Foreign Affairs

Revisiting Regime Change: The Price of Demonizing the Military and Democracy Promotion

Another Canadian beat me – by many decades – to say that Americans are blamed and shamed far more than they deserve. In fact, Americans now constantly blame their past selves for their predicaments. Yes, unwise decisions and poorly justified convictions have occupied America’s past and will likely recur in America’s future. But Americans succumbing to self-hatred will not only hurt the United States; it will hurt the entire world.

One such popular salvo against the U.S. involves the concept of  “regime change.” Expanded to refer to either any use of the military or any action in service of democratization, “regime change” is high on the list of inner-Beltway profanities. If you want to destroy someone’s ideas, credibility, or reputation, you need only associate him or her as a supporter of “regime change.”

This is dangerous for policy-making because it is intellectually lazy. It is especially problematic when this label is stretched to encompass more than it actually means. The American record of military intervention in relatively stable areas is objectively bad. The American record when things are already sideways? That’s a little different. For example, after a decade of conflict, a NATO coalition decided to strategically strike targets in Yugoslavia to compel its dictator Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw troops from Kosovo. Yugoslavia was left in bad shape and subsequently overthrew Milosevic. The dictator would later face trial for crimes against humanity, where he would be convicted and live the rest of his life imprisoned.

Today, the countries that make up what used to be Yugoslavia are not perfect, but they are not at war and no longer led by a genocidal tyrant. Military intervention is not a silver bullet, but it’s not always a self-inflicted gunshot wound either. More importantly, the usage of the military is not synonymous with regime change. Regime change is a policy end. The military is a policy means. While the mixture of democratic fervor and military adventurism can lead to quagmires, these two methods offer great benefit.

Much of the contemporary deployment of the military serves peaceful ends. The Department of Defense provides a lot of the humanitarian aid and disaster relief throughout the world. The U.S. Army was responsible for containing and eventually extinguishing the 2014 Ebola outbreak. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also provides many of the public improvements both at home and abroad. The United States Navy is instrumental in protecting maritime trade while the Air Force provides a lot of the brainpower and technology that make satellite communication possible. There is a debate to be had over whether the defense sector receives too much money or is asked to perform tasks better left to other government agencies. However, saying that the $600 billion defense budget is a slush fund for arms dealers and war criminals greatly mischaracterizes the beneficial role of American engagement.

While the military still enjoys broad support from many Americans, the idea of “democracy promotion” does not. Many on the left view these efforts as ethnocentric and bigoted. This is unfortunate and impractical. America’s unique narrative and values are its foremost assets. A country that has spent over 200 years reforming, relapsing, and then reinventing again toward a more perfect Union is throwing away an immense opportunity, especially as authoritarian states like China and Russia push their worldviews in all corners of the globe. The United States has never been and likely will never be perfect, but that is no reason to discard the progress and core ideals driving this evolution. In fact, they’re called “ideals” and “progress” for a reason.


For instance, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s radically changed American life for the better. Meanwhile, the 1968 Prague Spring movement in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia would fail to yield immediate results. This is a testament to the unique character of the United States. Moreover, the Civil Rights Movement influenced U.S. foreign policy and fuel the emergence of a global human rights movement. Pressure for racial justice in the U.S. enabled the international pressure that ended apartheid in South Africa. Moreover, when former Soviet states sought to move toward democratic systems, having close ties to the United States and the West was a positive factor in their outcomes. History shows that American values and engagement together have a strong — albeit imperfect — track record in securing human rights around the world.


The right is equally dismissive, though on the grounds that it is mostly futile. It might be hard to turn an adversary into a Jeffersonian Republic overnight, but gradual and persistent efforts are necessary to set up the conditions where a country may transition to democracy. For instance, South Korea was in a state of dilapidation after the Korean War, and it took decades of U.S. foreign assistance to enable it to recover. However, in the 1980s, an internal movement rose to demand open elections. Now, South Korea is a flourishing democracy and a robust military and economic partner of the United States. Non-military, long-term-focused regime change works if policymakers are willing to be patient enough to see decades of engagement come to fruition.

Employing America’s military and America’s values are deeply opposed by adversaries abroad. Coincidentally, none of these adversaries are democracies in any form of the term. China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea are all top-heavy strongman regimes with a single driving motive: regime survival. Authoritarian regimes may persist only as long as alternatives — namely democracy — are framed as ineffective and corrupt. American engagement challenges such survival by offering a counter-narrative to anti-democratic ideology. A forward military presence further erodes the position of strongmen by responding to attempts to amass power. Driving Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in the early 1990s denied Saddam Hussein additional oil fields to fund his coercive apparatus. Values-based advocacy and action undercuts the comfort and flexibility that enable autocrats to make the lives of their citizens and their neighbors worse.


Together, these tools erode the grip of contemporary authoritarianism. To deter adversaries or compel them to stop, we must start with what makes them tick. They have long known that our democracy and our freedoms are vital to our existence. That’s why terrorists make us feel unsafe so that we sacrifice our freedoms for security (see The PATRIOT Act). That’s why Russians don’t hack McDonald’s but hack our elections. Regime survival makes them tick, and taking regime change off the table offers comfort.

It should not be easy to be an autocrat; consistent, noticeable, and direct action through military, diplomatic, and economic means should gradually force these regimes to rethink their relations to the United States and to their own societies. Maybe not tomorrow or next week, but sooner or later, top-heavy states will buckle, America will become safer, and the world will become freer.

Yet, these actors do not need to actively or feverishly oppose these tactics. A cohort of Americans have that covered. Engagement is cast as a fool’s game and critics mock those who naively want to play the “world’s policeman.” From Middle America, it’s hard to see past this characterization; foreign affairs is dominated by a cascade of scandal and crises while life at home is hardly great. How do you convince a guy in Iowa that his tax dollars should pay for aircraft carriers, Swahili textbooks, and polio vaccines?

To win over the small-town crowd, you must make a small-town argument. Since the emergence of agriculture, humans have been forced to cooperate in order to survive through unpredictable circumstances. Your neighbor gets sick and cannot harvest his crop. That neighbor’s crop fails. His barn burns down. You don’t have to, but if you’re smart, you’ll help him. Because next season, it might be you and your family that needs the help.

Interpersonal ethics don’t automatically scale to international ethics, but this one should. The international community is not a fuzzy feeling but a hard reality. To roughly borrow from Trotsky, you may not be interested in foreign relations, but foreign relations is interested in you. The long view of history shows that tragedy is the norm as much as it is the exception. Forward engagement is about mitigating tragedies. What happens in other countries may not seem relevant to us immediately, but when it does, it will be too late.

Regime change is a first principle: American foreign policy should aim to create a more democratic world in the long run. This is not the same thing as launching unjust invasions and unwinnable wars. We cannot make a safer world if we pursue regime change by doing whatever it takes. Regime change can not happen overnight nor should it exclusively focus on removing a leader while leaving authoritarian institutions in place. When regime change is justly executed, it affords well-being to all citizens and upholds the equal dignity of all people.

1 reply »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s