The Multilateralist

Want to avoid a coup? Sign an arms control agreement

The question of whether democracies have different foreign policies than other kinds of regime has intrigued international relations scholars for years. Realists often insist that regime type doesn’t matter much; scholars from other intellectual traditions are more receptive to the idea that democracies act differently. Whole forests have been felled exploring the question of whether, ...

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The question of whether democracies have different foreign policies than other kinds of regime has intrigued international relations scholars for years. Realists often insist that regime type doesn’t matter much; scholars from other intellectual traditions are more receptive to the idea that democracies act differently. Whole forests have been felled exploring the question of whether, when, and against whom democracies will fight.

Writing in the April issue of World Politics, Isabella Alcañiz pursues a different twist on that venerable question. She begins by noting that newly democratic governments sign international arms control agreements at a significantly higher rate than non-democratic governments and established democracies. She hypothesizes that they do so largely for reputational reasons:

A positive reputation accomplishes two objectives. First, it signals to the international community that regime change effectively entailed a cahnge of country tape away from the past autocracy. Second, and more importantly, it exposes potential conspirators to the possibility of diplomatic and economic sanctions if they were to attempt to reverse the transition.

In effect, leaders of new and fragile democracies seek to enmesh their states in a web of multilateral agreements in order to make political mischief at home less likely. Alcañiz acknowledges that new and fragile autocratic leaders may attempt a similar strategy, particularly with human rights treaties, which are easy to sign and usually have no enforcement mechanisms. But she argues that arms control and security treaties are particularly attractive for new democracies precisely because noncompliance does carry significant risks. 

Alcañiz’s survey of treaty ratification patterns and the evolution of democratic transitions strongly suggests that this strategy is effective.  “[T]he more a new democracy commits to arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament treaties,” she concludes, “the less likely it is to experience a regime reversal.”

 Twitter: @multilateralist

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