

    DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2015.1095736Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Draws further attention to the lack of coherence in the theory of authoritarian promotion, as a set of unified policies that act as an intentional effort to promote autocratic forms of governance. Tansey highlights the importance of agency, intentions, motivations, and effects. Tansey proposes a strict definition of autocracy promotion that assess various actions with respect to these four criteria.

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  • Von Soest, Christian. “Democracy Prevention: The International Collaboration of Authoritarian Regimes.” European Journal of Political Research 54.4 (2015): 623–638.

    DOI: 10.1111/1475-6765.12100Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues that authoritarian rulers first and foremost strive to maximize their own survival chances by supporting other authoritarian regimes; paper concludes that this support is not driven by an ideological commitment to an autocratic international order.

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  • Way, Lucan A. “The Limits of Autocracy Promotion: The Case of Russia in the ‘Near Abroad.’” European Journal of Political Research 54.4 (2015): 691–706.

    DOI: 10.1111/1475-6765.12092Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In contrast to many arguments that claim regional powers such as Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela are attempting to spread authoritarian rule, Way finds that there is little evidence of consistent promotion of autocracy by Russia among post-Soviet regimes.

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  • Whitehead, Laurence. “Antidemocracy Promotion: Four Strategies in Search of a Framework.” Taiwan Journal of Democracy 10.2 (2014): 1–24.

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    While acknowledging the anti-democratic strategies adopted by many authoritarian powers, Whitehead emphasizes that these strategies are not mirror images of pro-democratic agendas. Autocratic promotion is argued to be a reaction to democratic spread, a way to limit the destabilizing aspects of democracy on domestic and regional affairs.

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  • Yakouchyk, Katsiaryna. “Beyond Autocracy Promotion: A Review.” Political Studies Review (2018): 1–14.

    DOI: 10.1177/1478929918774976Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    One of the primary conclusions of the literature on autocracy promotion is that a cohesive set of policies promoting authoritarian forms of government does not seem to exist. Some autocrats support other dictatorial regimes, but so do some democratic governments. There is still comparatively little research connecting domestic sources of regime change to international anti-democratic influences.

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Autocracy and International Cooperation

The focus on democratic peace studies by scholars of international relations has recently given way to a greater emphasis on the linkage between domestic political factors and authoritarian foreign policy. One of the areas that has seen growing study is the realm of international cooperation among authoritarian regimes. Researchers have moved past the simplistic democracy versus non-democracy approach, and instead examine how particular types of authoritarian governments might systematically shape their foreign policy based on their domestic incentives. Whether differentiating between autocracies based on the size of their winning coalition or employing a categorical typology of regime type, there are a number of areas involving economic and political cooperation where authoritarian governments behave in systematically different ways based on their domestic political constraints. For example, Baccini and Chow 2018 finds that authoritarian leaders who enter office extralegally are more likely to sign deeper, enforceable preferential trade agreements (PTAs) when they face a high degree of coup risk compared to legal leaders. With respect to PTAs, Mazumder 2017 finds that autocracies more central to a PTA network are less likely to engage in militarized interstate disputes. Chyzh 2014 argues that the size of an authoritarian leader’s winning coalition determines their likelihood of reaching and complying with international agreements. Specifically, the author asserts that smaller winning coalitions make it easier for leaders to reach agreements, while making it less likely that they will comply with such agreements. Garriga 2009 concludes that lack of domestic constraints faced by autocracies increase the size of their win sets, acceptable agreements that overlap with those of other negotiating states, making bilateral agreements more likely. Along a different dimension of international cooperation, Woo and Fails 2015 determines that different varieties of autocratic regimes display different levels of willingness to sign IMF loan agreements in the face of economic crises. Along similar lines, Steinberg and Malhotra 2014 finds that some authoritarian regimes are more tolerant of the short-term costs associated with undervalued exchange rates, while others seek the stability of a fixed rate. Overall, the study of authoritarian regimes and international cooperation has found that the variation among autocratic regimes contributes useful information when explaining systematic differences in both economic and political agreements.

  • Baccini, Leonardo, and Wilfred M. Chow. “The Politics of Preferential Trade Liberalization in Authoritarian Countries.” International Interactions 44.2 (2018): 189–216.

    DOI: 10.1080/03050629.2017.1373352Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argue that leaders who enter office through extralegal means (like a coup) have a credibility problem. PTAs allow leaders to provide market access for exporters and generate loyalty in exporters by providing them with trade exemption clauses. Their results suggest that an autocratic leader’s vulnerability to coups might actually generate some positive policy outcomes much like democratic vulnerability to elections.

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  • Chyzh, Olga. “Can You Trust a Dictator: A Strategic Model of Authoritarian Regimes’ Signing and Compliance with International Treaties.” Conflict Management and Peace Science 31.1 (2014): 3–27.

    DOI: 10.1177/0738894213501132Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Employing a model of regime typology generated by Lai and Slater 2006 (cited under Authoritarian Institutions and Conflict) rather than Geddes, et al. 2014, they find that variation in institutional characteristics helps to explain the tendency to reach and comply with international agreements. They find that democracies do not possess a unique advantage in making credible international agreements.

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  • Garriga, Ana Carolina. “Regime Type and Bilateral Treaty Formalization: Do Too Many Cooks Spoil the Soup?” Journal of Conflict Resolution 53.5 (2009): 698–726.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022002709341403Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Autocratic dyads are more likely to formalize bilateral treaties than democratic or mixed dyads. This is thought to be the result of the weaker institutional constraints placed on authoritarian rulers enlarging the possible win set that can lead to acceptable international agreements.

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  • Mattes, Michaela, and Mariana Rodriguez. “Autocracies and International Cooperation.” International Studies Quarterly 58.3 (2014): 527–538.

    DOI: 10.1111/isqu.12107Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Once again building on the Geddes, et al. 2014 data, the authors find that distinguishing between military regimes and single-party regimes on one side, and personalist regimes on the other, explains their aptitude for international cooperation. Regimes that more closely resemble democracies on the institutional dimensions of leader accountability, policy flexibility, and transparency, are more likely to cooperate.

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  • Mazumder, Soumyajit. “Autocracies and the International Sources of Cooperation.” Journal of Peace Research 54.3 (2017): 412–426.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022343316687018Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Using network analysis, Mazumder finds that greater centrality in networks of liberal institutions (such as preferential trade agreements) can actually mitigate cooperation problems and reduce violent disputes. Oddly, the benefits of network centrality decrease as states becomes more democratic. This is precisely because democracies are more transparent, they benefit less from the transparency-enhancing aspects of being embedded in networks of liberal institutions.

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  • Steinberg, David A., and Krishan Malhotra. “The Effect of Authoritarian Regime Type on Exchange Rate Policy.” World Politics 66.3 (2014): 491–529.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0043887114000136Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In keeping with the growing consensus that authoritarian regimes are heterogeneous in their internal structure and foreign policy, Steinberg and Malhotra find that this applies to exchange rate policy. Fixed exchange rates are associated with authoritarian regimes with small selectorates, such as military regimes and monarchies, while more undervalued exchange rates are common among civilian regimes, where short-term costs can be more easily born in exchange for longer-term benefits.

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  • Woo, Byungwon, and Matt Fails. “Unpacking Autocracy: Political Regimes and IMF Program Participation.” International Interactions 41.1 (2015): 110–132.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022002709341403Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Following on the growing literature that differentiates authoritarian regimes, this research demonstrates empirically that party-based autocracies and personalist regimes differ in their approach to IMF participation. The first two respond to economic crises and participate in IMF efforts, while military regimes do not.

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Dictatorial Peace

Since the field of international relations has begun to consider the internal structure of states in explaining their foreign policy decisions, the study of authoritarian foreign policy has taken on new life. Similar to liberalism’s emphasis on the role of internal state variables in conditioning foreign policy, many of the recent theoretical developments concerning autocratic foreign policy have been spurred by the greater attention paid to authoritarian domestic institutions. Bueno de Mesquita, et al. 1999 (cited under Fundamental Works); Geddes, et al. 2014 (cited under Data Sets); Weeks 2012 (cited under Authoritarian Institutions and Conflict); Geddes, et al. 2014; Lai and Slater 2006 (cited under Authoritarian Institutions and Conflict); and Svolik 2012 (cited under Data Sets), just to name a few, unpack the potential domestic sources for constrained foreign policy choices. Lai and Slater 2006 designs authoritarian typologies that emphasize the impact of personalism on foreign policy belligerence. Later work that has included measures of personalism, such as developed by Geddes, et al. 2014 (cited under Data Sets), has confirmed these results in a number of ways, also finding that personalist regimes are associated with an aggressive foreign policy. With the expansion of various authoritarian typologies, a number of robust findings in international relations, such as the democratic peace, have been reformulated and tested with regime type as the independent variable. Peceny, et al. 2002 asks whether there is a dictatorial peace that resembles the democratic peace. While there is no equivalently robust finding to the democratic peace, later scholarship has uncovered a number of interesting implications concerning the relationship between regime type and international conflict. Reiter and Stam 2003 point out that while democracies and personalist regimes are conflict prone, this relationship is actually driven by the tendency of personalist regimes to initiate conflict with more powerful opponents. Peceny and Beer 2003 refocus the study of authoritarian foreign policy on their relations with other non-democracies. Specifically, they note that single-party regimes are less likely to initiate militarized disputes against personalist autocrats, while the opposite is not true.

  • Peceny, Mark, and Caroline C. Beer. “Peaceful Parties and Puzzling Personalists.” American Political Science Review 97.2 (2003): 339–342.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055403000716Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Refocusing on military disputes between authoritarian states, Peceny and Beer find that single-party dictatorships are significantly less likely to initiate conflict with personalist regimes. In contrast, personalist regimes are more likely than average to initiate a military dispute with both single-party regimes and democracy.

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  • Peceny, Mark, and Christopher K. Butler. “The Conflict Behavior of Authoritarian Regimes.” International Politics 41.4 (2004): 565–581.

    DOI: 10.1057/palgrave.ip.8800093Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Attempting to link Geddes regime typology to more continuous measures of autocratic winning coalitions, the authors find that regimes with larger winning coalitions, such as single-party regimes, are less likely to be a target or an initiator of militarized conflicts. Personalist and military regimes, with smaller winning coalitions, are found to be more likely to be targets and initiators of militarized disputes.

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  • Peceny, Mark, Caroline C. Beer, and Shannon Sanchez-Terry. “Dictatorial Peace?” American Political Science Review 96.1 (2002): 15–26.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055402004203Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Authors find that unlike the democratic peace, the results for a dictatorial peace are far from clear. War between homogeneous dyads is found to be rare between personalist, military, or single-party regimes in the post–World War II period.

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  • Reiter, Dan, and Allan C. Stam. “Identifying the Culprit: Democracy, Dictatorship, and Dispute Initiation.” American Political Science Review 97.2 (2003): 333–337.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055403000704Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Employing directed dyads, personalist dictatorships and democracies are confirmed as the most conflict-prone dyad. Personalist regimes are also revealed to be the most likely to initiate military conflict with democracies, but not vice versa. This latter finding also holds for military and single-party regimes, suggesting that domestic institutions are a major determinant in conflict initiation and not simple deterrence based on war-making capability.

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Data Sets

The study of authoritarian regimes has grown in step with the quantity and quality of the data available to researchers. Typically, earlier works such as Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2018, POLITY™ IV PROJECT, and Banks and Wilson 2017 relied on more qualitative assessments of regime type and characteristics while later datasets, such as Cheibub, et al. 2010, emphasized collection based on observable and replicable data. In addition to the emphasis on replicability, later datasets have benefited from advances in theory, leading some datasets to emphasize the manner of entry and exit from authoritarian office (Goemans, et al. 2009; Svolik 2012), size of the selectorate and winning coalition (Bueno de Mesquita, et al. 1999), type of electoral institutions (Wahman, et al. 2013; Magaloni, et al. 2013), and overall organizing principle (Geddes, et al. 2014). For a dataset that includes international conflict as a variable, Maoz 2009 provides an excellent starting point, as does POLITY™ IV PROJECT.

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