Forms of international pressure and the Middle East

By Sarah Bush, Temple University

*This memo was prepared for the the “International Relations and a New Middle East” symposium.

In today’s world, international actors attempt to influence the domestic politics of states in myriad ways. International pressure can be exerted by state or non-state actors, can target state or non-state actors, and can involve military or non-military means. Moreover, it can attempt to influence virtually any aspect of domestic politics. Although international pressure does not always succeed—indeed, it can lead to a backlash against foreign influence as well as other unintended consequences—it is undoubtedly an important variable that explains the conduct of domestic politics in many countries today.

Studying international pressure in the Middle East is unique. Doing so illuminates the ways that international pressure leads to differentiation across countries and polarization within countries in addition to global diffusion and convergence. That is to say, international pressure can cause countries to become more different from each other and can also cause groups within countries to become more different from each other. Although these divergent effects are by no means unique to the Middle East, they are particularly stark there because international pressure tends to take highly partisan forms. Scholars of International Relations (IR) benefit from paying close attention to these dynamics as the research program on international pressure continues to grow.

What We Know about the “Second Image Reversed”

In an oft-cited article from 1978, Peter Gourevitch coined the phrase “the second image reversed” to refer to the ways that the international system affects the domestic politics of states.[1] Although the “second image reversed” framework can also be used to understand patterns of conflict, cooperation, and institutional change throughout history, it has been a particularly fertile framework for researchers to use when examining patterns in IR recently, perhaps as a response to the real-world phenomenon of increased interdependence. The literature that builds on Gourevitch’s insights is too large to review in the context of a short essay, but recent contributions in political science have applied the framework to understand patterns of democratization,[2] economic liberalization,[3] elections and electoral politics,[4] and gender and human rights policies.[5] Although in many cases, international influences on domestic politics can occur without direct international pressure, both direct and indirect international pressure is important in all of the aforementioned issue areas, including via international institutions, state-to-state diplomacy, transnational advocacy networks, and epistemic communities.

For the most part, the recent literature on the “second image reversed” focuses on how and why similar policies and practices have been adopted in so many countries. Countries around the world have democratized, significantly reduced restrictions on cross-border capital flows, signed bilateral investment treaties, invited election observers, promised to respect certain human rights, adopted gender quotas, joined international institutions, and more. In other words, it is easy to read the IR literature and conclude that the “second image reversed” is a framework best used to understand dynamics of diffusion and convergence. But this framework can just as easily be applied to study differentiation and polarization across and within states. Examination of dynamics in the Middle East is especially illuminating in terms of these dynamics.

Differentiation as well as Diffusion

As noted above, international pressure has led to the diffusion of a number of practices and policies to most countries in the world. But some countries are left behind when these changes occur. Indeed, international pressure has encouraged the diffusion of political liberalization in most countries in the world outside of the Middle East. An example of this phenomenon, which Judith Kelley and Susan Hyde have documented in excellent studies, is how international pressure caused countries around the world to hold national elections and then invite international election monitors to observe. This type of pressure generally came late—and in some cases, not at all—to the Middle East.

Part of the explanation for this differentiation—though by no means the only, and probably not even the most important one—is that international pressure in the Middle East is different than international pressure in other parts of the world. Specifically, international efforts to promote political liberalization in most of the countries in the Middle East have been half-hearted at best and often combined with forceful international efforts to promote the authoritarian status quo.[6] As a consequence, differentiation is not simply the result of internal factors that make countries in the region less responsive to international pressure. Rather, the form and type of international pressure has led to differentiation in the international system. This claim is related to a point also made by Etel Solingen in her valuable contribution to the “International Relations and a new Middle East” symposium. She argues that Arab rulers have effectively built “firewalls” to protect themselves against the pressures of diffusion.[7]

It is worth underscoring that international pressure can have a differentiating effect through two mechanisms. On one hand, international pressure can lead directly to differentiation, because it is applied differently to different countries or because countries respond differently to the same types of pressure. On the other hand, international pressure can lead indirectly to differentiation, because it leads some countries to adopt certain policies while other countries do not do so because they were not pressured. Pressure has an indirect differentiating effect in this case, because it inadvertently leads countries that were not pressured to grow further apart from other countries.

Polarization as well as Convergence

We often think of international pressure as leading countries to be socialized to new policies and practices, which usually involves a large number of people and institutions throughout a society changing their preferences. Yet international pressure often has polarizing effects within countries’ domestic politics. Almost inevitably, international pressure as it relates to democracy and other issues empowers some forces within domestic politics over others, helping particular economic or political forces make policy or effect change.

In some cases, the polarization effect is deliberate: International actors provide their partisan allies with a variety of forms of support, including money, technical assistance, security assistance, and rhetorical backing. Perhaps most obviously, these forms of support can help partisan allies win elections—but they also help partisan allies pursue their policy goals and stay in power through means outside of elections. Drawing on evidence from Lebanon, for example, Corstange and Marinov found that when voters became more polarized on the issue of foreign relations when they were exposed to messages about the electoral interventions of the United States and Iran.[8]

In other cases, the polarization effect is not deliberate: international actors may end up dividing the people of a country despite not trying to do so. Based on my research with coauthors Amaney Jamal and Lauren Prather in Jordan and Tunisia, I have argued that there is some reason to think that election observers as well as other foreign non-governmental actors may have this type of polarizing effect when they attempt to provide new political information to local audiences. When election observation groups issue reports on election quality, for example, their assessments are likely to be taken up differently depending on whether the audience supported the winning party or the losing party in the election.[9]

There is no reason why these polarizing effects of international pressure ought to be unique to the Middle East, but it is no accident that in this region the scant research on the topic has blossomed most fully. The Middle East is the place where international actors take sides most regularly and most clearly. On the one hand, Iran and Qatar are commonly perceived to intervene on the side of Islamist forces and, though they may give lip service to supporting democratic principles, are clearly not countries that are in the habit of promoting democracy abroad. On the other hand, countries ranging from Saudi Arabia to the United States and European states are commonly perceived to intervene on the side of secular forces. The United States and European states also claim to support democratic principles in the Middle East. Their actual commitment to promoting democracy in the region is ambivalent, at best, and is often combined with considerable support for regime maintenance. That being said, these states they do offer democratic aid programs related to elections, civil society, and women’s political participation, among other things.[10] Because multiple foreign countries in the Middle East tend to try to exert international pressure, and they do so in competing directions, it is easy to see how foreign countries might polarize the domestic sphere. But similar dynamics of polarization due to international pressure seem likely to take place in other world regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, Central and Eastern Europe, and the post-Soviet world. Hopefully scholars working at the nexus of IR and comparative politics in other parts of the world can learn lessons from those who have studied these issues in the Middle East.


Research on the “second image reversed” is an area of IR that has been very dynamic in recent years. Studying the processes of diffusion and convergence that have occurred thanks to international pressure, including democratization and economic liberalization has been important. But diffusion doesn’t always reach the entire population of countries, and there is something to learn about where and why international diffusion stops and what the consequences of growing inequalities in the international system might be. Moreover, international pressure can polarize domestic politics within countries, and this polarization also has important consequences. Studying the Middle East can help us refine theories about diffusion by demonstrating where the processes end and can suggest new theories about the polarizing effects of international pressure to be tested globally. In other words, scholars of IR more generally have much to learn from the dynamics of international pressure in the Middle East.

Sarah Bush is an assistant professor of political science at Temple University. She is the author of “The Taming of Democracy Assistance: Why Democracy Promotion Does Not Confront Dictators,” (Cambridge University Press, 2015)


[1] Peter Gourevitch, “The Second Image Reversed: The International Sources of Domestic Politics,” International Organization, Vol. 32, Number 4 (Autumn 1978), pp. 881-912.

[2] Jon C. Pevehouse, “Democracy from the Outside-In? International Organizations and Democratization,” International Organization, Vol. 56, Number 3 (Summer 2002), pp. 515-549; and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch and Michael D. Ward, “Diffusion and the International Context of Democratization,” International Organization, Vol. 60, Number 4 (October 2006), pp. 911-933.

[3] Beth A. Simmons and Zachary Elkins, “The Globalization of Liberalization: Policy Diffusion in the International Political Economy,” American Political Science Review, Volume 98, Number 1 (February 2004), pp. 171-189; and Zachary Elkins, Andrew T. Guzman, and Beth A. Simmons, “Competing for Capital: The Diffusion of Bilateral Investment Treaties, 1960–2000,” International Organization, Vol. 60, Number 4 (October 2006), pp. 811-846.

[4] Susan D. Hyde, The Pseudo-democrat’s Dilemma: Why Election Observation became an International Norm (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011); and Judith G. Kelley, Monitoring Democracy: When International Election Observation Works, and Why It Often Fails (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).

[5] Emilie M. Hafner-Burton and, “Human Rights in a Globalizing World: The Paradox of Empty Promises,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 110, Number 5 (March 2005), pp. 1373-1411; and Sarah Sunn Bush, “International Politics and the Spread of Quotas for Women in Legislatures,” International Organization, Vol. 65, Number 1 (January 2011), pp. 103-137.

[6] Jason Brownlee, Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the U.S.-Egyptian Alliance (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Amaney A. Jamal, Of Empires and Citizens: Pro-American Democracy or No Democracy At All? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012); Sarah Sunn Bush, The Taming of Democracy Assistance: Why Democracy Promotion Does Not Confront Dictators (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[7] Etel Solingen, “The Middle East and East Asia: A tale of two economic trajectories,” available at; Etel Solingen, “Of Dominoes and Firewalls: The Domestic, Regional, and Global Politics of International Diffusion,” International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 56, Number 4 (December 2012), pp. 631-644.

[8] Daniel Corstange and Nikolay Marinov. “Taking Sides in Other People’s Elections: The Polarizing Effect of Foreign Intervention,” American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 56, Number 3 (July 2012), pp. 655-670.

[9] Sarah Sunn Bush and Lauren R. Prather, “Why Trust Elections? The Role of Election Observers in Building Election Credibility,” Working Paper. See also Sarah Sunn Bush and Amaney A. Jamal, “Anti-Americanism, Authoritarian Regimes, and Attitudes about Women in Politics,” International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 59, Number 1 (March 2015), pp. 34-45.

[10] Sheila Carapico, Political Aid and Arab Activism: Democracy Promotion, Justice, and Representation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

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