Democracies, Dictatorships and Foreign Policy

Shadi Hamid pursues the debate about democracies and foreign policy, pointing out, among other things, that he didn’t describe the foreign policy of democracies as “more stable” (my description) than that of dictatorships, but rather as “stronger, more effective and more predictable.”While he concedes that there’s an implication of stability, he’s also right to point out the distinction.

But keeping that distinction in mind, who fits Hamid’s description better over the past eight years, the U.S. or China? Reaching backwards historically, the Soviet Union, too, had a strong, effective and utterly predictable foreign policy. Among Middle Eastern countries, I’d propose Saudi Arabia, Qatar and even Syria, in its own way, as examples of non-democratic countries that fit Hamid’s description. And even if you expand the criteria, as Hamid later does, to include “assertive and independent,” I think you can find enough counterexamples to dispute the hypothesis. Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of democracies with dismal records on the diplomatic front.

Obviously, I’ve got the easy job here of poking holes in a compelling argument. The problem, I think, is that Hamid has structured the question in terms of an independent variable (regime type) and a dependent variable (some measure of foreign policy efficacy). For me, there are more valuable insights to be found by making an effective foreign policy the independent variable, then working backwards to determine what about the regime type contributed to it. For me, Hamid’s hypotheses about why democracies tend towards an emphasis on cooperative foreign policies are more satisfying as empirical observations of particular cases than as generalized causal factors.

And while he’s right to suggest that there are many repressive regimes who don’t meet the criteria, I’d be interested to see what factors, both foreign and domestic, lie behind the ones that do. For the Soviet Union, it was a combination of rigid ideology and the demands of nuclear deterrence. For today’s China, it seems to be a very keen strategic vision combined with the opportunities presented by globalization. For Qatar and Saudi Arabia, pride and leadership ambition seem to be the driving factors. For Syria, I haven’t got a clue, but I’d be interested in finding out.

I agree that all other things being equal, democracy is an objective good to be pursued. But all other things are not necessarily equal. Not all repressive regimes are alike, and not all are necessarily ineffective. Anyone interested in democracy promotion will only stand to benefit from examining why that is.