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U.S. Foreign Policy and Regime Instability

U.S. Foreign Policy and Regime Instability - Cover

Authored by Dr. James Meernik.

May 2008

72 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The United States utilizes a vast arsenal of foreign policy tools to induce, compel, and deter changes in other nations’ foreign policies. Traditionally, U.S. foreign policy research focuses on the degree of success the U.S. Government has achieved when seeking specific objectives such as improvements in human rights conditions, democratic change, trade policies, and a host of other goals. In this Letort Paper, the author analyzes the extent to which intrastate and interstate conflict and terrorism in other nations are influenced by the depth and breadth of their military and foreign policy relationships with the United States. More specifically, he empirically analyzes the degree to which U.S. military and foreign policies such as the stationing of U.S. military personnel; the use of military force; the provision of foreign assistance, as well as a more general similarity of foreign policy interests between the United States and a foreign regime are statistically related to interstate and intrastate conflict and terrorist activity. The paper will better enable policymakers to identify which nations are most likely to become potential threats to American interests, and determine which mix of policy options works best in preventing the outbreak of terrorism and conflict within and among nations.


The United States utilizes a vast arsenal of foreign policy tools to induce, compel, and deter changes in other nations’ foreign policies. As the quantity and quality of such activity increases, the U.S. “footprint” in such nations grows deeper and wider. The U.S. presence may range from a diplomatic mission to a massive invasion force. The United States may seek to use its presence to openly compel change in a regime’s policies; it may employ its leverage to quietly induce policy modification; or it may use a combination of such strategies. And while the regime and citizens of one nation may welcome the United States and its largess, others may find such relationships a threat to the nation’s honor and sovereignty. To the extent a deeper and broader foreign policy relationship (as measured by a U.S. military presence; U.S. foreign aid relationship; the discrete use of military force; and a substantial similarity in foreign policy preferences between the United States and another government) contributes to stability and friendship, U.S. interests are realized. But does a broad and deep military and foreign policy relationship with the United States always succeed in realizing these interests?

Why would a cooperative relationship with the United States precipitate political and societal instability in the host nation? First, the U.S. relationship with the friendly or client regime may undermine the popular legitimacy and sovereignty of the government or interfere with local, political processes. Second, political ties with the United States often impact local economic conditions. Whether it is economic ties per se the United States is seeking to advance through opening markets, providing economic assistance, or promoting U.S. multinational corporation interests, or it is the economic spillover effects from a U.S. military presence, local market conditions are bound to be influenced by the actions of the world’s largest economy within the local borders. Third, the local population may also be opposed to the broader U.S. foreign policy goals with which U.S. officials are seeking acquiescence or cooperation. Specific U.S. interests will also provoke antagonism as the populations of other states take exception to the ends or the means of U.S. foreign policy, and to their regime’s degree of identification with such interests.

On the other hand, U.S. foreign policy means and ends are intended and designed to promote positive relations and maintain stability in those nations with whom the United States seeks to foster amicable and cooperative relationships. A strong U.S. presence can promote multiple, positive conditions. First, to the extent that a U.S. presence promotes both internal and external security for a nation, it provides the protection and stability a state needs to develop economically and politically. U.S. friendship can deter interstate rivals from overtly aggressive behavior and can dissuade internal political rivals from sowing unrest. Second, to the extent a U.S. military presence or U.S. military aid alleviates the need for a government to expend resources on its own security, a regime is better able to utilize freed up resources on economic and social development that should further the nation’s prosperity. Third, a U.S. military presence and military aid can stimulate the local economy and provide jobs for many nationals who are involved in businesses that contract with and supply the U.S. military, and can open avenues of opportunity for citizens to take part in educational, economic, and military interactions with the United States.

I use statistical analyses to evaluate the extent to which indicators of a U.S. foreign policy relationship predict the level of terrorism, domestic instability, and war in other nations. I find a statistically significant relationship between several of the indicators of U.S. foreign policy and instability in foreign countries. The closer the relationship between a country and the United States, as measured by many of these indicators in most of the estimates, the more likely nations were to experience various forms of instability. Yet, the size of the impact of U.S. foreign policy was not always strong. Of all the measures of ties to U.S. foreign policy, the one that demonstrated the strongest and most consistent effects in the estimates was U.S. military aid. The greater the amount of military aid received by a foreign government, the more at risk it becomes for instability, including terrorism, riots, assassinations, anti-government demonstrations, and civil wars.

The other measure of U.S. foreign policy relationships that exercises a strong, albeit somewhat inconsistent impact on regime instability is involvement in a militarized dispute with the United States. When the United States has used military force in or toward a foreign regime in the previous year, the predicted incidence of terrorism and civil wars tends to increase in the following year. Uses of force may inspire anti- American sentiment, embolden regime opponents to take violent action against the government (especially in cases where the United States is taking action against the regime), or may simply indicate the prevalence of uncertainty and trouble in a nation.

We find less evidence that a large U.S. military presence contributes in any significant manner, at least so far as is apparent in these analyses, to regime instability. The effects of the size of the U.S. military presence on the indicators is either small, statistically insignificant, or both. The last U.S. foreign policy indicator considered is the extent to which a nation’s voting record in the United Nations (UN) General Assembly mirrors that of the United States. As a state’s voting record in the UN more closely resembles the United States’, the incidence of various forms of instability, including riots, anti-government demonstrations, assassinations, and government crises increases. Anti-Americanism is often de rigueur in many nations, and thus making public pronouncements against U.S. foreign policy objectives almost seems to be reflexive in many capitals around the world.

The nature of a country’s political system also plays a much more crucial role. We see throughout the analyses that as constraints on the executive branch of government increased, the incidence of terrorism, riots, anti-government demonstrations, assassinations, government crises, and civil wars all increased. On the other hand, political competitiveness serves to decrease the likelihood of riots, anti-government demonstrations, government crises, assassinations, and civil wars. Viewed from the perspective of domestic tranquility, the most effective form of government would appear to be one with a strong executive and robust political competition. Economic prosperity appears to decrease instability. The greater a nation’s per capita gross domestic product, the lower the predicted incidence of riots, anti-government demonstrations, assassinations, and civil wars. We also see, however, that more powerful states are more likely to experience acts of terrorism, riots, assassinations, and anti-government demonstrations, but are less likely to be involved in civil wars. These states typically have large economies, large populations, and large militaries. Their major power status among the nations of the world may make them inviting targets for disaffected groups within their borders and terrorists from both the outside and inside, but not to the point at which intrastate war breaks out.

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