Saving Your Favorite Dictators: External Sponsorship of Authoritarian Regimes Under Democratic Pressures

My dissertation considers how external and domestic factors influence dictator’s ability to amass personal power relative to the ruling parties and security forces; and how the efforts to build highly personalized regimes, in turn, shape dictator’s domestic and foreign strategies to counter threats from rival elites and the masses. I examine these topics in the three papers comprising my dissertation.

Essay 1: A Farewell to Arms? Democratic Protests, Liberal Norms, and Arms Transfers to Autocracies.”

Why do some states support dictatorships during periods of regime crises? This paper argues that great powers support dictatorships that face domestic uprisings when the latter are strategically important. For democratic powers, however, liberal norms mitigate these strategic concerns in the short-term. Autocratic powers, unconstrained by liberal norms, bolster strategically important autocracies both in the short- and medium-term. Lethal weapons transfers accurately capture support from great powers because arms transfers both augment the military capabilities of the recipient regime and signal a willingness to condone domestic repression. Using data on protest uprisings in dictatorships and arms transfers from the U.S. and the Soviet Union and Russia, I find that strategic importance largely explains arms transfers timed to bolster autocracies during domestic uprisings. Evidence indicates that during post-Cold War democratic uprisings, U.S. arms transfers drop in the short-term but quickly return to prior levels, especially when the Democratic Party is in power. The result suggests that the pattern of the relationship between great power arms exports and respect for democratic norms is nonlinear. These findings enhance our understanding of the foreign sources of autocratic regime stability and underscore the limits of liberal norms in advancing democracy.

Essay 2: “Becoming a Useful Client: Explaining Regime Security and Autocratic Alignment Choices.”

My second essay turns to the relationship between dictator’s personal power and decisions to enter asymmetric alliances with great powers. Alliances are useful for countering external threats, but few studies examine how alliances shape internal regime security. I argue that dictators lacking coercive capacity for repression and resources for co-optation are most likely to seek foreign patrons by entering military alliances or hosting military bases. By inviting foreign patrons to invest in the security of the host country, the client regime gains a foreign power ally with an incentive to prop up the regime during periods of domestic challenges to the regime. Foreign military actors help quash mass uprisings and deter rebel mobilization. Reliance on a foreign patron also provides the dictator with room to personalize his security apparatus by protecting the regime from backlash against coup-proofing efforts. When foreign sponsorship ends, however, dictators reliant on foreign powers are especially vulnerable to mass uprising or domestic rebellion. This essay contributes to greater understanding of the international factors that influence regime security.

Essay 3: “Countering Hybrid Warfare: Economic Sanctions and Deterring Autocratic Collaboration.”

The third essay assesses whether economic sanctions prevent authoritarian regimes from collaborating with one another. Political commentators critical of lifting Western sanctions on countries such as Iran or Russia argue that reducing economic pressure will provide these regimes with additional resources to support other dictatorships and insurgent groups abroad. Using data on U.S. and E.U. economic sanctions, I test whether the termination or imposition of economic sanctions by the United States and the European Union changes the level of external support for anti-Western authoritarian regimes and insurgent groups by those targeted regimes. This essay helps us understand whether the West can rely on economic statecraft to counter recent hybrid warfare challenges.