Dictatorships have dominated global politics for hundreds of years, from the pharaohs of Egypt to the absolute monarchs of Europe. Though democracy has since spread to much of the world, about a third of today’s countries are still ruled by dictatorship. And yet, compared to democracies, we know very little about how dictatorships work, who the key political actors are, and where decision-making powers lie. Political processes are opaque, and information is often intentionally distorted. Political survival depends not on maintaining the favor of voters, as in democracies, but on securing the backing of a considerably smaller coalition of supporters. The absence of a reliable third party to enforce compromises among key players means that power-sharing deals lack credibility and the threat of forced ouster is omnipresent. Uncertainty pervades authoritarian politics.
Modern autocrats respond to this uncertain environment in a variety of ways. They use political parties, legislatures, elections, and other institutions typically associated with democracies to lessen their risk of overthrow. Despite the façade of democracy, these institutions are key components of most autocrats’ survival strategies; those that incorporate them last longer in power than those that do not. The specific ways in which autocratic institutions are used and the extent to which they can constrain leadership choices to prevent consolidation of power into the hands of a single individual, however, vary enormously from one dictatorship to the next. Better understanding the conditions that push autocracies down a path of collegial versus strongman rule remains a critical task, particularly given that the latter is associated with more war, economic mismanagement, and resistance to democratization.
Richard Ned Lebow
Counterfactuals seek to alter some feature or event of the past and, by means of a chain of causal logic, show how the present might, or would, be different. Counterfactual inquiry—or control of counterfactual situations—is essential to any causal claim. More importantly, counterfactual thought experiments are invariably implication, and are essential to the construction of analytical frameworks. Policymakers routinely use them by to identify problems, work their way through problems, and select responses. Good foreign policy analysis must accordingly engage and employ counterfactuals.
There are two generic types of counterfactuals: minimal rewrite and miracle counterfactuals. They have relevance when formulating propositions and probing contingency and causation. There is also a set of protocols for using both kinds of counterfactuals toward these ends and illustrates the uses and protocols with historical examples. Policymakers invoke counterfactuals frequently, especially with regard to foreign policy, to choose policies and to defend them to key constituencies. They use counterfactuals in a haphazard and unscientific manner, and it is important to learn more about how they think about and employ counterfactuals to understand foreign policy.
Diplomacy’s role in foreign policy is hampered by multiple understandings of what diplomacy is and does. A broad definition of diplomacy holds that it encompasses more than the promotion of peaceful international relations. Instead, it is the sum of those relations—peaceful, hostile, and everything in between. Thus, foreign relations—so long as they involve the interests, direction, and actions of a sovereign power—may be regarded as synonymous with diplomatic relations, whereby foreign policy relates to the theory and practice of setting diplomatic priorities, planning for contingencies, advancing strategic, operational, and tactical diplomatic aims, and adjusting those aims to domestic and foreign constraints. This conception of diplomacy is a functional one: it emphasizes the roles of diplomats, and recognizes that many others, besides official envoys, perform these roles; and it illustrates that diplomatic settings—and the means, methods, and tools of diplomacy—undergo continuous change. The basic mediating purpose of diplomacy, however, has endured, as has much of its institutional apparatus—embassies, ambassadors, treaties, and so on. This is likely to remain so for as long as there are multiple polities in the world, all having to relate to one another.
Given that mainstream international relations theories failed to adequately explain, let alone predict, the end of the cold war, and consequently, the changed structure of the international system, scholars have searched for better explanations for dramatic changes in world politics. After decades of neglect, scholars have brought back the role of human agency, focusing on transformative leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev, without whom the momentous events of the late 1980s and early 1990s would probably not have taken place when they did. Learning theorists have sought to show how a change in an actor’s beliefs due to experience or observation can lead to changes at other units, such as organizations and within the government, changes that can lead to foreign policy shifts. Learning theory can be seen as a corrective to “structural adjustment models,” which assume that leaders will respond rationally to changes in the international environment. Learning theorists borrow insights from political psychology in an effort to shed light on the personal characteristics, belief structures, and cognitive psychological mechanisms of political actors that can better inform policymaking.
The challenges for the scholar studying foreign policy learning are formidable. There is no consensus on the definition of learning, on what constitutes learning, on how actors learn, when they learn, or on how to assess whether learning has taken place. Learning and foreign policy change, moreover, are not synonymous; one can occur without the other. There are also multiple pathways to learning. A complete explanation of learning must incorporate the individual, the domestic, and the systemic levels of analysis—an unappealing task for the scholar who aims to come up with a parsimonious account.
Although the scholar’s task is a daunting one, the effort invested in investigating learning is worthy for improving our understanding—both theoretically and empirically—of foreign policymaking. Leaders who have undergone complex (or genuine) learning are more likely to be committed to the new policies they undertake. Decision makers whose learning has led them to rethink their positions in a more peace-oriented direction, for example, are more likely to be dedicated to peaceful policies than decision makers whose beliefs have remained the same, but who have signaled a shift in policy for purely instrumental purposes. Decision makers who have undergone learning may then act to affect organizational or governmental change, a tall order given the significant impediments to change they are likely to face, such as bureaucratic politics, organizational culture, and political pressures.
The foreign policies of most states are secular in orientation and focus. A few make religion a prominent component of their ideological approach to foreign policy. States whose foreign policies are consistently or irregularly informed by religion include: Egypt, Iran, India, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. In each case, these states’ foreign policies feature domestic religious actors seeking to have regular or intermittent involvement in the making of foreign policy. The impact and capacity of such religious actors is linked to the ideological and/or national interest priorities of incumbent governments. That is, religious actors may have an opportunity for input into foreign policy that reflects a concern more generally with the association between material concerns—national security—and religious and ethical ideas, norms and values.
In addition to states with input from religious actors in foreign policy making, we can also note several important non-state actors whose religious beliefs centrally inform their foreign policies, which often focus on the United Nations (UN), the world’s largest and most comprehensive organization with near-universal state membership. The UN is a key focal point to pursue such policies, and three such actors can be identified: the Holy See/Vatican (and, more generally, the Roman Catholic Church), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the World Council of Churches, whose religious orientations are, respectively: Roman Catholicism, Islam, and non-Catholic Christianity.
Religious actors have important roles in foreign policy in relation to selected states and to non-state actors.