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December 17, 2008

Do Democracies have More Effective, Consistent, and Predictable Foreign Policies than Dictatorships?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Middle Eastern states, almost all of them dictatorships, constantly bicker amongst themselves and enter into relatively childish diplomatic rows over perceived and personal slights. There is no common Arab policy to any regional or international problem, because there seem to be little structural incentives to induce Arab leaders to make an effort to agree on big issues. Part of the problem is when foreign policy is largely determined by either one person, or a very small coterie of elites around the royal court, then foreign policy initiatives have less force of legitimacy and are less sustainable because they can always be reversed fairly easily.

One could posit - as I will right now - that if Middle Eastern countries were relative democracies, they would be much more willing to cooperate with each other, and would be more willing to play strong, confident leadership roles in tacking difficult regional issues. Turkey, of course, is a good example of how this might look in practice. I have some ideas why this might be the case, but seeing empirical data on this would be interesting. Independent variable = regime type. Dependent variable = foreign policy efficacy, which you could probably measure in a variety of ways.

Several hypotheses:
1) If you delegate parts of the foreign policy apparatus to professional bureaucracies (as is usually the case in democracies), the result is a greater degree of professionalism and consistency, across different administrations.

2) Since democratically-elected government are accountable to the electorate, they have a greater incentive to demonstrate a willingness to increase ties, especially economic ties, with neighboring countries.

3) In the Middle Eastern contexts, most populations share a common culture, history, and/or language. If foreign policy better reflects the will of the electorate, you could expect the foreign policies of different Arab or Middle Eastern states to converge more. Another way of putting it is that, if there were free and fair elections in every Middle Eastern countries, all governments would have an Islamic flavor of some sort and would prioritize strengthening ties with other governments that also had an Islamic flavor. This would probably have both positive and negative consequences for American regional interests, but there would, in my view, be ways to minimize the negative consequences. Turkey, again, is a good example of an Islamically-flavored ruling party engaging in a responsible and largely effective foreign policy. 


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Part of the problem is when foreign policy is largely determined by either one person, or a very small coterie of elites around the royal court, then foreign policy initiatives have less force of legitimacy and are less sustainable because they can always be reversed fairly easily.

Oh, come on. In the USA we're all sitting around with bated breath, analyzing the political tea leaves, waiting for some sign of what the new Decider (Obama) and his newly appointed small coterie of elites have in store for us proles on Palestine, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan, to name just a few crises which are apparently not amenable to a democratic approach.

So it's pick-on-Arabs time again. What's new, pussycat.

I'm not picking on Arabs. I'm picking on authoritarian regimes, especially those of a highly personalistic nature, and the way they conduct foreign policy.

Perhaps you might address the meaning of my comment? How is a US decider with a coterie of elites different from an Arab one? And, to take it a step further, have any Arab deciders decided to invade other countries far removed from their own borders recently, and if not then aren't their deciders' decisions superior to US ones?

My point is that the US government is "of a highly personalistic nature" because in foreign affairs, at least, the Congress has virtually no say. Obama has been and is now telling us what countries he might invade next, for example, as if the US didn't even have a Congress or laws either.

Also, we have heard not a peep from Senator Obama about the Iraq SOFA which should be a treaty subject to constitutional advice & consent. Not a peep, because he will soon be the Decider and there is a precedent to maintain.

So, considering that France, Germany and Spain haven't invaded any countries lately, my answer to your title question is a qualified "possibly" but if you're mistakenly calling the US a democracy (in foreign affairs) then the answer is "no" -- look at the results, chaos and instability in several areas.

Finally, if your idea of democracy is the chance to pull a lever every four years in a choice between look-alikes, and then sit down and shut up, then I disagree.

Shadi is right. Democracies by nature have the potential to produce foreign policies that pursue the interests of the majority of their people. Dictatorships and other types of authoritarian governments inherently pursue the interests of a much smaller band of the population due to the nature of decision-making and governance. Foreign policy is no different than domestic policy; it's public policy. And we all know the difference between democracies and non-democracies in terms of distribution of benefits. But this is not black and white. Even democracies can improve in foreign-policy making and equal distribution of benefits.

I don't say Shadi is wrong, I say he's picking on Arabs by not including the US "Decider" concept in his discussion and by not recognizing that, however faulted, Arab autocracies have not impacted foreign affairs negatively as US regimes have done. The US is supposed to be the model, after all.

You've validated the point. The US "Decider" was one of the most undemocratic governments in U.S. history. The Bush Administration was unilateral domestically and internationally and it rolled back Constitutional protections at home. It was one of the most non-transparent, non-consultative, and corrupt in our history. The world knows this. The people of this country suffered serious damage to their interests as a result of this type of governance. That's the point. Nonetheless, the U.S. political system still allows us to replace this Administration making it more democratic than the ones in the Middle East by a very far stretch.

My point is that Obama, with his "I'll do this, I'll do that" and his non-stand on the SOFA (except apparently to violate it) will offer NO relief to the problem of executive privilege. Where do you see signs of increased democracy?

Senator Obama has voted for every military spending bill and for FISA, supports a 92,000 increase in ground troops, has threatened Pakistan and Iran, has retained SecDef Gates, hired on the hawk Senator Clinton and her coterie of Clintonistas, has said he'll retain troops in Iraq (but he doesn't know how many yet), etc. So what's new?

The Decider lives on -- only the name changes.

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