The Man and the System: How Leadership Changes Affect Foreign Policymaking in Authoritarian States


Most of the literature focusing on leadership and regime change in authoritarian political systems emphasizes the mass uprising as the main fear of an authoritarian leader, and gives the chief role in the survival of the regime to the personal survival of the dictator or the governing council. Acemoglu and Robinson in their article concentrate on the possibilities of democratization during the transition period after a fall of an incumbent leader, seeing the regime and its leadership as one and the same. In his 2012 book Milan V. Svolik identifies the problems of power sharing and control as the two main characteristics that shape authoritarian rule and politics, as well as formulate its distinct features such as regime and leadership survival, institutions, and, more importantly, domestic and foreign policies. He analyzes the data collected from 1946 to 2008 on the non-constitutional, non-health-related loss of office by the authoritarian leaders, non-constitutional referring to the exit of office through a process not mandated constitutionally. The analyses yield an interesting outcome, by which four fifth of the authoritarian leaders who lost their office against their will and without a constitutional process such as elections, were not removed by the popular uprising as might be expected, or by foreign intervention as the author initially suggests, but by the insiders and governing elite of the regime itself. Interestingly, this leadership changes had not affected the authoritarian nature of the regimes, and did not bring about an internal movement to democratize as might be expected. This raises a question over whether an authoritarian political structure is rigid, no matter who mans its mast at a given period of time, or the course it takes is largely dependant on the leader. With little research available that contrasts the leader-centric with regime-centric nature of the authoritarian states’ foreign policymaking, and with most of the literature approaching the leadership and regime of such systems as the two sides of the same coin, and rarely as separate entities, I want to understand whether the foreign policy decision-making in authoritarian regimes is leadership-driven or is a consistent process derived from the regime’s structure and nature.

In other words: How does leadership change affect the foreign policy-making in authoritarian states?

Foreign policy formation is a multi-level and complex process, in which international factors and structure, as well as domestic and institutional constraints come together to affect and shape it. Much has been written on rational actor model of policymaking, on the personal-individual, psychological, organizational and bureaucratic factors that come together to give a shape to it. As the international system alone cannot determine the foreign policy course, the domestic audience issues, selectorate problems, logic and necessity of political survival and regime types were brought into the pattern to shed more light on the multi-facet process of foreign policy formation. As a result, it is not surprising that the question of causes behind the changes in foreign policy directions adopted by individual states is also raised in the literature on foreign policymaking.

The creation and maintenance of a domestic support base is vital for the governments’ political survival and for keeping their hold on power. Caroll’s article points out two main reasons that may cause a change in foreign policy chosen by a state, one being the change in international system and the shift of the geopolitical-strategic position of the state within it, and the second reason being the change in the domestic processes and interests of the leadership. In a paper on leadership change and how it affects the voting pattern of that specific country in the UN, Carroll, Leeds and Mattes find that in non-democracies, with the change in the societal support base of a leader, or the change of the leadership itself, comes a change in the voting pattern of the country, thus leading us to believe, that domestic as well as foreign policy stands of non-democratic states stem directly from the interests of their leaders. Going further, they observe, that, “when a leader comes to power who depends on a different constellation of societal groups for support than her predecessor, policy change, including foreign policy change, becomes more likely”. This, however, does not shed light on the cases in which the so called “constellation of the support groups” was unchanged, and only a leadership change occurs, which is the case with many of the authoritarian regimes, as evident from the research done by Svolik mentioned above.

When we look at these statements through the lens of the autocratic state system, the change in foreign policy making as a result of a change in leadership, if the regime type and support base remain unchanged, seems unlikely. Thus, a case can be made, that the leadership change in authoritarian regimes does not affect the foreign policy course of the state, as the foreign policymaking and approaches stem from the rigid state structure of the authoritarian regime and not the individual leadership. Moreover, it can be argued that the personalist regimes, by the nature of their structure, as identified by Peceny, Beer and Sanchez-Terry in their study on dictatorial peace theory, are the most vulnerable to leadership changes affecting their foreign policy orientation, as they are the only type where the leader and the regime come close to being identical.

Charles Hermann identifies four agents that are able to shift a country’s foreign policymaking, each one in different degrees, from goal and priority adjustments to fundamental change of orient. These change actors are bureaucratic advocacy, domestic restructuring, external shock, and leader driven . Foreign policy, as defined by Hermann, is a “goal-oriented or problem-oriented program by authoritative policymakers directed toward entities outside the policymakers’ political jurisdiction”, with foreign policy change coming in four gradual degrees: Adjustment changes, program changes, problem and goal re-orientation, and international orientation changes. He argues that the phases of decision-making are directly related to the actors causing the change and its magnitude, and that, despite the popular belief that only regime change can bring a fundamental international re-orientation in foreign policy of a country, it is more likely, and far easier and more feasible for the same government to re-orient its foreign policy course in response to new international or domestic realities. Moreover, he indirectly supports the hypothesis presented in this paper, by pointing out that for a fundamental change in foreign policy, a system change is necessary, not a leadership one: “in domestic political systems, two things are necessary to effect change in foreign policy. First, there must be a change in that system and, second, that systemic change must trigger a change in the government’s foreign policy.” And even though Hermann goes into detailed analysis of Domestic Political systems and Bureaucratic decision-making apparatus as drivers for foreign policy change, he pays little to no attention to the regime and system types, with empirical examples presented concentrating on the United States and other democratic systems. Thus, foreign policy change in authoritarian systems again remains largely ignored. In another article that Hermann is a co-author of, the different decision-making unites setting the foreign policy course of a country are analyzed in more detail. Allowing for the possibility, that a decision unit may re-orient foreign policy as a result of the change in international structure or because of the nature of the policy issue itself, the article, nevertheless, proposes that a foreign policy is predominantly set through three main decision units, namely leaders, single groups and multiple autonomous actors. Again, the regime types are not emphasized, and the heterogeneous nature of the authoritarian regimes themselves is not explored.

The study of non-democracies is not simply a historical exercise, but a phenomenon of international politics that needs to be understood. According to Freedom House’s 2012 report 35% of the world’s population live in countries, which are rated as “not free”, and comprise the 24% of the world’s states. The key understanding associated with the authoritarian regimes is their heterogeneous nature, and a diverse typology was created by political scientists to categorize them. Geddes points out that “different kinds of authoritarianism differ from each other as much as they differ from democracy” , while others pointed to the evolving global trends and nature of the authoritarian regimes, highlighting the decline and rarity of individual personalist regimes and totalitarian rules and the raising nature of electoral and semi-authoritarian regimes. Within these types of authoritarian governance, with the absolute tyrannies almost extinct, “leaders are in a weaker political position than their equivalents in liberal democracies”, and governance, and decision making is largely exercised through a political coalition. In current non-democratic regimes power maintenance and political survival pre-supposes power sharing. As a theoretical framework, it would not be amiss to look at the selectorate theory in “The Logic of Political Survival”. The theory identifies three main groups that affect a leader, the nominal selectorate, which are the “interchangeables”, the real selectorate, which are the “influentials”, and the winning coalition, which are the essentials. The premise of the theory is that the ultimate goal of a leader is to stay in power, to which end he must maintain his winning coalition, in the case of autocracies, the winning coalition is not only the power behind the regime, it is the regime. Thus, when it comes to foreign policy decision-making, unless it is a case of absolute totalitarianism of a personalist regime, authoritarian regimes choose their foreign policies based on the general interests of the winning coalition, aka essentials, and the personal role played by a particular leader is of a secondary importance to bring about any meaningful foreign policy change.

As a contesting theoretical approach, the leader-driven foreign policy change coined by Hermann and explored in detail in Frederik Doeser’s 2013 article, can be presented. Hermann defines the leader-driven change as ‘the determined efforts of an authoritative policy-maker, frequently the head of government, who imposes his own vision of the basic redirection necessary in foreign policy” , and Doeser takes it further. Doeser identifies three groups of competing theories aiming to explain foreign policy change, and finds all three lacking. The first theoretical group includes approaches taken by Cason and Power in 2009, Huxsoll in 2003 and Lahneman in 2003, among others, who emphasize the role of the environment and of international – institutional constraints that define the foreign policy course taken by states, as well as changes that may be made to it. The second group of theories, according to Doeser, sees the foreign policy change as a result of a multi-level process, and approaches the leader as one of many factors affecting the change. He puts Hermann’s leader-driven theory among this group as well, and finds them incomplete, claiming that they do not land detailed explanation to empirical cases, such as the change in Danish foreign policy during the Gulf war. The third group of theories is presented by Goldmann and Gustavsson, who put the individual level of analysis and the individual decision-maker at the core of the foreign policy change, and underscore the role played by the environment in bringing about that change. It is interesting to note, however, that none of the abovementioned theories, and not even Doeser’s criticism itself, separates the regime types as important factors in foreign policy change, and the studies conducted approach the countries as homogenous. The foreign policy change, be it environment or domestically driven, cannot be understood and approached in the same way in democracies and non-democracies. There is an evident literature gap where foreign policy change in authoritarian regimes is concerned, not mentioning the practically non-existent research on the effect of the leadership change on foreign policy change of the authoritarian regimes.

It is undeniable that foreign policy decision-making is a complex process that is shaped by the environment, domestic interests, as well as institutional constrains and incentives presented by the international system. Society-state relationship is largely framed by the regime type of the country, becoming the base on which the legitimacy and power of the ruler, be it an individual, a group or a democratically elected government, rests. The vast literature on democratic peace theory was expanded to address issues of regime differences across states to explain multiple phenomena when it comes to areas such as cooperative behavior or war and peace studies, however, the issue of foreign policy change and regime types remains largely unexplored. This tendency of downplaying the important role of the regime type of the state when interpreting the process of foreign policymaking and causes behind the reorientation of these policies, creates a gaping void in the literature that needs to be filled. By asking whether leadership change in authoritarian regimes can cause a change in the foreign policy orientation of the country, I aim to understand the nature of foreign policymaking in such states, and to find out whether it is inherently formulated as a result of the nature, interests and goals that stem from the regime or it is dependant on the leader and his personal qualities. In many cases leadership change of authoritarian countries is equalized with the regime change, thus becoming one of the basic assumptions when thinking about issues such as democratic transition. If the hypothesis proves to be correct, and leadership change has no effect on regime’s foreign policy, this can be generalized to influence policymaking, as well as clarify situations and assumptions such as the one mentioned above.

Works Cited
Acemoglu, Daron, and James A. Robinson. 2001. “A Theory of Political Transitions.” American Economic Review 91(4): 938–63.
Carroll, Royce, Brett Ashley Leeds, and Michaela Mattes. “Leadership Turnover And Foreign Policy Change: Societal Interests, Domestic Institutions, And Voting In the United Nations.” Proc. of “The International Politics of Autocracies”, Rice University.
Doeser, Fredrik. “Leader-driven Foreign-policy Change: Denmark and the Persian Gulf War.” International Political Science Review 34.5 (2013): 582-97.
Geddes, Barbara. 1999b. “What Do We Know about Democratization after Twenty Years?” Annual Review of Political Science 2: 115–44.
Hermann, Charles F. “Changing Course: When Governments Choose to Redirect Foreign Policy.” International Studies Quarterly 34.1 (1990): 3-20.
Hermann, Margaret G., and Charles F. Hermann. “Who Makes Foreign Policy Decisions and How: An Empirical Inquiry.” International Studies Quarterly 33.4 (1989): 361.
Mesquita, Bruce Bueno De. The Logic of Political Survival. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2003.
Peceny, Mark, Caroline C. Beer, and Shannon Sanchez-Terry. “Dictatorial Peace?” American Political Science Review 96.01 (2002).
Svolik, Milan W. The Politics of Authoritarian Rule. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute. 

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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