To Intervene or Not to Intervene? The Use of Military Force as Coercive Mechanism of Autocratic Diffusion

By May Darwich, Durham University

*This memo was prepared for the workshop, “International Diffusion and Cooperation of Authoritarian Regimes,” held on June 8–9, 2016 in Hamburg, Germany

The 2011 Arab uprisings appeared to some to indicate a wave of democracy shaking long-lasting autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. However, this overjoyed moment that was supposed to sweep Arab countries along the path of regime change, very quickly evaporated as authoritarian regimes adopted measures countering democratic diffusion across the region. Just as the growing literature on the international dimension of authoritarianism observed in previous historical waves, the 2011 uprisings have been followed by counter-diffusion waves (Weyland 2013; Gunitsky 2014; Elkins and Simmons 2005). The spread of autocratic ideas and policies through various causal mechanisms – such as learning, emulation, persuasion, socialization, and others – shaped the post-2011 order. Whereas these mechanisms of diffusion are distinctive in the lack of intentionality, the post-2011 uprisings unravelled other mechanisms of active diffusion. In their counter-diffusion endeavor, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states undertook several military interventions to shape transitions in Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen.

These military interventions[1] appear to conform to what some scholars have qualified as coercive mechanisms of autocratic diffusion (Ambrosio 2010; Braun and Gilardi 2006, 309–310). Scholars have traditionally included coercion as a mechanism of diffusion alongside learning, emulation, and competition. In contrast to these horizontal interdependencies that are at the core of diffusion literature, coercion emphasizes a top-down pressure. In other words, coercion is a mechanism of vertical diffusion that reflects a hierarchical interdependence between actors. Coercive diffusion is a process where powerful states explicitly or implicitly influence the probability that weaker nations will adopt the policies they prefer. This process aims to manipulate the opportunities and constraints encountered by target countries to stimulate policy change. In some instances, coercion takes a “soft” form, such as political or financial assistance. It can also take a “hard” approach, such as strings attached to financial assistance or the use of military of force (Simmons, Dobbin, and Garrett 2006, 790–791). Accordingly, coercive mechanisms of autocratic diffusion reveal an intentional motive to support an existing authoritarian regime or to impose a preferred authoritarian regime or policy in a neighboring country.

Since the establishment of modern Arab states, inter-Arab interventions and interferences have shaped the international relations of the Middle East. Some of these interventions were driven by ideological rivalry in the context of the Arab Cold War, such as the Egyptian intervention in Yemen (1962-1967). Others were motivated by territorial claims and security concerns resulting from state formation dilemmas in the region – such as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (1961 and 1991), the Syrian occupation of Lebanon (1976-2005), and Jordan’s interventions in the West Bank. The use of military force by the GCC states in either supporting or undermining their fellow autocrats emerged as one of the most vexing autocratic strategies, brining new dimensions to inter-Arab politics. Whereas the Saudi-led intervention in Bahrain exhibited an autocratic cooperation in support of the Al Khalifa regime, other interventions were driven by the willingness to topple opponent dictators while critically altering the domestic landscape of the countries under transition. For instance, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar’s interventions in Libya, as well as the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, employed strategies to alter the existing authoritarian structures in these countries. While these interventions varied in the drivers and motives, the choice of a military strategy over other means of interference remains an underlying puzzle. Whereas military interventions were conducted in Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya, the indirect military effort was a strategic choice in Syria. Moreover, the Gulf states choose financial and diplomatic means elsewhere, namely in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, and Morocco.

The use of military force as a coercive mechanism of autocratic diffusion in the post-2011 Middle East not only brings new insights to inter-Arab politics, but also illuminates a “blind spot” within the contemporary foreign policy debate on interventions. While the scholarship on interventions has been confined to those tasked with understanding the foreign behavior of democracies, and Great Powers in particular (Owen 2002; Krasner 1999; Owen 2010; Bull 1984; Saunders 2011), the post-2011 developments in the Middle East bring the authoritarian dimension to the study of interventions. This coercive mechanism of diffusion poses several questions. First, is the use of force a mere conflict initiation based on states’ security concerns or one that is driven by autocratic dynamics? Second, when and why do autocratic regimes decide to use military force among other interference strategies?

This memo examines the study of these emerging interventionist policies in the post-2011 Middle East in light of theoretical debates within IR Theory and Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA). It explores the existing scholarship on military interventions while identifying some gaps and avenues for future research. I argue that the scholarship on interventions is mostly structure-based and, hence, falls short of offering a systematic explanation of interventions as an autocratic coercive mechanism. Instead, the memo calls for more attention to the agency of leaders and their perceptions as well as decision-making structures.

Structural Explanations to Autocratic Interventionist Policies

Although the literature on autocratic military interventions is sparse compared to the upsurge in the literature on interventions by democracies, a small number of studies have explored the use of military force by autocracies in international relationships. Two explanations for the use of force stand out: one focused on its utility as a mere conflict initiation based on states’ international security concerns and the other shaped by domestic factors, i.e. the nature of authoritarian politics.

The first strand in the literature belongs to neorealism in IR Theory. Neorealists argue that the anarchic international environment produces external threats and opportunities such as shifts in the relative capabilities or regional alignments. From this perspective, autocratic states are like democratic ones when they behave at the international levels. Scholarly interest in the GCC interventions has, for the most part, been approached through neorealist lenses of regional power interests and geopolitics (Young 2013). Accordingly, threat perception, shaped by power rivalry with Iran, constitutes the main driver behind these interventionist policies (Obaid 2015). These explanations cannot, however, unravel why the GCC states chose to intervene in some cases, such as Libya and Yemen, but not in others, Syria in particular. Furthermore, the nature of security threats is not obvious in many cases, such as Libya or Yemen. In short, these explanations account for neither the variation in interventions across cases nor the choice of military strategies over other means of interference.

Other domestic-level explanations have attempted to explain the aggressive international behavior of autocracies. One strand of research concludes that regime type and the structure of the elite in power answer why some autocracies are more belligerent than others. For example, Peceny and Butler (2004) argue that personalist dictatorships are more likely to recourse to the use of force. This argument builds on the selectorate theory of Bueno de Mesquita et al. (2003). From this perspective, leaders’ decision to go to war is dependent on their insulation from the ruling coalition. Another strand of the literature focuses on domestic institutions, arguing that autocracies be driven by domestic vulnerabilities. For instance, Lai and Slater (2006) find that military regimes are more likely than single-party regime to initiate international disputes as a diversionary strategy from domestic problems. In the same vein, Debs and Goemans (2010) show that leaders care about their own survival and seek to avoid punishment, such as death, exile, or imprisonment. The decision of war then becomes a gamble. Weeks (2012; 2014) also argues that to account for why some autocracies are more war-prone than others one must examine if leaders are constrained by domestic audiences. Building on this strand of literature, the GCC’s interventions can be explained through the monarchical regime type or the lack of audience and accountability. Nevertheless, these domestic explanations do not account for the non-compliance of Oman with the intervention in Yemen or Qatar’s willingness to diverge from GCC foreign policy positions in Libya and elsewhere.

Although this emerging literature has transcended the scholarly reading of authoritarian regimes as one category and taken into account their variety, the above explanations focus on either the structural nature of the regional system or the regime type. These slow-changing factors cannot explain how states approach interventions and why they choose military force over other strategies to shape domestic outcomes in neighboring countries. Moreover, while these scholarly efforts have proposed important hypotheses about autocracies and wars, they have focused on the initiation of international conflict. Yet scholars and policymakers have a poor understanding of the incentives driving the use of military force as a coercive mechanism of autocratic diffusion, a particular type of conflict initiation. The use of military force in this context thereby constitutes a blind spot in our understanding of the foreign policy behavior of autocratic regimes in general and the emerging interventionist policies of the GCC in particular.

Agent-Based Approaches: The Way Forward?

The foreign policies of GCC states have often been the prerogative of the ruling families, their trusted individuals, based on tribal or family basis (Baabood 2003, 265–267). The dynamics of interventionist policies in the Middle East coincided with a generational shift in the leadership of GCC states – namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE – with new faces in the decision-making circles willing to take assertive and ambitious foreign policy decisions. This shift in leadership led to reshuffled ministries and changes within the close circle of ruling elite. These developments necessitate the incorporation of individual-level factors in the analysis. Although leaders operate within domestic and international structures, the cases show that leaders’ individual characters have a significant influence on interventions and foreign policy decisions. This type of informal influence on the decision-making process needs to be thoroughly examined. How do leaders’ perceptions, beliefs, personality traits, psychological biases, and political effectiveness shape interventionist policies? The crucial impact of individuals – leaders, members of the executive authority, and bureaucrats ­– on war and diplomacy in Middle Eastern international relations has been ignored and marginalized for decades, with few exceptions (M. Hermann et al. 2001; M. Hermann 1988; Malici and Buckner 2008).

Two strands of research within FPA constitute a potential ground for developing systematic insights about these autocratic military interventions. First is the poliheuristic theory of foreign policy. This approach argues that leaders often cut through the plethora of complex information available during the decision by employing cognitive shortcuts. In the meantime, leaders are concerned first and foremost by their political survival (Kinne 2005). From this perspective, the use of military force in interventions can be related to threat perception and policy prioritization, but also includes the psychological factors influencing leaders’ perceptions. The poliheuristic theory of foreign policy has, for instance, provided a potential explanation to the Gulf states’ varied responses to the 2011 uprisings, either supporting or undermining fellow autocrats (Odinius and Kuntz 2015). By taking the decision-making process into account, this approach can account for the variation in the interventionist policies of the Gulf states.

The second cluster of research is the psychological approach in FPA, which includes a focus on personality traits, leaders’ beliefs, analogies, framing, threat perception, misperception, and information processing in uncertainty (M. G. Hermann 1980; Jervis 1976; Levy 2003; Kaarbo 1997; Edelstein 2002). As some of these interventionist policies evolved alongside a change in the leadership of the some Gulf states, it is important to pay attention to the goals and idiosyncrasies of this new generation of leaders. Like structural approaches to international relations, the first image does not provide all the answers. Yet, the study of the decision-making process and the role of individuals can be one part of a larger whole, and ignoring these can come at the determinant of a complex understanding of regional dynamics. Of course, recognizing the importance of these factors will make the scholarly endeavor more complex, due to the closed nature of authoritarian regimes. Such challenges, however, will result in a richer product that is better able to explain these contentious phenomena.

To summarize, recent interventions by the GCC states have been treated as sui generis cases, focusing on the foreign policies of individual cases rather than developing more generic or systematic insights on why and when authoritarian regimes intervene using military force as a coercive mechanism of autocratic diffusion. The GCC interventionist policies are examples of a wider pattern of new interventionism led by authoritarian states to shape transitions in their regions – for example, Russia’s interventions in Ukraine and Syria (Leonard 2016). Developing agent-focused approaches to foreign policies of autocrats bears the potential of enriching our understanding of Middle Eastern international relations, and the aggressive conduct of autocracies in the Middle East and beyond.


[1] I adopt a wide definition of intervention allowing some variation in the purpose of intervention but also in the extent to which they aim to alter domestic institution in the target state. I therefore define a military intervention as an overt, short-term deployment of ground troops across international boundaries to influence the political outcome in another state. This definition follows Finnemore (2004, 9–10) and Saunders (2011,21).



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