Are authoritarian states more able to resort to the use of violence than democracies to fulfill their foreign policy aims?

Essay, 2002

9 Pages, Grade: 17 von 20 (A)


Are authoritarian states more able to resort to the use of violence than democracies to fulfill their foreign policy aims?

To begin it is necessary to clarify the title of this essay. As the question treats foreign policy aims, violence in this context is to be seen as the use of coercive means outside the own state’s territory. This essay will furthermore not differentiate between the different authoritarian states and hence will include all non-democracies in this context. It will be therefore deal only with the capability and not with the probability of states to use violence.

The democratic structure and culture in general makes it harder for the elected governments to act violently but this paper will illustrate that dictatorships will also face some constraints. It will be shown in particular that it is more difficult for democracies to initiate aggressive military operations openly than for authoritarian states, but that there are few differences in the ability to respond to provocations or hostile actions. There are even less distinctions between both kinds of rule in certain “types of violence” like the deployment of covert actions

To demonstrate those contrarieties and similarities this text will deal firstly with implications of structure, public opinion, alliances, economy, etc. on the visible use of force and secondly compare the systems in regard to hidden operations. Hence there are so many different kinds of states that it is not possible to find suitable abstract descriptions of their capabilities. This essay will try to clarify the argument with some examples, well aware that they do not fit for all democratic and all authoritarian states.

Comparing the structure of the governmental institutions and their interlinkages, one can discover a great significance between the organisation of the states and their ability to initiate and lead wars. Most autocracies are ruled by a single person or a small group who can decide without (or with only minor) opposition to mobilise the army while democracies normally try to ensure that the executive is limited, in most cases by the parliament. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait he did not have to seek permission of a parliament or a committee. He certainly consulted advisers but the definite decision was his. The American President George Bush in contrary had to ask the Congress to lead the war in the Gulf of Persia as well as to get the approbation of the budget which is important to deploy the military. Representative systems limit the power of their leaders in many ways: The president and all other democratic institutions are obliged to conform to the constitution and can otherwise be challenged at the Supreme Court. Oppositional parties are always part of a liberal democracy and an expression of its plurality and can delay or hinder the employment of coercive means.

As a result the process to make and implement decisions is more complex and takes longer than in dictatorships. The factor time by itself ensures higher caution and therefore leads to a more rational choice – or perhaps only a seemingly better one. Therefore the institutional constraints that are based upon checks and balances[1] “make it harder for democratic leaders to move their countries toward war”[2].

An advantage of this process is a sort of legitimacy to act violently because the democratic progress ‘apparently’ proves the support of the people (republican leaders have to “mobilize public opinion”[3]), whereas in authoritarian countries there is no such mechanism to give the leader this sort of legitimacy. If people do not feel included it is more likely that they will oppose the course of the government (openly or hidden). Oppressive systems repress opposition, so they have a monopoly in decision making. The price for that advantage on the other side is the always present “fear of a coup or revolt by [...] opponents”[4]. As a consequence a share of their military potential has to be used to maintain order in their own country and this weakens the ability to utilise all armed units for the combat.

In democratic states the leaders cannot govern in permanent opposition to the majority of the people. In stable liberal western states there is mostly a common attitude that the citizens support foreign policy, and oppose it only in extreme controversial situations. There was for example surprisingly few criticisms among the population during the first years of the Vietnam war. The opinion polls always favoured the course of the government (and even in late 1968 26% were still supporting the war[5]). Nevertheless Margaret Thatcher experienced problems with her decisions in the Falkland crisis 1981/82. She wrote that it was difficult to “keep the support [...] by sending the task force and by setting down our objectives [and that] even this degree of backing was likely to be eroded as the campaign wore on”[6].For a representative government it is easier to get the people to agree to the use of force as a reaction to provocation or with another plausible cause (it was for instance no direct provocation of the USA as Iraq seized its neighbour, but the argument to free Kuwait was reasonable) to initiate an attack. It was therefore no problem for George W. Bush to launch the strikes on Afghanistan. However when democracies would like to attack without an understandable reason it is far more difficult to get the opinion polls on their side (and hardly possible gain the help of their allies). For dictators there are few constraints inside their countries on the use of power because the backing of the people is not essential for the actions.


[1] Chris Brown, Understanding International Relations, Macmillan Press Ltd., 1997, p.225

[2] Bruce Russett, Harvey Starr, David Kinsella, World Politics – The Menu for Choice, Bedford/St.Martins, 2000, p.290

[3] ibid.

[4] Ibid., p.15

[5] Gerard J. DeGroot, A Noble Cause? America and the Vietnam War, Pearson Education Limited, 2000, p.169

[6] Margaret Thatcher, My Falklands War, The Times, London, 11.3.2002, T2, p.3

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Are authoritarian states more able to resort to the use of violence than democracies to fulfill their foreign policy aims?
University of St Andrews  (Department of IR)
IR 1006
17 von 20 (A)
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ISBN (eBook)
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Peter Tilman Schuessler (Author), 2002, Are authoritarian states more able to resort to the use of violence than democracies to fulfill their foreign policy aims?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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