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date: 22 October 2017

Summary and Keywords

International actors sometimes force targeted states to change their governments, a process known as Foreign-Imposed Regime Change (FIRC). This foreign policy tool serves as a surprisingly active locus for several theoretical debates in international relations and comparative politics. On the international relations side, evaluation of FIRC as a policy tool has implications for the following debates: whether foreign policy decisions are affected by individual leaders or are determined by structural conditions; whether democracies are more peaceful in their relations with other states; how belligerents choose their war aims; what factors make for successful military occupation; what motivates states to go on ideological crusades; whether international actors can successfully install democracy in postconflict settings; determinants of international trade; and others. On the comparative politics side, FIRC speaks to what may be the two most important questions in all of comparative politics: what factors help a state maintain internal order, and what factors help a state make the transition to democracy?

FIRC also plays an absolutely central role in foreign policy debates, especially for the United States. FIRC is arguably responsible for both the greatest success in the history of American foreign policy, the post-1945 pacification of Germany and Japan, and one of the greatest disasters in U.S. foreign policy history, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its catastrophic aftermath. Further, FIRC has played a ubiquitous role in American foreign policy since America’s emergence as a great power, as the United States has frequently used both overt and covert means to impose regime change in other countries, especially in Latin America. FIRC has also been a tool used by other major powers, especially the Soviet Union after 1945 in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Into the second decade of the 21st century FIRC remains a controversial foreign policy tool, as some debate the wisdom of pursuing FIRC in Libya in 2011, and others consider the possibility of pursuing FIRC in countries such as Syria.

FIRC can be discussed as a theoretical phenomenon and as the subject of empirical research, focusing on its nature, causes, and effects. The article contains five sections. The first section discusses the definition and frequency of FIRC. The second section describes the causes of FIRC, why actors sometimes seek to impose regime change on other states. The third section covers the international consequences of FIRC, especially whether FIRC reduces conflict between states. The fourth section addresses the domestic consequences of FIRC, especially whether FIRC is usually followed by stability and/or democracy. The final section concludes.

Keywords: military intervention, democratization, regime change, absolute war, democratic peace, foreign-imposed regime change

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