Throughout history, the United States has occasionally carried out regime change operations in other countries in order to further its own objectives. But there has been a growing scholarly consensus in recent years that these efforts to overthrow foreign regimes are frequently futile and have negative unintended consequences.
Scholars have discovered that regime change missions do not succeed as intended, whether they are attempting to achieve political, security, economic, or humanitarian aims. Instead, they are more likely to cause civil wars, undermine democracy, ratchet up repression, and ultimately ensnare the foreign intervener in protracted nation-building endeavours.
Nearly every presidential administration since the conclusion of the Cold War has had a foreign policy that is substantially based on the expansion and promotion of democracies. Every post-Cold War president said this in their national security plans, though most refrained from making overt calls to employ force.
For example, the Clinton administration claimed that expanding the community of democratic and free market states serves all of America’s strategic objectives –from encouraging domestic prosperity to countering global challenges before they threaten the United States. In keeping with this, the George W. Bush administration declared that they will work tirelessly to spread democracy, growth, free markets, and free trade throughout the entire world. Similarly, the Obama’s national security strategy stated that the United States encourages the spread of democracy and human rights abroad because those nations that uphold these ideals are more peaceful, and legitimate.
These texts typically place a strong emphasis on advancing democracy through diplomatic efforts, nonprofit organisations, and international organisations. However, in actuality, the US has demonstrated its willingness to use force to establish new governments in places like Panama, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and other places.
A more democratic globe, according to popular thought in Washington, makes America safer. The United States has benefited from the forced expansion of democratic governments throughout the world, as was the case during American operations in Grenada, Panama, and the occupations of Germany and Japan following World War II.
When the regime-change operation fails, the American policy makers frequently attribute it to poor execution rather than carefully considering their initial choices to participate in regime change. Sometimes they blame poor post-war planning and in certain cases the American people for not backing up the government in such operations.
The argument that regime change is a sensible method for removing bad governments, boosting American security, and advancing humanitarian goals is refuted by the historical record, that clearly shows that armed regime-change efforts frequently result in unexpected effects, such as humanitarian crises and weakened internal security within the targeted state, regardless of the tactic used.
Have the regime change operations worked?
Operations aimed at bringing about a regime change have hardly ever succeeded. For instance, improved interstate relations is one objective that officials seek to accomplish through regime transition. However, following a regime-change operation, there is rarely an appreciable decrease in future disputes between the intervener and the targeted country. Instead, principal-agent dynamics frequently worsen interstate relations. In order to demonstrate that their administration is legitimate and not just a foreign puppet, the newly installed regime feels forced to allay local fears about the intervener’s interests.
Foreign interveners may use regime change to strengthen their economic ties with the target nation and benefit their own companies and industries, often at the expense of their rivals outside. However, foreign-imposed regime change frequently results in the stagnation or worsening of trade relations between the intervener and the local country. This is because of the fact that companies are reluctant to invest in the region because of the uncertainty generated by the regime change mission itself, which results in a decline in trade.
Regime-change missions are most frequently justified by the promotion of democracy, which is said to result in more stable regions and harmonious bilateral relations. In truth, democracy declines following a transition of power because democratic leaders are more receptive to local supporters than to the foreign forces that placed them and are therefore less inclined to carry out the wishes of the intervener. This dynamic was exemplified by the gulf between Hamid Karzai and American leaders in Afghanistan.
The failure of covert means of regime change
The Americans think that covert interventions, such as election tampering and intelligence operations, may be more successful than the use of military force for regime change. However, history shows that they are wrong big time.
In Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War, Lindsey O’Rourke argues that during the Cold War, overt regime change was more successful than covert regime change in changing the country’s leader, at least temporarily, 66 percent of the time. Covert regime change only succeeded in doing so 39 percent of the time.
Similarly, Dov Levin demonstrates that electoral interference, while effective for a brief period of time, decreases democracy over time and does not result in the outcomes that the intervening power prefers, such as improved interstate relations, less conflict, and higher economic gains.
The foreign-backed administration uses the same clandestine tactics to assure its victory in future rigged elections, rather than bringing more democracy and greater transparency. In Guyana, for instance, the People’s National Congress and Prime Minister Forbes Burnham employed voting fraud strategies they acquired from the CIA to win the next elections, resulting in the establishment of a dictatorship there.
Effects of the regime change operations
Regime-change operations frequently result in the targets being worse off and more prone to have future political, economic, and military issues, all of which increase the costs for both the intervener and the target state.
Foreign-imposed regime change has been shown to enhance the chance of civil conflict. Regime-change missions often result in civil conflicts because they weaken existing state institutions and create a power vacuum, enabling for the growth of resistance and rebel forces.
This can lead to civil unrest, as the regime’s legitimacy is eroded when a foreign power imposes new leaders. After the Cold War, 40 percent of covert regime change operations resulted in civil wars within ten years of the operation, according to the International Crisis Group.
The American expedition to overthrow Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in Congo-Léopoldville in 1960 serves as a prime example of this process. After the overthrow, the subsequent crisis turned into a protracted civil war that claimed more than 100,000 lives.
Following a regime change, the likelihood of insurrection and civil war also contributes to a worsening of the region’s human rights condition. The installed governments as well as the opposition groups engage in human rights violations and killings, in their fight for political power. After a foreign power intervenes and changes local governments, the propensity to revolt can also contribute to a rise in domestic terrorism.
The short-term repercussions of regime-change operations have been outlined above. There could be far-reaching consequences for foreign policy objectives. Many other countries’ perceptions of U.S. foreign policy are influenced by the United States’ proclivity for regime change operations.
After the U.S. operation in Libya, North Korea’s nuclear decision-making is particularly illuminating. A conclusion that nuclear weapons can prevent regime change made the North Koreans more comfortable with their decision to build a nuclear arsenal.
This is just one illustration, but as regime change becomes more prevalent, the expenses associated with each operation could add up to have far wider-reaching and potentially negative international implications.
Way forward for the advocates of foreign interventions
To improve the effectiveness of their policy decisions, American authorities must change two prevalent mindsets. Initially, regime change is politically viable because its proponents portray it as a simple solution that can bring about significant change while requiring little time and effort. Instead, as was demonstrated above, regime-change missions frequently turn into time-consuming state-building initiatives or fall short of their intended objectives. So, without being prepared, willing, and able to dedicate themselves to a decades-long mission of institution-building after the first fall of the regime, policymakers and the military personnel advising them should refrain from advocating for missions to overturn the government.
Similarly, U.S. authorities should accept that foreign polities have different interests than America and that altering the leadership is unlikely to promote U.S. priorities.
While democracy and human rights are significant, the American leaders who are still committed in advancing these ideals globally should concentrate on funding nonmilitary methods of enacting policy change. It may be in America’s best interests to promote political liberalisation and human rights abroad, but by peaceful means such as supporting the civil society.
As appealing as regime-change operations may appear, the reality is that they typically make matters worse by eroding democratic institutions and harming humanitarian efforts around the world. It seems improbable that the same circumstances that allowed for a few successful cases—as in Germany or Japan, for example—will recur. Instead, evidence indicates an unmistakable pattern: foreign-imposed regime-change operations promote insecurity, damage democracy, and frequently have disastrous humanitarian results.