Rice University: Democracies have more consistent foreign policy than nondemocracies

Democracies have had more consistent foreign policy than nondemocracies over the past 100 years, according to a new book from Rice political scientist Ashley Leeds.

“Domestic Interests, Democracy and Foreign Policy Change,” (Cambridge, 75 pages, $20) was authored by Leeds, professor and department chair of political science at Rice, and Michaela Mattes ’06 from the University of California, Berkeley.

The authors examined leadership transitions around the world from 1918-2018 and assessed whether foreign policies changed when new leaders took office. They examined shifts in alliances, trade patterns, United Nations voting and economic sanctions.

Leeds said that for centuries people have worried democracies might be disadvantaged when it comes to foreign policy due to their inconsistency in leadership.

“Alexis de Tocqueville, for example, expressed concern that democracies are ill-suited to foreign policy due to frequent leadership turnover and changes in public opinion,” she said. “However, what we demonstrate in our book is that if you actually look at a large swath of history, this is not the case.”

Leeds said democracies’ foreign policy successes have everything to do with the way their governments are structured.

“In democracies, leadership selection processes and policymaking rules tend to blunt leaders’ incentives and opportunities for change, even when leaders with support from different societal groups come to power,” she said. “In contrast, leaders in nondemocratic countries are not bound by the same rules of democracies, and as a result may be more likely to make major policy changes.”

Leeds said the subject is especially important because long-term foreign policy success requires consistency.

“If you want others to cooperate with you, they have to believe that the next time you have an election, the next time your government is overthrown, you’re not going to abandon the relationship,” she said. “If you want to be able to deter adversaries, or compel them to do the things you want them to do, they have to believe they can’t just wait until the next leader comes and not be subject to sanctions.”

Leeds said recent major foreign policy changes in some notable democracies have focused increased attention on the topic.

“Brexit and some of the foreign policy changes put in place by President Trump during his presidency led many to worry about the ability of democracies to stay the course on foreign policy,” Leeds said. “But history has shown us that these may be exceptions. In our book, we discuss the possible impact of political polarization and democratic backsliding in countries like the U.S. on foreign policy. It will be interesting to see whether patterns change over the next 100 years.”

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