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date: 22 September 2017

Foreign-Imposed Regime Change

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

Foreign-Imposed Regime Change

At the broadest level, foreign-imposed regime change is a state’s attempt to impose order and often its political self-image on the world. In practice, FIRC takes many different forms, varying along two important dimensions. First, a FIRC imposer may seek to remove the target’s political leader without also seeking to change the target’s institutions, or it might seek to change the target’s leader and institutions. A FIRC imposer might remove the old leader from power without seeking to change the target’s political institutions—as when Tanzania invaded Uganda in 1979 and removed Idi Amin from power—if it narrowly ascribes the threat to an individual or does not want to pay the costs or take the risks of effecting a broader political transition. Perhaps more commonly, an imposer might seek to change the target’s leader and institutions. A victor installing a puppet leader might implant new political institutions that will enable the installed puppet to stay in power, as the Soviet Union did after 1945, installing Communist political institutions to support the pro-Soviet leaders that the Red Army put in place. Or, an imposer might impose new political institutions because it sees such a change as needed and is willing to pay the costs of a transition. When an imposer seeks to change the political institutions of the target, it will often seek to install its own political institutions in the target. Democratic imposers often attempt to install democracy in their target states, as the United States has sought to do when targeting Germany, Japan, Panama, Grenada, Iraq, and Afghanistan.1

Beyond changing leaders or institutions, a second dimension of FIRC concerns what foreign policy tool is used to impose regime change. Actors can take a variety of actions in the attempt to impose regime change, and there is some disagreement over how aggressive the action needs to be to qualify as an attempt to “impose” (as opposed to, say, “influence”) regime change. Perhaps the least controversial category is FIRC following a belligerent’s decisive defeat in an interstate war, decisive defeat being what Carl von Clausewitz (1984) called “absolute” war, as compared with limited (or “real”) war (Reiter, 2009).2

Regime change can also be externally imposed through other, less violent actions. States sometimes use a variety of overt and covert means that are short of an actual invasion to destabilize a target regime. These actions can include the spread of negative propaganda about the target leader, economic sanctions (Allen, 2008), supporting domestic forces attempting a coup d’état, threatening military force to push a leader out, and kidnapping or assassinating the target leader (Iqbal & Zorn, 2008). Some scholars have examined the effects on the political survival of autocratic political systems of a wide variety of foreign policy tools, including military intervention, aid conditionality, economic sanctions, and human rights shaming and prosecutions (Escribá-Folch & Wright, 2015). Scholars differ over whether less aggressive foreign policy tools, such as human rights shaming, should be included along with such actions as outright invasion under the umbrella of foreign-imposed regime change.

Scholars have presented different definitions of FIRC, and accordingly have built different FIRC data sets. There are different assessments of FIRC frequency across these different data sets. Werner (1996) presented one of the first scholarly examinations of FIRC. She equates regime with leadership, and found that among the 204 interstate war participants from 1816 to 1980 listed by an older version of the Correlates of War interstate war data set, 26 experienced FIRC when the wars they fought ended. Enterline and Greig (2005) used Polity IIId data, mostly, to create a data set of 27 foreign-imposed democratizations for the 1900–1994 time period, some occurring after interstate war and some not. Owen (2010, pp. 1–2) categorized instances in which foreign actors used force to either alter or preserve another state’s regime, regime being the leadership as well as institutions and ideologies, finding 209 instances of such episodes from 1510 to 2010. The Archigos data provides information on the leaders of all states, from 1885 to 2015. In classifying how the 3,409 leaders it lists left power, it found that in 72 instances a leader lost power because of direct action by a foreign power, such as invasion or kidnapping (Goemans, Gleditsch, & Chiozza, 2009).3 Downes and Monten (2013, p. 108) classified FIRC as the “forcible removal of the effective leader of one state—which remains formally sovereign afterwards—by the government of another state,” finding 109 FIRC instances from 1816 to 2008. Their definition includes the overt use of force, the threatened use of force, and the covert use of force. In her study of the causes of FIRC, Willard-Foster (2016) expanded on the Downes and Monten data set, building a list of 132 episodes, including the 109 FIRC episodes that Downes and Monten use plus an additional 23 instances of attempted FIRC. Berger, Corvalan, Easterly, and Satyanath (2013a) built a data set of covert American and Soviet interventions from 1947 to 1989 designed to prop up or install a new leader. They found such interventions to be relatively frequent; in an average year, of the 156 countries in their data set that were potential targets of such intervention, 24 experienced some form of CIA intervention. Some studies of FIRC do not directly measure FIRC, collecting data on other variables such as intervention and democratization to assess FIRC-related research questions (e.g., Bueno de Mesquita & Downs, 2006; Escribá-Folch & Wright, 2015).

It is not necessary to declare one FIRC definition to be superior to the rest, either along the leaders and institutions dimension or along the dimension of the tool used to impose regime change. Note that there are other differences in the data sets, as some include unsuccessful FIRC attempts, and others include attempts to preserve as well as overturn other regimes. The appropriate definition of FIRC should be guided by research question and theory, as different questions and theories suggest different FIRC definitions. The next section considers different theories of why states pursue FIRC.

Causes of Foreign-Imposed Regime Change

There is surprisingly little scholarship on the causes of FIRC, given its frequency of occurrence, policy relevance, and connection to so many strands of international relations and comparative politics theory. Note that theories on the causes and effects of FIRC are to some degree intertwined, as actors impose regime changes on target states because they expect certain effects, and it is an open question whether FIRCs actually deliver the effects that the imposing states hope to achieve. The remainder of this section discusses the causes of FIRC, and the next two sections discuss the effects of FIRC.

A straightforward national-interest perspective proposes that states pursue FIRC to neutralize external security threats when other solutions to security threats seem inadequate. One standard solution to external threat is deterrence, usually pursued through some combination of external balancing through forming alliances, and internal balancing through building up one’s own military. Another solution to external threat is international cooperation, using international law and arms control to reduce the threat posed by a potential aggressor.

States may view deterrence and cooperation as insufficiently effective in addressing external threats and FIRC to be a preferable choice. The leadership of a threatening state may be seen as not rational or not interested in self-preservation, and therefore not deterrable, leaving FIRC as an attractive alternative. This was the stated logic of the George W. Bush administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy. That document claimed that the deterrence strategy the United States relied on during the Cold War would not work against post–Cold War rogue states and terrorists, creating the need for potential “preemptive” action against threats, which was understood to include the possibility of invasion culminating in FIRC (National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 2002, esp. p. 15). This was the stated reasoning behind the 2003 Iraq War, tasked with overthrowing Saddam Hussein, a leader the Bush administration saw as being insufficiently deterrable.

Even if threatening leaders are seen as rational and motivated to survive, impending shifts in the balance of power may make deterrence seem unlikely to work in the medium and long terms, in turn making FIRC appear more attractive in the short term (Reiter, 2009; Weisiger, 2013). Observers for millennia have proposed that changes in the balance of power can make war more likely, as the state that is growing relatively weaker may become motivated to go to war now rather than later, knowing that in the future it will become decreasingly able to deter or defeat the rising state (Copeland, 2000). A variant of this concern is that a state may come to believe that it cannot rely on an external alliance as a long-term solution to a threat, because states may leave the alliance, making war appear more attractive to the potential aggressor.

A core part of this logic is that going to war now promises to alleviate or remove the long-term threat. One way war can address the long-term threat is by permitting the victor to impose regime change. These dynamics encouraged the United States to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2003. The George W. Bush administration was concerned that Iraq was perhaps three to five years away from acquiring a nuclear weapon and that once that occurred, the shift in the balance of power caused by Iraq going nuclear would make war against Iraq much less attractive. Further, the international coalition supporting the sanctions regime against Iraq was beginning to crumble, and once states began to peel away from that group the international community would lose its most effective coercive tool (Reiter, 2009; Suskind, 2006).

Power transition concerns also motivated American pursuit of FIRC in the early stages of the Korean War. After North Korea attacked South Korea, in June 1950, the United States came to realize that North Korea posed a long-term threat to South Korea. Even if peace and the prewar border were restored, North Korea would be tempted to attack again in the future, when it had rearmed sufficiently to give it a balance of power advantage over South Korea. The only enduring solution, the Truman administration concluded, was the overthrow of the Pyongyang government. The Truman administration officially changed its war aims in September 1950 to include the overthrow of the North Korean government, a decision that motivated the invasion of prewar North Korean territory and eventually provoked Chinese intervention into the war a few months later (Reiter, 2009).

Beyond the shortcomings of deterrence, actors may also come to pessimistic conclusions about the abilities of international cooperation to curtail international threats, seeing FIRC as the best remaining option to reduce a serious threat. This was perhaps the single most important motivation pushing the Allies during World War II to pursue the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers, a surrender that would require the removal of the Nazi German, Imperial Japanese, and Fascist Italian governments. World War I had been followed by the signing of the Versailles Treaty and the creation of the League of Nations. Both the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations were intended to remove or at least reduce German and other interstate threats through the disarmament of Germany and the creation of an international organization that would resolve disputes through international mediation. However, the 1930s showed the deep flaws in the system, as Germany ignored the disarmament provisions in the Versailles Treaty, and it, Italy, and Japan proceeded to attack other states in violation of League of Nations guidelines. During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt and other Allied leaders understood that they could not depend on international organizations alone to prevent the reemergence of Japanese, Italian, and German aggression after the war’s end, and that FIRC of those states would be necessary to create a lasting peace (Reiter, 2009).

Pessimism about the effectiveness of international cooperation also motivated the American decision to launch the 2003 Iraq War. Iraq had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but had nonetheless been pursuing a nuclear weapons program in the 1970s and 1980s. The 1991 Gulf War exposed these efforts and was followed by a string of UN resolutions demanding Iraqi disarmament, coupled with an extensive inspections regime, economic sanctions, and occasional airstrikes. By 2002, the Bush administration concluded that this system was not working, and that FIRC was the only remaining solution to the problem of the Iraqi threat. As secretary of state Colin Powell declared to the United Nations Security Council, in February 2003, “The issue before us is not how much time we are willing to give the inspectors to be frustrated by Iraqi obstruction. But how much longer are we willing to put up with Iraq's noncompliance before we, as a council, we, as the United Nations, say: ‘Enough. Enough’” (“Full Text of Colin Powell’s Speech,” 2003; Suskind, 2006; Reiter, 2009).

One reason FIRC can be an especially attractive means of addressing an external threat is that it provides the ability to reduce both the intention and the capabilities elements of threat (on threat, see Walt, 1987). On the intentions side, FIRC can provide a number of different tools to remove a state’s aggressive intentions. If a state’s aggressiveness is believed to reside principally with a single individual, as was the belief about Iraq under Saddam Hussein, then removal of that individual through FIRC will substantially reduce the international threat. This focus on the identity of the national leader presumes that state foreign policy choices are determined, at least in part, by the identity of the national leader, and are not determined exclusively by structural forces or domestic political institutions.

There are a number of different theories as to how leader identity might affect a state’s conflict propensity. Post (2004) provided a wide-ranging discussion of leader personality type, proposing that a leader’s personality profile, such as narcissism, might make that leader more likely to lead his or her state into conflict. Gallagher and Allen (2014) proposed and found using quantitative tests that variations in United States presidential personality correlated with differences in willingness to use force. Rosen (2005) proposed that tyrants tend to have shorter time horizons than other leaders, making them more difficult to deter. Other work has proposed that the personal experiences of leaders might make them more or less prone to conflict. At the most general level, leaders draw lessons about foreign policy from their personal formative experiences, in some cases making them more likely to see the use of force as an appropriate foreign policy tool (Khong, 1992; Reiter, 1996). Feaver and Gelpi (2005) found that the military backgrounds of American leaders affected both their willingness to use force and their ideas about how force should be used. Horowitz, Stam, and Ellis (2015) conducted a wide-ranging analysis of the conflict behavior of all states across several decades, finding that leaders with a military background but no combat experience were significantly more likely than other kinds of leaders to initiate interstate conflict. Fuhrmann and Horowitz (2014) found that national leaders who were former rebels are significantly more likely to pursue nuclear weapons.

Beyond the identity of the leader, a FIRC imposer may believe that the FIRC target’s long-term threat emerges from its political culture and institutions. If a state’s aggressiveness is seen as generated by a hothouse political culture that nurtures militarism and aggression, then FIRC provides the opportunity to remove that culture root and branch, replacing it with a political system that embraces pacific norms. This can be done in a number of ways, such as removing from power, imprisoning, or executing all individuals associated with a militarist leadership, as was the goal of the denazification plan in Germany after World War II. It can also mean imposing more general changes in a society and culture, such as removing militarist elements of national educational curriculum or nurturing individual expression, as was done in Japan after World War II (Dower, 1999).

The FIRC imposer may also believe that the target’s political institutions, especially autocratic political institutions, are the root cause of its aggressiveness. This was a key element of President Woodrow Wilson’s April 1917 argument in favor of declaring war on Germany. In discussing the escalating threat to the United States, he said, “The menace to that peace and freedom lies in the existence of autocratic governments backed by organized force which is controlled wholly by their will, not by the will of their people.” George W. Bush made a similar argument in 2003 that alleviating the threat posed by Saddam Hussein required that Saddam be deposed and Iraq be democratized (Bush, 2003). That said, the international relations literature provides a more nuanced view on whether the democratization of a single state will render it more peaceful. Many studies have found that though democracies are more peaceful in their relations with each other, they are conflictual in their relations with non-democracies (Russett & Oneal, 2001; Reiter, 2012). However, if a democratic imposer were to democratize an autocratic target, then the democratic peace literature would expect that conflict between the imposer and the target ought to be reduced (Mitchell, Gates, & Hegre, 1999), as occurred in American relations with several of its FIRC targets, including Germany, Japan, and Iraq. Further, if the FIRC target resides in a democratic region, then democratization of the target would reduce the target’s conflict with its democratic neighbors, as occurred in Western Europe when Germany was democratized through FIRC after World War II (Gleditsch, 2002).

Other elements of the domestic politics of the potential FIRC target, beyond its domestic political institutions, can affect a state’s decision to launch a FIRC. Willard-Foster (2016) proposed that FIRC may appear to be an especially attractive option in relation to deterrence, or even military threats, if the FIRC imposer can work with an opposition group within the FIRC target to facilitate the overthrow of the target regime and facilitate post-FIRC stabilization. The presence of a strong opposition encouraged the United States to help overthrow Libyan leader Muammar Qadaffi in 2011, and in 2003 the United States hoped that Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi could lead a post-Saddam Iraq. Sometimes this hope of support from the target’s domestic opposition can be misplaced, leading a state to sponsor an unsuccessful FIRC attempt. A notorious example of this dynamic was when the United States lent support to the unsuccessful April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, when several hundred Cuban exiles invaded Cuba, trying and failing to overthrow Fidel Castro.

Indirect threats from third parties sometimes also motivate states to pursue FIRC. If a great or regional power seeks to maintain its sphere of influence, it may pursue FIRC to keep third parties out of its sphere. For example, the Soviet Union actively pursued FIRC in Eastern Europe in the late 1940s to ensure that none of the postwar governments there leaned to the West. The American pursuit of FIRC in Latin America after 1945 was sometimes motivated by a similar desire, in that context, to minimize European influence in the Americas. Tanisha Fazal (2007) made a somewhat related argument, positing that especially before 1945 great power competition would sometimes lead to the extinction of small buffer states.

Beyond changes to domestic political institutions, FIRC might also provide an opportunity to pacify a state by changing its foreign economic policies. In states such as post-1945 Japan, that may mean dismantling powerful industrial cartels that had pushed the state to pursue war and empire (Dower, 1999). It might also mean pushing the FIRC target to have higher levels of international economic interdependence, the assumption being that higher levels of economic interdependence reduce interstate conflict (Russett & Oneal, 2001). This was the approach taken with both Germany and Japan after World War II, to the point of creating new international economic institutions to increase transnational economic interdependence between these and other states, such as the European Coal and Steel Community and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

In addition to transforming aggressive intentions, FIRC can also sometimes provide the opportunity to reduce a target state’s military capabilities. At the simplest level, if FIRC occurs as part of a major war effort, the damage to its military forces, national capital, population, physical infrastructure, and economy a losing state suffered will reduce its military power (Lo et al., 2008). FIRC occurring after major war can also allow the postwar dismantling of a state’s military capabilities, as when the U.S.-led coalitions removed the last vestiges of Iraq’s weapons- of-mass-destruction programs following the 2003 Iraq War. That said, though war may diminish military power in the short run, some have described the “phoenix factor” dynamic by which defeated states eventually shake off damage from war to catch up to victor states in national power (Organski & Kugler, 1980, pp. 142–144).

FIRC also provides other ways of reducing military capability. Victorious states can rewrite the national laws or even constitutions of states experiencing FIRC, hardwiring pacifism into the state’s polity. The Allies did this against the Axis powers following World War II, in a variety of ways. The 1946 Japanese constitution requires Japan to forswear war, belligerency, and the maintenance of armed forces. Later, in the 1950s, the United States and Japan signed a number of agreements that allowed Japan to create and maintain a small military, but that force was confined to territorial defense. West Germany’s post–World War II Basic Law also required that aggression be forsworn. Some imagined more severe measures. For example, during World War II, American secretary of the treasury Henry Morgenthau proposed converting Germany into an agricultural, pastoral society, physically removing industrial plants from German territory (Beschloss, 2002).

Besides serving the national interest by reducing interstate threats, FIRC can be used to advance the national interest in other ways. FIRC can be used to reduce smaller threats, such as terrorist threats, especially if the FIRC target is providing support or safe haven for terrorist groups. The Taliban government in Afghanistan was overthrown in 2001 because it supported al Qaeda, and the 2003 Iraq War was justified in part because it was believed that Saddam Hussein also supported al Qaeda. Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega was overthrown in 1989 by the United States because of threats posed to American soldiers in Panama, Noriega’s ties to the drug trade, and possible threats to the Panama Canal. FIRC can also be justified as a means of maintaining or expanding economic ties with other countries, though no systematic studies exist showing whether or not economic factors like fluctuations in trade flows make FIRC attempts more likely. That said, whether or not FIRC actually delivers economic benefits is an unsettled empirical question (on economic dimensions of FIRC, see Zachary et al., forthcoming).

The above presents a national interest perspective on the causes of FIRC, black-boxing the FIRC imposer as a single state actor. An alternative approach focuses on domestic politics and substate actors. Perhaps ironically, more traditional, realist observers have suggested a link between domestic politics and FIRC, proposing that democracies might be especially likely to pursue total victory, including FIRC, as compared with other political systems (e.g., Mearsheimer, 1981, pp. 102–138). Some, such as Walter Lippmann, framed this point as a critique especially of twentieth century American foreign policy, that an irrational and under informed democratic public would be slow to recognize a growing threat, as occurred in the 1930s, but during war would whip itself into a frenzy, demanding the annihilation of the opponent, including the use of FIRC, as occurred during World War II. One of the preeminent realist observers of American foreign policy in the twenty-century, George F. Kennan (1984, p. 66), commented colorfully: “I sometimes wonder whether in this respect a democracy is not uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin: he lies there in his comfortable primeval mud and pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath—in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat.” This realist view of democracy and FIRC in turn drew on earlier insights from the 19th French observer Alexis de Tocqueville, who contrasted America’ relative neglect of military matters during peacetime with ferocious effort once war breaks out (Reiter & Stam, 2002).

There are other arguments connecting domestic politics of the FIRC imposer and the pursuit of FIRC. Peceny (1999) examined those instances when the United States has initiated military interventions, exploring when the United States has sought to liberalize the political institutions of the target state. Peceny focused in part on executive-legislative relations, finding that the president was more likely to follow through on pursuing liberalization of an intervention target, that is imposing democracy, when the Congress expressed its support for doing so.

Werner (1996) presented a different domestic politics perspective. Emerging from the observation that levels of conflict are higher between states with different political systems, she proposed that when wars occur between states of different political systems, the outcome is more likely to culminate in FIRC, as compared to when wars occur between states of similar political systems. Examining all interstate wars from 1816 to 1980, she found support for her hypothesis.

Owen (2010) built on Werner’s basic insight, constructing a more elaborate theory. He proposed that in general leaders impose or promote foreign regime types when doing so will help them gain or keep foreign allies, or reduce a domestic political threat. These opportunities will present themselves when the region is more ideologically polarized, and regime imposition and promotion will be triggered by either a regime crisis in the region, or by a great power war. Further, regime imposition/promotion is more likely when transnational ideological networks exist, organized to advance a particular regime or ideology.

Bueno de Mesquita et al. (2003, pp. 406–455) applied their selectorate theory of politics to posit that puppet leaders are more likely to be installed in targets when the targets have large coalition political systems, such as democracies. They also propose that large coalition victors are more likely to impose a puppet. Employing quantitative empirical analysis of militarized interstate disputes, interstate war outcomes, and peace treaties, they found support for their propositions.

International Effects of Foreign-Imposed Regime Change

Some theories propose that FIRC imposers hope that FIRC will provide important foreign policy benefits, especially the reduction of threat and conflict. And, there are some highly salient examples which would seem to suggest that FIRC does substantially reduce the likelihood of conflict between imposer and target. Post-World War II FIRCs, along with factors such as the growth of American and Soviet power as well as the emergence of nuclear weapons, helped transform Europe from being one of the most conflictual regions in world history to being one of the most peaceful. From 1870 to 1945, Germany fought France three times, Britain twice, and Russia twice. More generally, the France-Germany and Russia-Germany rivalries were among the root causes of the two most destructive wars in world history, World Wars I and II. However, the American imposition of regime change on West Germany and the Soviet imposition of regime change on East Germany after 1945 dissolved those rivalries, immediately transforming the region, enabling it to experience decades of peace, albeit a peace lurking under the shadow of the Cold War. The FIRC of Japan in 1945 also utterly transformed Japan, a state that had participated in five wars from 1895 to 1945, into a completely peaceful state eschewing interstate conflict and posing essentially no threat to its neighbors.

The 2003 FIRC of Iraq also seems to support the notion that FIRC can reduce external threat. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a tremendously belligerent state, launching invasions of Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990, as well as several interstate disputes of lower levels of intensity. It also actively sought to violate its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments. The 2003 war culminating in FIRC is seen by many as a disastrous decision, unleashing chaos and civil war in Iraq, and in many ways undermining the West’s global campaign against terror. But, those critiques notwithstanding, the FIRC has substantially reduced Iraq as an external threat to its neighbors and the international community more broadly.

Systematic research on whether FIRCs reduce interstate conflict presents divided conclusions. Lo, Hashimoto, and Reiter (2008) examined interstate wars from 1914 to 2001, exploring the factors that affected how long postwar peace would last. They found that if the war ended in FIRC, then the period of postwar peace was significantly longer than if the war did not end in FIRC, seemingly providing support for the proposal that FIRCs can help eliminate interstate threats. Chiba (2015) confirmed the Lo et al. results with a more sophisticated version of their research design. Using a different research design and data set, Enterline and Greig (2005) found that the imposition of robust democracies helped pacify regions, but that when such imposed regimes were less democratic, conflict became more likely.

Downes and O’Rourke (2016) offered a more skeptical view. They posited that states’ foreign policy interests are not tightly tied to the identity of the leader, but are instead driven by broader factors. Hence, a state’s foreign policy, including its orientation to international conflict, should remain unchanged even if its leadership changes. Further, an imposed leader must beware of appearing too subservient to external interests, lest internal forces become displeased and themselves seek to overthrow the imposed leader. They qualify their argument by proposing that FIRC can pacify interstate relations if FIRC reinstalls a previous leader or imposes new political institutions as well as a new leader. Last, they propose that failed covert FIRC attempts are likely to increase conflict between a FIRC imposer and target. Downes and O’Rourke looked at overt FIRCs since 1816 and covert FIRCs pursued by the United States since 1945, finding support for many of their propositions. The Downes and O’Rourke finding is consistent with the standing realist claim that the identity of the leader and the state’s domestic political institutions matter little, because structural factors like the balance of power and geography will be fundamental in determining a state’s conflict propensity and threat posed to the international system. Their perspective echoes Waltz’s (1979) deep skepticism of reductionist theories of international relations that focus on “causes at the individual or national level” (p. 18). As already mentioned, there is an active scholarly debate regarding whether the identity of the national leader affects foreign policy behavior and, further, what kinds of leaders are most likely to be prone to aggression.

One perspective on the differences between the Downes and O’Rourke finding and the Lo et al. finding gets at the definition of regime change. Lo et al. analyzed only FIRCs that followed interstate war; whereas Downes and O’Rourke used the broader Downes and Monten data set, which includes changes in leadership following the overt use of force, the covert use of force, or the threat of force. It may be the case that FIRCs following interstate war reduce conflict because they destroy the FIRC target’s war-making capacity, whereas FIRCs following threats, the covert use of force, or lower intensity uses of force generally do not affect the FIRC target’s war-making capacity. FIRCs following war also allow the imposer to revamp the state’s political system and institutions, which may provide a more thorough opportunity to root out aggression (note that the Downes and O’Rourke paper suggests that overt FIRCs that change institutions may lead to reduced conflict). Conversely, other kinds of FIRCs, including those imposed covertly and those imposed through lower intensity interstate violence, may not provide such opportunities to reduce the target state’s capabilities or transform its intentions.

Aside from effects on interstate conflicts, FIRC might also have important international economic consequences. As noted, FIRC in 1945 laid the groundwork for the transformation of two imperial states, Germany and Japan, towards being upstanding citizens in the global free trade system. Berger, Easterly, Nunn, and Satyanath (2013b) found that since 1945, after a country was targeted by CIA intervention its imports from the United States increased significantly, often because the targeted government increased its purchase of American products (though the target’s exports to the United States did not change). However, another perspective casts doubt on the proposition that FIRCs always expand trade. Zachary et al. (forthcoming) proposed that FIRC might decrease levels of trade, because FIRC increases political instability, making for a less welcoming investment environment. Examining U.S.-sponsored FIRCs and trade levels in Latin America from 1873 to 2007, they found support for their proposition.

Domestic Effects of Foreign-Imposed Regime Change

A separate but related question concerns the domestic political effects of FIRC in the target country. Does FIRC impart stability? If it is the imposer’s intention, can FIRC successfully implant democracy? These questions relate to larger debates about the prospects for democracy after civil wars, and whether peacekeeping after civil wars can improve the chances of successful democratization (Jarstad & Sisk, 2008). Though the peacekeeping literature is in some ways related to FIRC, since both peacekeeping and FIRC seek to remake a state’s internal order in the wake of violent conflict, there are some important differences. FIRC is imposed and administered by a single power advancing its own national interest and engaging in democratization at its own prerogative, not necessarily with the consent of local actors. In contrast, peacekeeping missions are much more likely to be multilateral, advancing the interests of an international organization like the United Nations. Peacekeeping missions also tend to operate with the consent of the former belligerents.

These interrelated questions are part of the larger “second image reversed” scholarly agenda, the exploration of the effects of international factors on domestic politics (Gourevitch, 1978). As is the case with the external consequences of FIRC, there appear to be some compelling cases in which FIRC provided impressive transformations to stability and democracy, including Japan and Germany after World War II, Grenada after the 1983 American invasion, and Panama after the 1989 American invasion. Certainly, some observers have viewed external pressure through imposition and intervention as an important factor fostering democratization, especially in the 20th century (Whitehead, 1996, pp. 8–15). But are these cases of domestic success representative of general patterns, or are they outliers?

There are some important reasons to suspect that stability may not follow FIRC (for a review, see Brownlee, 2007). At the most general level, a country will enjoy stability and internal peace when there is a strong, legitimate state. State strength can deter potential rebels and militants (Fearon & Laitin, 2003), and it can reduce the motivation to engage in violence if the state uses its strength to serve the basic material needs of the population, such as delivering clean water and electricity. The population is also less likely to engage in violence against the state if the state is legitimate, as legitimacy by definition means that the population is willing to accept the decisions and authority of the ruling government.

FIRC can threaten both those pillars, state strength and state legitimacy. Consider a FIRC following interstate war. A war is likely to permit FIRC only if the target state’s military forces have been decisively defeated, and such defeat is also likely to have devastated the strength of the target state. The national infrastructure, including roads, bridges, factories, and highways, may have been devastated. The capital city, usually the seat of a state’s bureaucratic power, may have been destroyed. The interstate conflict may have devastated the bulk of the target state’s security forces, including paramilitary forces that could be used to maintain internal order. A related risk is that the FIRC imposer might dismiss or demilitarize the FIRC target’s security forces to maintain control of the state. But such forces, properly used and motivated, can be employed to maintain order in the FIRC target state. The 2003 dismissal of much of the Iraqi army is seen in hindsight as one of the single greatest mistakes made by postwar American occupation forces (Ricks, 2007).

Another way in which FIRC can devastate the strength of the target state is through purges of the target state’s ruling government. As part of a broader campaign to transform the political, social, and economic institutions of a FIRC target state and to forestall political opposition to its rule, a FIRC imposer may seek to root out any government officials with close ties to the old regime, a process called “de-Baathification” in the post-2003 Iraq context. The potential danger is that such efforts might also remove from power those individuals needed to execute the mundane tasks of running society, including maintaining water and power utilities, collecting taxes, and so forth. Their removal from power risks substantially weakening the state. FIRC did not cause civil wars in post–World War II Germany and Japan perhaps because the occupation authorities took measures to ameliorate these potential problems. In both countries, very substantial U.S. occupation forces helped to maintain order, and American economic aid helped sustain the material quality of life of the population (Dower, 1999; Taylor, 2011; Trachtenberg, 1999, p. 52). Further, the limited nature of the purges of the Nazi German and Imperial Japanese governments helped keep in place some key individuals needed to govern (Dower, 1999, pp. 559–560; Taylor, 2011, p. 321).

FIRC also can reduce the legitimacy of the target state. The great hope of FIRC imposers, of course, is that the pre-FIRC ruling leader will be seen as deeply illegitimate by the broader society, which eagerly welcomes the leader’s removal and his or her replacement. The related hope is that if the FIRC target society is nondemocratic, the population will welcome democratic reforms.

Of course, these conditions are not always present; FIRC sometimes removes a popular leader, even a dictator, and sometimes overturns democratic institutions. Replacing a popular leader with another individual hand-picked by the FIRC imposer of course invites tremendous legitimacy problems. That said, a FIRC imposer may hope that these legitimacy issues could be transcended if elections are held rapidly, replacing the transitional leader with an elected leader. A FIRC that undermines democratic electoral processes also risks tremendous legitimacy problems, a dynamic that occurred occasionally during the Cold War when the United States through covert action sought to overthrow democratically elected leaders in such countries as Guatemala, Brazil, and Chile.

Compared with the scholarship on the external-threat consequences of FIRC, there is more systematic research on the domestic consequences of FIRC. The general conclusion of this empirical work is that FIRC can undermine stability, at least under some conditions, and that FIRC is a risky bet to democratize a country. Regarding internal stability, Peic and Reiter (2011) examined the causes of civil war onset in all states since 1920. They found that among all states, if a state experienced a FIRC after an interstate war, its chances of experiencing civil war increased by some 800%, civil war being defined as internal violence inflicting at least 1000 battle dead. However, when a FIRC did not follow an interstate war, it did not increase the chances of civil war onset. Peic and Reiter speculated that the reason is because FIRCs following interstate war devastate the target government’s infrastructural power, setting the stage for the breakdown of social order and the onset of violence, and absent such destruction, civil war might not ensue. Enterline and Greig (2008) also found that domestic political instability following FIRC becomes more likely if FIRC follows defeat in war, if there are lower levels of economic development, and if there are higher levels of social heterogeneity, among other factors. Perhaps relatedly, Pape (2005) found that suicide terrorism, one form of internal violence, is more likely when the local population perceives they are being occupied.4

There is scholarship on topics related to post-FIRC stability, such as occupation, nation building, and democratization. Dobbins (2003) suggested that among other factors that can make postconflict nation building more likely to succeed, deployment of more troops by the nation-builder or FIRC-imposer will increase stability and reduce violence. This was indeed one of the central critiques of the post-2003 American foreign policy in Iraq, that the United States had not deployed enough troops to Iraq to ensure stability (Ricks, 2007). Edelstein (2008) proposed that occupations are more likely to succeed if the population perceives the presence of an external threat, finding support in a wide-ranging empirical study of occupation attempts. Ferwerda and Miller (2013) proposed that occupation will meet with lower levels of resistance if the outside military devolves occupation authority to local officials. Examining occupied World War II France on both sides of the Vichy border, they found support for their proposition (for a critique of their findings, see Kocher & Monteiro, 2016).

A difficult question is whether the willingness to use force by post-FIRC occupation forces will promote or undermine stability. Here, there are perhaps two different strategies under which an occupier might consider the use of force against the occupied population. First, an occupier might consider using force initially to establish order, planning to implement a democratic transition once stability has been achieved. This was the Anglo-American plan in post-1945 (western) Germany and Japan. In both cases, the occupation authorities planned to use force to maintain order, especially against any individuals suspected of resisting Allied military control, en route to eventually establishing democracy. In Germany in particular, thousands were arrested, and several individuals suspected of resisting the occupation authorities, including some juveniles, were executed (Willard-Foster 2009). Second, an occupier might plan on using force both initially and indefinitely, with no plans to democratize. This approach characterizes Soviet occupation policies in post-1945 Eastern Europe.

It would be too simple to make blanket statements about whether the post-FIRC use of force against the population always works or never works. Certainly, the discriminate use of force, including at least the willingness to arrest and detain individuals suspected of resisting occupation authorities, will facilitate the establishment of order (on the discriminate and indiscriminate use of force as means of maintaining internal order, see Kalyvas, 2006). Conventional wisdom from contemporary counterinsurgency doctrines suggests the importance of avoiding the use of force against civilian populations or indiscriminately against insurgent forces, which might incur inadvertent civilian deaths (Counterinsurgency, 2006).

That said, there is some evidence that both the discriminate and the indiscriminate use of force or coercive measures against civilian populations by occupation forces in FIRC and non-FIRC contexts can work, at least in the short term. The limited, discriminate use of force in post-1945 Germany helped the Anglo-American occupation forces establish order, creating an opportunity for the democratization of western Germany (Willard-Foster, 2009). Lyall (2009) found that indiscriminate Russian artillery attacks during the Second Chechen War at least temporarily reduced Chechen militant activity. In a study of several occupations, Liberman (1996) found that occupying forces, including Germany in both World Wars, Japan in World War II, and the Soviet Union after 1945, have used discriminate coercive tools, such as the “work or starve” threat, to maintain internal order.

A critical FIRC question is whether externally imposed democracy can thrive. Some earlier studies were more optimistic, finding that post-1945 U.S. interventions intending to reform the target state did raise the target’s level of democracy (Herrmann & Kegley, 1998). More recent studies have been more skeptical that FIRC can successfully implant democracy (e.g., Goldsmith, 2008; Downes & Monten, 2013; for debate on the Downes and Monten findings, see Nomikos, Downes, & Monten, 2013/2014). The beginning of the critique about FIRC installing democracy draws on the broader comparative politics literature showing that democratization is more likely to succeed when certain structural conditions are present, such as higher levels of economic development, lower economic inequality, a lack of oil or other natural resource endowment, a liberal political culture, a strong civil society, infrastructural power, lower levels of ethnic diversity, a history with democracy, and others (Przeworski, Alvarez, Cheibub, & Limongi, 2000; Haggard & Kaufman, 2016).5 These conditions might not be present in a FIRC target that an imposer seeks to democratize, especially since a FIRC target was likely undemocratic before its regime changed, and therefore the conditions that encourage democratization are unlikely to be present. Even worse, the FIRC may itself undermine some of those conditions that may help democracy survive, such as infrastructural power (Moon, 2009; Downes & Monten, 2013).

As noted, a number of works have provided evidence that casts doubt on the possibility that FIRC can install stable democracy. Berger et al. (2013a) examined covert superpower interventions during the Cold War to prop up or remove leaders, finding that such interventions served to undermine democracy in the short and medium term. Enterline and Greig (2005) found that imposed democracy failed to encourage democratization in the surrounding region. That said, consistent with the comparative politics speculation that democracy needs the presence of certain structural conditions to survive, some studies have allowed that under the right conditions FIRC can help spread democracy. Enterline and Greig (2008) found that imposed democracies with greater institutional strength are more likely to survive, colonially-imposed democracies are less likely to survive, and that imposed democracy is more likely to survive in more prosperous states. Downes and Monten (2013) also found that FIRC is more likely to implant stable democracy if the target state is more prosperous.

A different problem focuses on the interests of the FIRC imposer. Bueno de Mesquita and Downs (2006) propose that third-party interveners, including democratic interveners, have relatively little interest in installing and nurturing democratic regimes. Rather, they are motivated to ensure that intervention targets continue to provide public and private goods to the imposer, in the form of favorable trade policies, basing rights, natural resource rents, and others.

There is a related strand of research that examines whether military interventions in general facilitate democratization. Some of this work finds that such intervention can make democratization more likely, at least under some conditions. For example, Escribá-Folch and Wright (2015) examined the effects of all hostile military interventions from 1946–2005 on the likelihood of regime survival in an autocratic target. They found that hostile democratic interventions against personalist dictatorships did not make a transition to democracy more likely, but such interventions against nonpersonalist dictatorships, such as military juntas, did increase the likelihood of democratic transition. Other studies focusing on military interventions more broadly are skeptical that such interventions can foster democratization, however. Bueno de Mesquita and Downs (2006) examined third-party intervention from 1946 to 2001, finding that it did not change states’ natural trajectories toward or away from democracy (see also Pickering & Peceny, 2006).


Political science has enjoyed a constructive first wave of FIRC research, helpfully clearing away a lot of brush. One of the central general findings of this body of work is the importance of recognizing the heterogeneity of FIRC, both regarding the type of FIRC and then the conditions under which FIRC occurs. For example, there is FIRC as the culmination of interstate war versus FIRC resulting from covert action. There is FIRC that causes changes in political institutions, and FIRC culminating in only a change in the identity of the leader. There is FIRC that is intended to democratize, and FIRC that is not intended to democratize. FIRC intended to democratize often fails, but it has a better chance of working under certain sets of conditions. Going forward, both theoretical and empirical work needs to continue to distinguish between different types of FIRC, and to effectively and appropriately describe scope conditions, build data sets, and construct and test hypotheses. Relatedly, FIRC research will continue to be enriched by drawing on literatures that cover areas that overlap with FIRC, such as occupation, counterinsurgency, peacekeeping, democratization, leadership and foreign policy, and political institutions and conflict behavior.

Future FIRC scholarship presents an important convergence between the needs of policymakers and the abilities of academic scholars. Policymakers need to know whether FIRC can accomplish the intended goals of reducing interstate conflict and spreading democracy without risking the onset of a civil war, and scholars have both the intellectual motivation and theoretical and empirical tools to answer these questions. In particular, scholars need to continue to explore why FIRC spread stability and democracy in some cases, such as Germany, Japan, Grenada, and Panama, but not others, such as Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Solving this puzzle would mean nothing less than understanding why FIRC sometimes results in a world-changing foreign policy success, and sometimes in utter catastrophe.


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(1.) A focus on leadership change or institutional change in turn has implications for how one defines “regime,” as referring to leader or institutions.

(2.) Beyond FIRC, other manifestations of absolute war include outcomes such as the genocide or enslavement of the defeated state’s population or the political extinction of the defeated state, as for example when Iraq (initially) annexed a defeated Kuwait in August 1990. See Fazal (2007).

(3.) The LEAD data set uses Archigos data on manner of leader exit (Horowitz et al., 2015).

(4.) For critical evaluation of Pape’s thesis, see Wade and Reiter (2007).

(5.) For a more skeptical view of the proposition that successful democratization depends heavily on the presence of structural preconditions, see Diamond (1999).