The Multilateralist

Democracies and arms control treaties: causation questions

This post was contributed by Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist who blogs at Dart-Throwing Chimp. Yesterday David discussed an article in the April 2012 issue of World Politics claiming, among other things, that new democracies can reduce their risk of backsliding to authoritarian rule by ratifying arms-control treaties. As author Isabella Alcañiz sees it, elected ...

This post was contributed by Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist who blogs at Dart-Throwing Chimp.

Yesterday David discussed an article in the April 2012 issue of World Politics claiming, among other things, that new democracies can reduce their risk of backsliding to authoritarian rule by ratifying arms-control treaties. As author Isabella Alcañiz sees it, elected officials in new democracies want democracy to survive, but they are worried that the military or remnants of the old regime will oust them in a coup.

To deter those reactionary forces from trying to usurp power, newly elected leaders can increase the costs of a coup by ratifying the international arms-control agreements that other, more powerful countries support. According to Alcañiz,

The logic behind this is simple: by strengthening diplomatic ties in a high-value policy area, new democrats expect domestic conspirators to anticipate possible diplomatic and economic sanctions if they were to attempt a coup.

I think that’s a plausible story, but it’s hardly the only reason we might expect to see an association between treaty ratification and the survival of newly democratic regimes. Alternatively, it could be that governments in most new democracies would like to ratify these agreements because of the international benefits they convey, but the more resilient new democracies are also the ones that are more capable of pulling it off. If treaty ratification is politically controversial, then it’s more likely to happen in cases where partisan rivals are more amenable to compromise, or where the incumbent party enjoys a strong electoral advantage. Both of these features are also things that should make a new democracy more durable, whether or not it ratifies any arms-control agreements. In this version of the story, pre-existing characteristics of the new regime turn out to be a common cause of treaty ratification and democratic survival, and the correlation between those two outcomes is spurious.

So, which is it? Do the treaties create resilience, or are resilient regimes more likely to sign the treaties? In Alcañiz’s story, ratification is like an inoculation; by taking this medicine, new democracies are said to reduce their risk of catching a coup. To see if this inoculation is effective, we need to compare new democracies that take it with similar ones that don’t.

That’s not what Alcañiz does. Instead of comparing outcomes across new democracies that did or didn’t sign these treaties, she models the risk of regime breakdown across all countries, whatever their regime type. Alcañiz’s results do show that democracies which have ratified these treaties are less susceptible to breakdown than autocracies that have done likewise, but that’s not the comparison her theory makes.

Alcañiz’s paper is worth a read for the rich theoretical discussion of why states sign treaties and what effects those decisions might have on their politics, not just internationally but also at home. What it definitely does not give us, though, is convincing evidence that new democracies can improve their prospects for survival by ratifying international arms-control agreements.

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