Democratic peace theory, one of the closest semblances to an empirical law in international relations, espouses quite simply that democracies are unlikely to go to war with one another. This seems to be backed quite strongly by available data. Explanations vary from the pervasiveness of democratic norms (the willingness to compromise or negotiate, among other factors), to the presence of democratic institutions which constrain leaders from mobilizing military resources at their whim, to game theoretical models suggesting that democracies more equally distribute the “spoils of war,” making it less desirable than under authoritarianism. With all that said, it thus seems that the contrapositive of democratic peace theory is worth evaluating: are authoritarians–who face few to no institutional constraints, who stand to benefit personally from war, and who flagrantly violate democratic norms–substantially more likely to go to war, or pursue otherwise volatile foreign policies? In particular, what are the foreign policies of personalist dictators–those at the helm of regimes often most antithetical to democracy?
In their piece on the rise of personalist dictators, Kendall-Taylor and Frantz highlight the fact that these leaders are uniquely likely to pursue a number of problematic policies generally, including, “Volatile and aggressive foreign policies, […] xenophobic sentiments, […] mismanage[ment of] foreign aid, and are the least likely to transition to democracy when they collapse .” This statement is intriguing. It seems quite clear that an authoritarian would be able to utilize xenophobic rhetoric to rally his base, or mismanage foreign aid without fear of repercussion–but why are personalist dictators more likely to pursue hostile foreign policy decisions? Further, if it is true that authoritarian regimes broadly are more free to pursue aggressive foreign policies, perhaps as a result of fewer institutional checks or their insulation from public opinion, what makes personalist dictatorships uniquely bad in this regard, as opposed to other forms of authoritarianism (say, single-party states)?
Empirically analyzing the likelihood of war among several types of authoritarian regimes, a study by Peceny, Beer, and Sanchez-Terry seems to indicate that personalist dictators are more likely to instigate conflict than military-led governments or single-party states. This backs the assertion of Kendall-Taylor and Frantz. However, this paper analyzes a dataset from 2002. While this is thus a post-Cold War study, it is unclear whether this captures the breadth of the rise of personalist dictators, which Kendall-Taylor and Frantz describe as particularly salient from 2000-2010. Regardless, it seems somewhat clear that whatever factor in personalist dictatorship causes the impact observed in Peceny et al. would probably persist as personalist dictatorships have flooded the map in the last two decades.
Jessica Weeks, analyzing a similar trend to the one observed by Peceny et al., notes a few qualities which may make other (non-personalist) dictators less likely to instigate war. Broadly, Weeks identifies the presence of powerful elite audiences–oligarchs with countervailing interests, powerful party officials, etc.–as a predictor of less international conflict being instigated. When these elites exist in a meaningful way, the dictator must appease them or face being ousted. Perhaps this may be seen as a sort of reverse application of the gatekeeping theory, in which powerful officials monitor the behavior of a dictator, already in place, and threaten removal if he “misbehaves” (i.e., instigates a militarized conflict with another state).
Weeks further identifies a handful of characteristics of personalist dictators themselves which enable their warmongering. She notes the personalities of these dictators, and their rise to power, often place a premium on the value of military strength as a means to achieve some desirable end. Thus, the decision-making calculus for any personalist dictator is necessarily tipped slightly in favor of military means, at least on a broad level. Additionally, these leaders are likely to hold desires of grandeur on an international level, motivating revisionist behavior. Further, these leaders are remarkably isolated not only from public opinion, but also from the multitude of costs and risks associated with waging war, including physical attacks, meaning that war is probably perceived by the personalist dictator to be less costly.
Finally, Taussig notes the unpredictability and volatility of the personalist dictator, and the lack of meaningful institutional constraints, as a strong cause behind belligerent foreign policy. This seems to mirror the ways in which personalist dictators rise in the first place–by carving out institutions from the inside, frequently while operating within the confines of the law. Taking all this into consideration, it seems quite likely that the personal characteristics of personalist dictators, coupled with a lack of private, public, and institutional constraints, makes hostile foreign policy more likely at nearly every step along the way. One interesting trend, however, noted by Peceny et al., is the possible presence of a “dictatorial peace,” among personalist dictators–there seems to be a gap in warfighting between these regimes. Perhaps future research could assess whether this trend has held true in the last 17 years since the paper was written, as such a gap may very well undermine many of the justifications laid out here explaining the belligerence of the personalist dictator.
Photo by WordPress, “Dr. Strangelove: The War Room”, Creative Commons Zero license.