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The International Determinants of Military Coup Behavior

Summary and Keywords

Why do coups d’état happen? Although many studies have investigated this question, they pay relatively little attention to the international causes and ramifications of coups. Especially, empirical studies on the external determinants of coup risk and outcomes still remain limited. There are two current lines of research in this direction. The first line studies international linkages and coup risk, looking at the external determinants of coups: regional spillover effects, foreign linkage, and foreign leverage. A promising angle on this front is focusing on the role of post-coup reactions from international actors to illuminate how coup plotters shape their incentives under outside pressure. The second line of research investigates interstate conflict and coup risk, considering diversionary behavior and external threats as potential coup-proofing strategies. In this effort, studying the relationship between external threat environment and coup risk can be fruitful, whereas empirical tests of the classical diversionary war theory will yield relatively marginal contributions.

Currently, three issues stand out in the empirical coup literature that should be further addressed by scholars. First is the need for more extensive and systematic data collection efforts to obtain detailed information about the identities, targets, and motives of coup perpetrators. Second, the external sources of leader insecurity beyond interstate conflicts remain an underexplored area. Third, although many studies have tried to determine when coup attempts happen, scholarly knowledge of when and how they succeed remains very limited. More work is needed to uncover the determinants of coup success across different regimes and leader survival scenarios.

Keywords: coup d’état, military coup, civil-military relations, international relations, foreign linkage and leverage, coup-proofing, diversionary war, interstate conflict, external security threats, empirical international relations theory

The International Determinants of Military Coup Behavior

Why do coups d’état happen? Many studies in the civil-military relations literature have investigated this intriguing question. The focus in this article is on empirical analyses concerning the international causes and ramifications of military coups, since the external determinants of coup risk and outcomes remain understudied in comparison to domestic causes. The aim is to review the empirical literature and its interaction with existing theories, and to provide an analytical evaluation of the current state of the art to guide future research.

What do we mean by coup d’état? The Oxford dictionary defines coup d’état as “a sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government.” Merriam-Webster offers a very similar definition: “a sudden attempt by a small group of people to take over the government usually through violence.” Both definitions are vague about the perpetrators, and they do not exclude revolutions from being classified as coups. More precise definitions specify that coup perpetrators are the military, or a group within the state elite. A minimal working definition should also exclude other forms of antiregime activity, such as protests, riots, rebellions, or civil conflicts. Many times, researchers use coup and military coup interchangeably, despite the fact that some coups are perpetrated by civilians, paramilitary groups, or other security forces. For most empirical purposes, the distinction is not very consequential, because the overwhelming majority of coup attempts happen through threat or actual use of force, a domain reserved to armed actors regardless of whether they receive civilian support.

Global Coup Trends

The rigor of quantitative work on any subject is highly dependent on the reliability, breadth, and consistency of the data available to researchers. In terms of variety, empirical literature on coups has had no shortage of data sources, largely owing to the fact that coups are rare and major events that almost always receive media coverage. Including event lists compiled in 1970s and 1980s, there are 15 data sources with different time and geographical coverages.1 The most recent and comprehensive data source with global coverage was compiled by Powell and Thyne (2011). This database attempts to merge previously compiled coup lists, to cross-check the listed events for discrepancies, and to standardize the coding based on an operational definition. According to the definition, coup attempts are “illegal and overt attempts by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting executive.” A brief overview of global and regional trends in coup events is provided here.

Coups are rare events. According to Powell and Thyne (2011), there were 475 coup attempts in 96 countries over the period from 1950 to 2016.2 In about 4% of the country-years over this period, there was at least one coup attempt. Almost half of the attempts were successful. Between just 2000 and 2016, there were 49 attempted coups (three per year on average), 21 of which succeeded. Since the end of the Cold War, coups have been significantly less frequent. In the period between 1991 and 2016, there were 105 coup attempts, compared to 248 in the period between 1965 and 1990. Figure 1 shows the global trends since 1950. While the overall decline in coup frequency is evident, the figure also reveals fairly periodic fluctuations in frequency.

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Figure 1. Coup Attempts and Successes, 1950–2016.

Figure 2 shows the decadal frequency of coup attempts, making the declining trend since the 1970s even more obvious. The figure also suggests a fall in the share of successful coup attempts from the 1970s until the 1990s. An interesting trend is the recent rebound in the success rate over the first two decades of the 21st century, up to the average rate of almost 50% in the 1980s.

The International Determinants of Military Coup BehaviorClick to view larger

Figure 2. Global Trend in Coups, by Decade.

Figure 3 depicts the evolution of coup attempts in each region over the last six decades. It confirms the overall decline in coup frequency in regions like the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, where coups have been significantly more prevalent than in Europe.

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Figure 3. Number of Coup Attempts by Region, 1950–2016.

The regional gaps in coup frequency remain large, even after we account for differences in regional number of country-years. In Africa and the Americas, the average number of attempts per country-year is thirteen times the rate in Europe (7.2% versus 0.55%). In the Middle East and Asia, the corresponding rates are about 6% and 3%, respectively, still much higher than in Europe.

International Linkages and Coups

A very extensive literature covers the domestic causes of military coups, including the role of economic factors, regime legitimacy, the quality of institutions, characteristics of the army, and the motives of the officer corps.3 However, scholarly work on the external determinants of coup risk and outcomes remains relatively limited (Feaver, 1999).4 The focus in this article is on two different sets of international determinants that can explain coup risk and outcomes: diffusion effects and foreign linkage and leverage. The diffusion effects capture the potential ramifications of regional spillover of different political events. Foreign linkage and leverage, on the other hand, concern mainly agent-centered explanations, where actors like other states and international organizations affect the likelihood and success rate of a coup in a country by their targeted actions and policies.

Regional Spillovers

The first possible explanation for the frequency of coups in certain parts of the world is political diffusion effects. In their seminal article on coup contagion, Li and Thompson (1975) argue that the occurrence of earlier coups in a country affects the subsequent probability of coups in other countries. Their empirical findings, albeit mixed, suggest that the coup contagion hypothesis is best supported in Latin America (1955–1970) and the Arab world. The proposed explanatory mechanism is that the instance of military coup in one country creates a “disinhibitory effect” for coup plotters elsewhere, lowering their fears of failure and reinforcing their belief in the legitimacy of their actions. The contagion hypothesis was subsequently backed by other studies looking at sub-Saharan Africa (Lunde, 1991; Lutz, 1989). Additionally, Caruso et al. (2013) show the existence of a diffusion process of military dictatorships in sub-Saharan Africa from 1972 through 2007. This being said, however, extensive and cross-regional empirical testing remains scarce. The empirical studies on coup contagion are mainly interested in Africa, which may partly be explained by the concern that in other regions, the spatial variation in coup events is not sufficient to draw statistically meaningful conclusions.

More recent studies on the diffusion phenomenon across different regions challenge the coup-contagion hypothesis. For instance, in their study of coups in Latin America between 1900 and 2006, Lehoucq and Pérez-Liñán (2014) found that the occurrence of other coups in the region actually reduced the likelihood of a successful military uprising in a country. Miller et al. (2016) also tested for the contagion of various political events, including coups, by combining spatial dependence models with extreme bounds analysis. They used a global sample of 221 successful coups and 448 attempted coups from 1950 to 2010. The results showed that although nonviolent popular events (such as protests and democratic transitions) spread across borders, coup contagion was not supported by data. The authors explained this finding by the limited role of three political diffusion mechanisms (emulation, learning, and focal points) in altering elite decisions. They argued that, unlike mass protests where the diffusion effect can help overcome significant collective action and information problems, for coup-attempting elites, “there is little to learn from coups abroad” (p. 25).

Along similar lines, other scholars investigated various types of political diffusion that can influence coup attempts. One of the interesting debates in this vein concerns the role of democratic transitions in reducing coup attempts, and the possible likelihood of democratic spillover. Scholars have long argued that coup likelihood is reduced by political pluralism and participation (Johnson et al., 1984), a strong civil society (Fossum, 1967; Hibbs, 1973; Hoadley, 1973; Putnam, 1967) and regime legitimacy (Belkin & Schofer, 2003; Finer, 1988; Nordlinger, 1977; Sutter, 1999; Welch, 1976). More recent studies back the claim that democracy and open political competition reduce the likelihood of coups (Lindberg & Clark, 2008; Posner & Young, 2007), and a large number of democracies in the region can lower the probability of military interventions in a country through diffusion effects (Lehoucq & Pérez-Liñán, 2014).

The evidence, however, is far from conclusive on the relationship between regime type, transitions, and coup attempts. For instance, Hiroi and Omori (2013) showed that although coups are relatively rare in democracies as opposed to nondemocracies, hybrid regimes are much more vulnerable to coup attempts than very autocratic regimes. The nonlinear relationship between regime type and coups was also supported by Bodea et al. (2016). Similarly, Bell (2016) argued that the relationship between democracy and coup attempts is more complicated than conventional wisdom suggests. The author proposed to treat coups as a commitment problem between leaders and plotters. Since democratic leaders function under high executive constraints, their capacity for using preemptive repression against potential coup plotters is very limited. This vulnerability can signal to coup plotters that if a coup is attempted, it will be essentially uncontested by high levels of repression. In this scenario, democracies create an incentive for plotting and increase the likelihood that a coup will be uncontested and successful.

These findings suggest that democratic spillover may not necessarily make regimes less coup-prone. In fact, democracies with low state capacity can become more vulnerable since coups have a higher likelihood of success in those settings. Additionally, if hybrid regimes are more vulnerable to coups than autocracies, it can be argued that democratic transitions can increase coup risk by destabilizing the polities. Since a rapid exit from autocracy to democracy is rare, most of the transitioning regimes are likely to have a hybrid phase, which translates to higher coup likelihood for the short run. This point was also noted by Svolik (2015), who showed that younger democracies are more likely to face high coup risk. As democracies consolidate, the risk is expected to drop. Hence, it can be plausibly argued that it is not democratization, but rather democratic consolidation, that reduces coup risk.

Foreign Linkage and Leverage

Political diffusion is generally assumed to be unintentional, or at times coincidental. Alternative explanations of foreign influence are more intentional and agent-centered. The external actors identified in the literature are numerous, such as other states, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and multinational corporations. This multiplicity also implies a variety of causal channels that can affect coup risk and outcomes, which are related to foreign linkage and leverage. Borrowing from the international linkage theory of Levitsky and Way (2005), foreign linkage is defined as the density of a country’s ties to external actors, and foreign leverage is defined as the government’s vulnerability to external pressure. It also follows from these definitions that the higher the linkage of a country to external actors, the higher the leverage of these actors will be. In other words, the more dependent the state, the more vulnerable it will be to foreign pressure.

Influence of Foreign Linkages

Dependency, or the depth of links to foreign actors, is not a new idea in the political science literature. Scholars have extensively studied the effects of dependency on economic growth, inequality, and development (Chase-Dunn, 1975; Delacroix & Ragin, 1981; Dixon, 1984; Evans, 1979). Others have problematized the political dimensions of dependency (Boswell, 1986; Zolberg, 1981) and studied its effects on domestic events like rebellions (Boswell & Dixon, 1990) and military coups (Jenkins & Kposowa, 1990; Kposowa & Jenkins, 1993). This line of work generally demonstrates the prevalence of external factors in explaining domestic economic and political outcomes. However, with the end of the Cold War and the change of the ideological atmosphere, the dependency literature lost ground in the study of developing countries. Although increasing the foreign leverage on a country through extensive linkages persists as an idea, it is generally discussed in the form of persuasion rather than coercion.5

Recent studies have focused on various aspects of economic interdependence among countries as a form of foreign linkage and their effects on coup likelihood. In a comprehensive analysis of multiple international market dynamics, Powell and Chacha (2016) made a strong argument for the effectiveness of international economic ties in the decision of coup plotters. They posited that economic interdependence serves to increase the opportunity costs of coups by exacerbating potential economic losses and damaging the reputation of the target country. In this setting, opposing factions within the elite may refrain from using violent means of resolving their grievances. Moreover, foreign economic partners are also more likely to weigh in on the side of the incumbent to ensure economic stability and prevent losses. These findings are supported by a few studies on the specific international economic linkages associated with coup risk. For instance, higher flows of foreign direct investment to a country (Bak & Moon, 2016; Tomashevskiy, 2017) and higher investment profile scores (Tusalem, 2010) were shown to decrease coup attempts.

Arbatli and Arbatli concur with Powell and Chacha (2016) that “there remains a paucity of efforts to systematically investigate international aspects of the effect of economics on coups.” The adverse effects of coups and political instability on domestic economies are well documented in the literature (Alesina & Perotti, 1994; Alesina et al., 1996; Meyersson, 2016) and there is reason to believe that coup plotters will make a long-term calculation of potential losses incurred by severing external economic ties. Moreover, should the coup succeed, losing economic partners will also jeopardize the survival odds of the new regime by potential economic downturn and loss of legitimacy. Indeed, Chacha and Powell (2016) provided some empirical evidence that transnational economic dynamics like trade dependence can prompt coup leaders to step down and allow post-coup democratization. Hence, there is still ample room for empirically studying the causal mechanisms linking the incentives of coup plotters to international economic linkages.

Influence of Foreign Leverage

Foreign leverage highlights the vulnerability of a government vis-à-vis international actors. These actors can exert their leverage in many ways, including military intervention, diplomatic pressure, or economic sanctions (Levitsky & Way, 2005). A large body of qualitative work points to direct foreign involvement in coups (Barracca, 2007; David, 1987; Forsythe, 1992; Michaels, 2014; Ngoma, 2004) in the form of monetary and logistic support for coup plotters, covert operations, or military training. The most widely discussed cases are U.S. interventions, such as in Guatemala (Immerman, 2010), Iran (Kinzer, 2008), and Chile (Gustafson, 2007), among others, and Soviet interventions in the developing world during the Cold War (David, 1986; Laqueur et al., 1984). Obviously, most of these interventions are hard to capture, measure, or even prove.6 For this reason, empirical studies of foreign involvement in military coups generally focus on measurable aspects of foreign involvement.

One strand of work examined the impact of military assistance on the receiving countries’ armies and on the probability of regime change (Grey, 1990; Mott, 2002; Wolpin, 1972). Various authors tried to empirically assess the impact of American military assistance programs on the likelihood of military coups, and the findings were usually contradictory. While some authors found no link between U.S. aid and coups (Baines, 1972), others showed that various forms of military assistance can increase coup tendency (Maniruzzaman, 1992; Powell, 1965; Rowe, 1974; Savage & Caverley, 2014). In contrast, some studies suggested that assistance can reduce the propensity for military interventions in politics (Hughes, 1967; Wang, 1998). Looking at a global sample of developing states, Maniruzzaman (1992) showed that arms transfers facilitated the occurrence of coups and prolonged the resulting military rule. As well as a large-N analysis, the author used qualitative case studies of Pakistan, Turkey, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia to show that foreign arms transfers strengthened armies and increased their propensity to attempt regime overthrow. Probing the same question in sub-Saharan Africa, Wang (1998) found a contradictory result, namely that arms transfers to the region actually had a long-term effect of reducing coup likelihood. He suggested that arms transfers help to satisfy the corporate interests of the armed forces and to buy their loyalty to the regime. However, he also showed that arms transfers increased the centrality of the army by enhancing its position vis-à-vis civilians; hence, arms transfers contribute to regime instability in Africa in the long run.

The contradictory findings can be partly attributed to the different time spans of the empirical studies. For instance, Wang (1998) considered coups in Africa only between 1980 and 1991, whereas Maniruzzaman (1992) focused on 80 developing countries in the period from 1963 to 1980. Rowe (1974) looked at the period from 1948 to 1972, considering 85 developing countries divided into subgroups by their dates of independence. Considering the different phases of detente and aggression between great powers during the Cold War, it is not surprising that the types, conditionality, and target of arms transfers may matter as confounding variables.

The second line of investigation concerns the role of economic leverage in the form of sanctions, foreign aid, and other types of economic programs. The effects of economic sanctions on target country regimes have been discussed in the context of regime transition and autocratic survival, albeit with little consensus (Haas, 1997; Mueller & Mueller, 1999; Van Bergeijk, 1989). While some authors concluded that sanctions were unlikely to be effective against autocratic regimes (Lektzian & Souva, 2007; Marinov, 2005; Nooruddin, 2002), others suggested that certain types of authoritarian regimes can be more vulnerable to economic sanctions (Escribà-Folch & Wright, 2010). Most of these studies considered coups as a possible method of transition from autocracy, but the tendency was to evaluate them together with other methods of irregular regime change. Also, since coups do not immediately result in autocratic breakdowns, this literature does not focus particularly on nondemocratizing coups. Hence, little direct information is available on the effect of economic sanctions on coup risk. Based on the existing literature on economic shocks, poverty, and coup risk (Galetovic & Sanhueza, 2000; Johnson et al., 1984; Kim, 2016; Londregan & Poole, 1990), it is plausible to argue that economic sanctions can increase coup likelihood in the long run by deteriorating the economy of the target country and causing political instability. However, more empirical work is needed to uncover the specific links between economic sanctions and coup activity.

Another interesting debate about economic leverage concerns the role of foreign aid and economic programs in reducing coup likelihood. Many scholars point out that foreign aid can be used as a tool of foreign leverage and has potential to influence regime outcomes and irregular turnovers (Ahmed, 2012; Bermeo, 2011; Bueno de Mesquita & Smith, 2007; McLean & Whang, 2016; Steinwand, 2015). Although foreign aid can facilitate—coup-proofing if it is effectively used for development (Girod, 2015), it also increases the leverage of external actors in a country. Additionally, some forms of foreign funds, especially if they have conditionality clauses, can signal future economic losses to potential plotters and increase their propensity to launch a coup (Casper, 2015).

Finally, another body of recent work deals with international reactions in the form of diplomatic pressure as a determinant of coup likelihood and success. Investigating the role of U.S. foreign policy on coups in Latin America, Thyne (2010) provided quantitative evidence that hostile U.S. signals toward a government increase coup risk in that country. Additionally, the author found that the signals become particularly pertinent when the country’s economic dependence on the United States increases. This last point also supports the expectation that increased linkage between countries increases leverage. Other studies show that reactions from international governmental organizations (IGOs) can also have an impact on the incentives and decisions of plotters to attempt a coup. Some scholars assessed the effectiveness of the anticoup framework of the African Union established in 2002 and concluded that the inclusion of democracy clauses and the strengthening of the organization’s leverage against nondemocratic regime turnover have helped to reduce coup activity in Africa (Omorogbe, 2011; Powell et al., 2016; Souaré, 2014; Wobig, 2015).

Besides influencing coup risk, there is evidence to suggest that international reactions can also affect the outcome of a coup once it happens. In his analysis of post-Cold War military coups in Pakistan, Ecuador, and Venezuela, Barracca (2007) hypothesized that, “the greater leverage foreign actors have to oppose a coup, and the more willing they are to use it, the more likely the coup will fail” (p. 149). Even if the coup does not fail immediately, there is reason to suspect that, in the face of negative international reactions, newly established regimes will find it hard to maintain stability. Indeed, Thyne et al. (2017) found evidence that international responses have a strong influence on leadership tenure in coup-born regimes, especially when they come from strong external actors. Similarly, Marinov and Goemans (2014) made a strong case that international pressure, proxied by aid dependence in their study, can influence the consequences of coups. They showed that after the Cold War, countries more dependent on foreign aid are more likely to hold elections swiftly after a coup.

This line of work on international pressure also suggests that foreign influences may be even more accentuated after the Cold War. When the major actors (United States and EU) converge around a single ideological orientation, coup plotters have fewer opportunities to “shop for” external allies than they had in a bipolar world. Hence, foreign leverage can become stronger and more prevalent as a determinant of coup success and post-coup regime duration. Many authors followed this logic and tried to account for temporal dynamics in their empirical studies (Arbatli & Arbatli, 2016; Goemans & Marinov, 2011; Hiroi & Omori, 2013; Licht, 2010; Marinov & Goemans, 2014). For instance, some authors argued that the Cold War was a critical turning point for foreign aid targeting (Dunning, 2004) and that donors have overall imposed aid sanctions and reduced the amount of disbursements in response to coups d’état (Masaki, 2016).

Although foreign leverage may have an increasing role after the Cold War, empirical evidence also suggests that not all coups receive the same type of intensity of reactions from the international community. For instance, Shannon et al. (2015) found that coups against democracies and wealthy states draw more attention, especially from other states. Additionally, they showed that international organizations are more likely to react to coups in the post-Cold War period and coups in Africa. Similarly, Von Soest and Wahman (2015) studied the application of Western sanctions in authoritarian countries after trigger events, such as coups and fraudulent elections. They showed that while coup d’états as a general category receive the highest level of sanctions as opposed to other events, targeting is selective. Senders are more likely to punish vulnerable regimes, countries that are less economically integrated, and countries that do not align with their agenda. These findings also confirm that the use of foreign leverage is directly connected to linkage. While foreign actors are quick to condemn coups against high-linkage countries and allies, they are more likely to punish low-linkage countries in the form of sanctions and reduced aid.

Interstate Conflicts, External Security Threats, and Coup Risk

Many authors acknowledge that one of the main themes of the civil-military relations literature is the “guardianship dilemma” (McMahon & Slantchev, 2015), which problematizes the role of the military forces as both guarantees and threats to the political regime. According to this idea, by virtue of being designed as a strong and effective institution to protect the government, the army also carries the potential to become a threat to the very government that it is intended to guard (Feaver, 1999). In order to mitigate the threat to regime survival and to control the military, leaders adopt various strategies of “coup-proofing” in response. In a detailed discussion of coup-proofing, Belkin (2005) enumerated eight potential strategies to subordinate the armed forces: remuneration, indoctrination, promotion of corporate spirit, professionalization, patrimonialization (in the form of shuffling and ethnic stacking), using foreign powers, strengthening civilian oversight, and counterbalancing.

As a large body of recent literature suggests, these strategies vary widely in scope, success, and outcomes.7 Powell (2012) conducted one of the few studies to date that empirically analyzed the utility of different coup-proofing strategies against the army. He found that greater military spending per soldier reduces the probability of coup attempts. Leon (2014) corroborated this finding, showing evidence that coups are more likely when military spending is low and that successful coups increase military spending. On the other hand, Albrecht (2015) argued that coup-proofing in autocracies does not necessarily reduce coup risk. Investigating coups in the Middle East and North Africa during the period from 1950 to 2013, he showed that although the number of events decreased over time, the risk for incumbents of falling to a coup during their tenure remained constant despite coup-proofing. Similarly, Böhmelt and Pilster (2015) showed that while some degree of coup-proofing helps in decreasing the risk of governmental overthrows and coup success, the relationship is curvilinear. After a certain point of institutional coup-proofing, the likelihood of seeing a coup, as well as its degree of success, increases again. Other scholars point to the dangers of coup-proofing, such as reduced fighting capacity for the state (Narang & Talmadge, 2017; Quinlivan, 1999; Pilster & Böhmelt, 2011) and increased likelihood of civil war (Roessler, 2011).8

This section mainly focuses on international conflict and external threats as potential coup-proofing strategies, and their effects on coup risk. The discussion begins with a brief review of the literature on domestic-level explanations of interstate conflict, mostly confined to domestic threats to political survival—namely, the diversionary war hypothesis. Then, the main theoretical work on how external security threats can modify the coup risk faced by insecure leaders is discussed, along with the empirical attempts to test the predictions that emerged out of this body of work.

Diversionary War Theories and Coup Risk

Diversionary behavior is defined as “military and diplomatic actions undertaken for the purposes of enhancing one’s internal political support” (Levy & Vakili, 1992). The main argument of diversionary war theories is that the foreign policy behavior of governments and leaders is partly shaped by potential threats to political survival. Several measures have been used as independent variables in empirical studies to capture diversionary incentives, ranging from economic growth, inflation rate, and electricity consumption to mass unrest, protests, and rebellions.9 The studies investigated the predictive power of these variables for conflict behavior. Neither these studies, nor the ones that employed leaders (instead of countries) as the unit of analysis, have found decisive empirical support for the theory.10

One of the main problems that plague the aforementioned tests of diversionary war is the reverse causality that is inherent to the theory itself. If concerns over survival make leaders more conflictual against external adversaries, then the diversionary conflicts they engage in should, on average, help them secure their position and survive longer in office. Indeed, various theories, such as the scapegoat hypothesis (Morgan & Bickers, 1992) and the in-group/out-group and the rally-around-the-flag hypotheses (Levy, 1989; Mueller, 1973; Simmel, 1898), posit that international conflict helps leaders retain power. Some of the empirical work, such as Bueno de Mesquita and Siverson (1995), focused on war initiation and war outcomes, and others like Bueno de Mesquita et al. (2001), looked at militarized interstate dispute initiation, both reaching the similar conclusion that diversionary involvement improves chances of remaining in power. This is especially true when the outcome is a victory for the leader. While these findings may reflect a selection effect, in that leaders select their wars wisely to maximize their tenure, they may also imply that the leaders who are most likely to initiate conflict are the ones that already feel more secure in power. Consequently, the two-way relationship between conflict and leader survival poses a problem for the interpretation of studies on diversionary war when they solely focus on a single direction of the relationship. For example, an investigation of how probability of losing office explains conflict initiation may find a null result in a simple OLS regression, not because insecure leaders do not initiate more conflict, but perhaps because the leaders who are more secure in office are also the ones who successfully used conflicts for that end. Similarly, a study that analyses the implications of conflict participation for subsequent leader tenure may find evidence for an improvement in tenure not because of a genuine causal effect but merely because secure leaders are more war prone. To address this potential problem, some empirical studies have explicitly accounted for a reciprocal relationship between conflict behavior and leader survival (Chiozza & Goemans, 2003, 2004a, 2004b).

Thus, existing theoretical and empirical work has made a strong argument against the idea of a diversionary conflict behavior that uniformly applies to different political regimes and different sources of diversionary incentives. Hence, there is merit to actually studying the individual links between conflict behavior and qualitatively different forms of leader removal as separate events. Removal through coups is an obvious candidate researchers can focus on, as coups pose a major risk to leader survival, especially for authoritarian regimes and weakly institutionalized democracies. Therefore, the propensity to engage in diversionary conflicts may be greater in high coup risk countries. For instance, Belkin and Schofer (2005) explored how structural coup risk offers an alternative motivation for conflict behavior of insecure leaders. They argued that high coup risk leads to more intensive attempts by leaders to counterbalance their army. They also argued that, counterbalancing may become even more effective as a coup-proofing strategy when combined with low-level military conflict involvement. Besides a case study of Georgia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the authors provide some cross-national evidence in favor of these predictions.

Miller and Elgun (2011) also argued that one reason behind the absence of much supportive evidence for the diversionary theory is the way threats to leader survival have been operationalized in empirical work. These authors adopted a simultaneous equation estimation approach where they used an index of coup events (plots, failed attempts, and successful coups) as an endogenous determinant of dispute initiation. Although their sample was limited in temporal and geographical scope, they lent support to diversionary behavior in the specific context of heightened coup risk.

External Threats, Civil-Military Relations, and Coup Risk

While one strand of the diversionary conflict literature examines whether conflict initiation is a coup-deterrence strategy leaders choose to employ, one question that it does not directly tackle is how external threats influence the incidence of coup attempts. Given their focus on crisis initiation, most empirical analyses of diversionary conflict are not very informative about the questions of how external threats influence leader survival in general and whether they can effectively deter coups in particular. Even if crisis initiations do not really influence leader survival, interstate tensions and conflict participation may divert the attention of the citizens and the elite from domestic grievances in political and economic spheres toward more imminent external threats. These threats may help governments or individual leaders pacify the opposition or gain more popular support.

The effect of external security threats is a fruitful line of research for three main reasons. One reason is that recent theories of political survival led to testable predictions regarding external influences on civil-military relations. The second reason is that these theories have not been sufficiently tested. Finally, focusing on external factors may allow researchers to achieve more credible identification by exploiting plausibly more exogenous sources of external threats that are orthogonal to other determinants of political survival. The chances of isolating exogenous variation in threats to domestic survival like coup risk (as an independent variable) to achieve more credible causal identification are significantly lower.

External threat has been an important variable in most theories of civil-military relations. Many old and new studies suggest a causal link from external threat environment to coups and the degree of civilian control over the military (Aguero, 1995; Andreski, 1980; Desch, 2001; Huntington, 1957; Lasswell, 1941; Tilly & Ardant, 1975). A priori, the net effect of external threats one expects to find is not very clear, as some disagreement exists among scholars regarding the qualitative nature of the causal link. In one of the earlier works on the topic, Lasswell (1941, p. 458) argued that with the increased militarization of modern states, professional soldiers were bound to become more politicized, leading to the emergence of a “garrison state.” Also, political influence increases when the security threats are more intense, stakes for military (in)effectiveness are higher, and hence the military is endowed with greater power and authority.

Contrary to this reasoning, some scholars argued that the increase in the security needs of the modern state led to a specialization of the armed forces in technical and tactical military affairs, and to increased military professionalization (Huntington, 1957; Tilly & Ardant, 1975). According to this line of thinking, the likelihood of direct military involvement in domestic politics should be lower, especially when security threats and hence the opportunity cost of assuming nonmilitary roles for the military are high. Andreski (1980) supported this view by arguing that the internal and external missions of the soldiers are not compatible, and the army will lose its effectiveness as an internal repression tool when it is busy fighting a war.

In his influential book, Desch (2001) laid out a theory of civil-military relations predicting that higher external threats should make civilian control of the military easier, while internal threats should work in the opposite direction. By stronger civilian control, he meant that civilian policy preferences prevail over the military’s when the two are in disagreement. The basic reasoning draws on social conflict theory. When threats are high, military organizations become more cohesive to counter the threats more effectively. The cohesion, however, is like a double-edged sword. It may lead to a greater challenge for the civilian authority if internal threats are high and as a result the orientation of the military turns inward (toward domestic politics). Yet, if external threats are high, the military’s orientation turns outward and civilians can exert greater control over soldiers. One of the mechanisms Desch (2001) put forth is that security threats from outside make civilian and military priorities more aligned, and opinions about the duties and responsibilities of civilian and military actors tend to converge.

While the qualitative works made compelling arguments about the role of external threats and offered various case studies to support their theories, they were mainly concerned with civilian control of the military broadly defined, rather than coups, for which weak civilian control is a necessary, but usually not sufficient, condition. Also, the fact that different theories made opposite predictions about the nature of the same relationship implies that their merits and relevance largely depend on their implicit assumptions and other contextual variables. Therefore, without formal theoretical models, it is hard to obtain predictions that are amenable to empirical testing.

Formal models on how security threats can modify civil-military relations have been recently studied under authoritarian politics and regime transitions (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2005; Besley & Robinson, 2010). Acemoglu et al. (2010), for example, offered a theory of the military as an imperfect agent of autocratic leaders and a potential threat to unconsolidated democracies. The authors characterized the conditions under which coups are more likely to occur. One of the predictions of their model is that external threats can in fact help the incumbent regime reduce the risk of a military coup by making the incumbent’s promises to the military (about material concessions or power-sharing arrangements) more credible. The underlying intuition is that tensions with external adversaries increase the risk of military engagement and therefore make the regime more dependent on soldiers, which in turn raises its power to commit to such concessions.

Arbatli and Arbatli (2016) empirically tested this basic prediction by looking at how external threats, in the form of direct involvement in a militarized interstate dispute (MID), affect the likelihood of coup attempts. They found that the probability of a coup attempt declines significantly following militarized involvement by the home country in an MID. The authors found qualitatively similar results when they focused on within-country variations in MID involvement and coup attempts. To account for possible endogeneity issues, the authors also used countries with an active MID involvement, and countries with whom the home country has a defense alliance. They established similar coup-deterrence effects for such disputes, lending further credibility to a real causal effect.

On a related note, in their investigation of contagion effects in the emergence and persistence of military regimes in sub-Saharan Africa, Caruso et al. (2013) controlled for an external threat channel using MID hostility levels (ranging from 0 to 5) as a continuous variable. They did not find a robust relationship between external hostility and the incidence of a military regime in a given country-year. They estimated negative, but statistically insignificant, coefficients for external hostility when they focused on transition to military regime as the outcome variable. Finally, they found that military regimes tend to be more persistent when external hostility is high. While the findings may not apply to countries outside sub-Saharan Africa, they suggest that external threats can also help military regimes survive.

External threat environment is also a major determinant of investment in military capacity and monetary transfers to soldiers.11 Therefore, the credible commitment channel proposed by Acemoglu et al. (2010a) rests to a large degree on the premise that material concessions to the military help governments mitigate coup risk. Leon (2014) offered a test of this premise and found that coup attempts are more likely when military spending as a share of GDP is relatively low.He also showed that military spending to GDP ratio increases by more after successful coup attempts than after failed coup attempts. Taken together, these findings can be interpreted as evidence that the lack of material concessions may be an important factor motivating coup plotters.12

Besides the credible commitment channel, there are two additional mechanisms that might drive these results (Arbatli & Arbatli, 2016). The first mechanism is the rally-around-the-flag effect: national feelings become more salient during international crises, which leads to greater support for the incumbent regime among the citizens and the elite (Coser, 1956; DeRouen, 2000; Mercer, 1995; Mueller, 1973).13 The second causal mechanism is that military engagement can make it less feasible for the military to attempt a coup, since material and organizational resources needed for such an undertaking are more limited in times of external conflict. For instance, Piplani and Talmadge (2016) showed empirical evidence that enduring interstate conflict is associated with lower levels of coup risk. They explained this finding by the reduced ability of the army to attempt coups in times of war, due to coordination problems within the military.

In summary, most of the findings support the idea that external threats can deter—or at best delay—potential coup attempts. Studies that investigate the coup risk and conflict link from the angle of diversionary war theories largely corroborate these findings, although their primary focus is on conflict initiation as an outcome measure rather than other forms and sources of external threats.

Taking Stock: Lessons, Limitations, and the Road Ahead

Multiple bodies of literature linking international relations and coups d’état have been examined in this article. What lessons emerge for the future course of research agendas? How can the empirical analyses of coup behavior and the role of international factors be improved? Three issues stand out. First is the need for more extensive and systematic data collection efforts to obtain detailed information about the identities, targets, and motives of coup perpetrators. Second, a shift of focus to external sources of leader insecurity beyond interstate conflicts is a fruitful and underexplored area for future research. Third, although many studies have tried to determine when coup attempts happen, scholarly knowledge of when and how they succeed remains very limited. More work is needed to uncover the determinants of coup success across different regimes and leader survival scenarios.

Data Collection and Empirical Design

If we are to gain more insight about the causes, timing, and success chances of coups, more extensive data collection efforts are needed. First and foremost, compiling and streamlining the existing narratives of how a given coup attempt has unfolded (numbers, identities, and methods of perpetrators, their stated goals and justifications, domestic and foreign supporters, identities of targets, etc.) would be a valuable undertaking.14 It would also constitute a first step toward a more refined classification of coup attempts that goes beyond the success versus failure dichotomy.

Systematic coding of so far neglected economic and political events with potential relevance to the incentives and constraints of influential actors would also be an important contribution to empirical work, particularly for answering questions about the timing of coups. Clearly, information on some major events (e.g., elections, major domestic protests, terrorism incidents, civil and interstate conflicts) is already available, yet many other relatively minor political events (e.g., gridlocks in government, changes in legislation, institutional reforms, purges) and more detail on already recorded events remain to be coded.15 With the proliferation of event data projects and the resulting improvements in depth and breadth of the available information, researchers will increasingly conduct empirical analyses at daily or monthly frequency, a prerequisite to understanding coup dynamics and testing more nuanced hypotheses on the timing of coups. Some coup studies have already moved in this direction, using country-month level information on coup incidence as well as a handful of other event-based variables (Bell, 2016; Johnson & Thyne, 2016; Thyne, 2010). On a related note, it is also worth pointing out that using datasets on leader tenure and characteristics like the Archigos (Goemans et al., 2009), researchers can, and in fact should, conduct analyses of coup events at the level of individual leaders both as targets and potential perpetrators.16 This approach will move beyond country-level explanations of coups and uncover important leader-specific factors behind coup risk.

Another measurement issue in the empirical literature on coups concerns the—rather arbitrary—definition of success. Following Thompson (1973), most coup datasets code an attempt successful if the coup perpetrators are able to seize power and hold it for at least a given duration, usually seven days (Jackman, 1978; McGowan, 2003; Powell & Thyne, 2011). The temporal requirement has the advantage that it is nonsubjective and easily verifiable, to the extent we can pin down when coup leadership leaves office. Yet, it also has various shortcomings. One drawback is that it leads to measurement error depending on the motivations of the perpetrators. Some coup leaders may transfer power to a close relative or another member of the coup cohort, and if this transition happens fast enough, a false failure may be coded.17 In those cases, it is important to distinguish between direct control by the coup leadership and indirect control through members of the leader’s cohort. The other drawback with standard definitions of success is that countercoups that have any chance to remove a newly minted junta may take more than seven days to plot. Depending on the research question, even if a coup leader stays in power for a couple of months—let alone seven days—it may not be appropriate to call the coup attempt successful. For example, if one is interested in analyzing the effect of successful coups on subsequent economic and political trends, one may want to ignore the cases where previously overthrown regimes are quickly restored.18 The bottom line is that existing coup datasets differ not only by temporal and geographical scope, but also by the definitions they adopt regarding what constitutes a seizure of power and what is a successful coup attempt. Researchers should be aware of these differences and try to pick the datasets that are most suitable to their particular research question.

Despite the potential of new data sources to move the empirical and theoretical work ahead, a word of caution is necessary. At the end, no matter how much detail is coded on coups and other events, some aspects of coups will likely remain a black box, for several reasons. One obvious reason is that we do not observe coup plots that did not become attempts and were not discovered later on. Any attempt to record such plots is bound to produce highly speculative and unreliable results or to be incomplete at best.

The second and by far most pressing issue in the empirical literature is causal identification. While tested hypotheses concern causal effect of coups on subsequent outcomes or the causal effect of various factors on coups, efforts to overcome endogeneity problems have not been sufficient.19 While sources of endogeneity that plague simple OLS estimates are commonly acknowledged, and certain practices to mitigate them have become (or are becoming) commonplace,20 more can (and should) be done to improve the credibility of claims of causality. Clearly, neither coups nor their determinants are randomly assigned. Also, for most of the explanatory factors of theoretical interest, it is hardly possible to find natural or quasi-natural experiments that would generate some plausibly random variation across sufficiently many countries over an extended period to estimate meaningful effects. Yet, instrumental variables can offer more reliable estimates for causal effects, especially in the context of testing nondomestic influences on coup behavior. In many other contexts, where good instruments are hard to come by, various types of matching estimators (Abadie & Imbens, 2011; Hirano et al., 2003) and synthetic control approaches (Abadie & Gardeazabal, 2003; Abadie et al., 2010) can be implemented to increase the comparability of treatment and control units.21 Even when empirical studies largely resort to partial correlations to test theories of coup behavior, the absence of a widely agreed upon set of baseline controls (i.e., a standard baseline specification) makes it hard to judge the credibility of their findings. Gassebner et al. (2016) conducted an extreme bounds analysis (EBA) in an attempt to identify the most robust subset of coup correlates so far proposed in the literature. While this type of sensitivity analysis is certainly helpful in guiding future empirical research, whether it will eventually lead to a commonly adopted benchmark specification in the coup literature remains to be seen.

The third obstacle for empirical work on coups stems from the fact that coup attempts are rare events in general, and they are becoming more so over time.22 Although not as important as the barriers against causal identification, this problem adversely affects the statistical power of estimations. Only sufficiently sizeable relationships are statistically significant. Fortunately, potential biases caused by the rare-event nature of coups no longer pose a serious threat to identification, since methods like rare-events logit exist to correct for such bias (King & Zheng, 2001).

External Shocks and Coups

The consequences of various internal threats to political survival have been extensively studied under the diversionary war literature. The studies undoubtedly helped scholars qualify and refine diversionary theories; however, marginal contribution of further work on the subject seems to be limited. Long-standing obstacles to causal identification inhibit progress in this literature. The same is true for the specific focus on diversionary incentives motivated by coup risk. However, a shift of focus to external sources of leader insecurity beyond interstate conflicts may be worthwhile. For example, we know little about how diplomatic signals and foreign reactions to domestic events or policies affect coup risk and success. A few studies covered in the review of foreign linkage and leverage indicate some influence, but more work is needed to explore when and how they matter.

Future work on external determinants can benefit from moving beyond the question of whether a given factor is singularly influential. Instead, we should start investigating which external shocks have greater potential to (de)stabilize a given type of regime compared to other types, and how these external factors interact with domestic conditions, such as state capacity, leader tenure, and leader popularity.

Determinants of Coup Success

Another area on which current scholarly knowledge is very limited is the determinants of coup success. This line of inquiry is interesting from both a theoretical and an empirical perspective, especially given the high variation in outcomes and the recent surge in success rates. However, there are some peculiar challenges in this type of inquiry, and it is not clear at the outset whether they can be addressed satisfactorily. The main challenge is the selection problem inherent to the decision process of plotters. Failure usually brings grave consequences for perpetrators. Therefore, coup plotters are much more likely to act when they are confident of success: that is, when they are strong or the incumbent is weak. In other words, we would probably observe much lower success rates if we had the chance to assign coup attempts randomly. Hence, after conditioning on the incidence of coup attempts, this presumably large selection effect may remove most of what researchers can explain with observational data. Then, inevitably, the residual variation in coup outcomes would largely be due to noise, i.e., idiosyncratic and uninteresting factors. While this may be bad news for scholars interested in explaining coup success, under certain conditions it might be a boon for those who seek to analyze the economic, political, and institutional consequences of successful coups (e.g., Meyersson, 2016).


The effect of external factors on coups and civil-military relations is a more promising avenue for future research than focusing on internal causes. Therefore, the international aspects of coups will probably receive more scholarly attention. There are four main reasons for this cautious optimism. The first reason is straightforward: There are relatively fewer studies on the external determinants of coups than studies on domestic causes. Currently, there is only a small body of literature on the influence of international ties on coup behavior. For example, by 2010 there was hardly any systematic empirical investigation on the effect of international signals on coup likelihood. This is surprising given that foreign linkage and leverage studies have addressed similar questions in more general contexts of democratic transitions, consolidation, regime stability, and autocratic survival.

Second, from a methodological point of view, studying the role of external factors will allow researchers to achieve more convincing identification. Arguably, international factors like interstate tensions, commodity price shocks, foreign aid, or trade relations can be considered exogenous to other domestic factors. This being said, endogeneity will remain a problem that needs to be tackled based on the specific nature of the external factors under consideration. Progress on this front will depend on systematic data collection efforts to produce finer detail on interstate relations.

The third reason for optimism is the increasing intensity of interstate dependencies. The forces of economic globalization and the diffusion of democratic norms can make coups not only internationally less acceptable, but also gradually harder to implement. More generally, external influences are expected to play an even greater role in domestic politics and regime stability. One potentially valuable line of investigation would be to test this conjecture for different dimensions of interstate relations.

Finally, international relations (IR) and comparative politics (CP) are two related fields that do not adequately speak to each other on the subject of coup behavior. This is probably because CP scholars usually focus on the internal causes of coups d’état, while IR scholars tend to neglect coups as largely domestic phenomena. There is ample room for interdisciplinary dialogue on this front to bridge the international-domestic divide in the literature.


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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (1.) For more information about the coverage and operational definitions adopted by these coup lists, see Powell and Thyne (2011).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (2.) Numbers as of October 17, 2016.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (3.) The myriad domestic causes of coups deserve separate treatment, which is beyond the scope of this article. For some excellent reviews, see Feaver (1999), Belkin and Schofer (2003), and Gassebner et al. (2016).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (4.) Some authors have even argued that, with a few exceptions, the external factors discussed in the literature may not be robust determinants of coup activity in general (Gassebner et al., 2016; Singh, 2014).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (5.) An example is the famous discussion of “soft power” by Nye (1990).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (6.) An excellent attempt at measuring the role of U.S. government influence on other countries is offered by Berger et al. (2013), who used declassified CIA documents to measure the effects of political influence on trade.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (7.) For some examples of the coup-proofing efforts and their results in different countries, see Hertog (2011), Gaub (2013), Joshi (2015), Louër (2013), Makara (2013), and Nassif (2015).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (8.) For a detailed review of the literature on coup-proofing and civil war risk, see Sudduth (2016).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (9.) A few examples of studies that use growth rates and/or protests/rebellions as independent variables are Leeds and Davis (1997), Gelpi (1997), Miller (1995, 1999), Davies (2002), Sprecher and DeRouen (2002), Pickering and Kisangani (2005), Oneal and Tir (2006). (See Miller & Elgun, 2011.)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (10.) See Ostrom and Job (1986), Morgan and Bickers (1992), James and Hristoulas (1994), Meernik (1994), DeRouen (1995), Meernik and Waterman (1996), Gowa (1998), Fordham (1998a, 1998b), and Morgan and Anderson (1999).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (11.) For example, Collier and Hoeffler (2007) found, unsurprisingly, that military expenditure as a share of GDP tends to increase with participation in international war, civil war, or other potential sources of external threats, where the latter is proxied by military spending by neighboring countries or history of past international conflict.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (12.) This finding runs contrary to Collier and Hoeffler (2005), who found that high military spending may increase the risk of a coup.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (13.) One classical case that exemplifies RATF phenomenon is the decision of the domestically troubled regime in Argentina to invade the Falklands (Malvinas) Islands in 1982. Some authors argued that this invasion helped the military regime in power improve its low legitimacy and reestablish a sense of national unity in the face of domestic opposition (Levy & Vakili, 1992; Oakes, 2006).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (14.) The Coup D'état Project (CDP) by the Cline Center for Democracy is a promising step in this direction (

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (15.) The type of data collection recommended here is subject to many methodological challenges (e.g., bias in news coverage), and the sheer size of the universe of events one needs to go through makes it even more difficult. On a positive note, however, such large-scale data collection tasks are becoming less and less time consuming and will probably become more accurate with the advent of the ongoing machine learning and Big Data revolutions. SPEED Project Civil Unrest Event Data ( is one example that uses data mining tools to tap into global news sources.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (16.) This does not refer to empirical analyses of leader tenure that were conducted since the introduction of Archigos, but specifically refers to coups regardless of whether they lead to leader turnover or not.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (17.) Although the seven days threshold is too short for this issue to make much difference in the coding of successes and failures, the threshold becomes more binding when a researcher wants to use a more stringent duration threshold like a month or more.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (18.) Thyne et al. (2017) made a welcome contribution in which the authors tried to measure the duration between government takeover by the coup leadership and the transition to a completely new regime without any involvement of the coup leaders or members of the same cohort. Such measures allow researchers flexibility in creating “coup success” measures that are tailored to their research needs.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (19.) This fact may partly explain the prevalence of the contradictory findings discussed in this article.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (20.) For example, using lags of covariates to mitigate the reverse causality problem, employing panel data methods to account for potentially confounding panel fixed effects, and robustness to inclusion of potentially omitted factors.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (21.) Meyersson (2016) supplied a good example of the promise of these methods in the study of the consequences of coups.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (22.) However, it would be too speculative to claim that coup frequency will continue to decline over time in the longer term and too optimistic to expect that it will diminish to zero in the foreseeable future.