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date: 27 March 2017

Foreign Imposed Regime Change

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

International actors occasionally attempt to impose regime change on targeted governments, a process known as Foreign-Imposed Regime Change (FIRC). This can mean either changing the leader in the FIRC target, or changing the leader and political institutions of the FIRC target. States can attempt FIRC through a variety of foreign policy actions ranging from major interstate war to lesser moves such as covert action, targeted assassinations, sponsored military coups, and economic sanctions. The leading theory of the causes of FIRC proposes that states engage in FIRC for reasons of national security. A potential FIRC target is seen to be posing a threat, and other means of addressing the threat, such as deterrence or international cooperation, may be seen as inadequate by the threatened state or states. FIRC is an alternative means of addressing the threat, especially when the potential target is growing in relative power. It provides the FIRC imposer the opportunity to reduce both the aggressive intentions and offensive capabilities of the threatening state. Regarding aggressive intentions, FIRC can remove the threatening leader and can also install political institutions in the target state that would restrain it from engaging in war. Regarding offensive capabilities, FIRC offers the opportunity of demilitarizing the target state. Beyond national security, there are a variety of other possible motivations for FIRC, some relating to domestic politics and others relating to international economic transactions.

There is important debate over the consequences of FIRC, especially given that FIRC has been connected to some tremendous foreign policy successes (such as the pacification of Germany, Japan, and Italy after World War II) as well as catastrophic foreign policy failures (notably the 2003 Iraq War). Scholarship is mixed over whether FIRC does in fact reduce external threats, though one possible conclusion from the balance of evidence is that FIRC following interstate war can reduce such threats, but FIRC that does not follow interstate war does not. Scholarship is more skeptical about the internal consequences of FIRC. There is evidence that FIRC increases the risks of internal conflict, including civil war, in the target state, and that FIRC is unlikely to make democratization more likely, except under certain specialized circumstances.