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Critical State

The leftovers: What happens to foreign policy in power transitions? Part I

This week, Critical State, our weekly foreign policy newsletter, takes a deep dive into new research on what to expect as norms about foreign policy continuity in the US continue to erode.

In this file photo released Jan. 16, 2021, by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, a missile is launched in a drill in Iran. The Biden administration’s early efforts to resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal are getting a chilly early response from Tehran. Though few expected a breakthrough in the first month of the new administration, Iran’s tough line suggests a difficult road ahead.


Iranian Revolutionary Guard/Sepahnews/AP

As negotiations about negotiations about resurrecting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement on Iran’s nuclear program drag on, a clear question has emerged on the US side: When presidential administrations turn over, how much fealty does the new administration owe to the international agreements of the old one?

Related: When it rains, it wars: Tracking intersecting security threats, Part I

When the agreement in question is a treaty, the answer is straightforward: Treaties have the force of law, and, in theory at least, are respected regardless of who is president. Less formal agreements, however, face an increasingly murky future in the practice of US foreign policy. This week and next, Critical State takes a deep dive into new research on what to expect as norms about foreign policy continuity in the US continue to erode.

Related: When it rains, it wars: Tracking intersecting security threats, Part II

In the latest issue of International Studies Quarterly, political scientists Cathy Xuanxuan Wu, Amanda Licht, and Scott Wolford examine a political quandary that doubles as a college basketball stratagem: the turnover trap. In the turnover trap, a new leader comes to power in Country X whose plans are unknown to foreign adversaries. Regardless of the leader’s actual interest in fighting a war against those foreign adversaries, the leader acts aggressively toward them in hopes of making them believe that the leader is willing to fight. The theory is that, by establishing a fearsome reputation, can deter foreign adversaries from challenge without having to actually fight a war. 

Related: Political science of the periphery: Part I

Of course, the theory also works the other way. When the leader of one of the adversary countries sees an untested new head of state in Country X, they have major incentive to act aggressively themselves in an attempt to deter aggression from Country X without the cost of actual war. The problem for both of them, however, is that acting aggressively requires, you know, acting aggressively. One side sends troops to the border, another side starts issuing incendiary press statements — all of a sudden, one wrong move and the fake threatened war becomes a real, destructive, wasteful war that neither side wanted in the first place.

Related: Political science of the periphery: Part II

Thankfully, this doesn’t always happen. Even when new leaders act out or are the target of foreign saber-rattling, actual wars are relatively rare. In most situations, game theory eventually recognizes game theory and tensions ease. Wu, Licht, and Wolford, however, highlight cases when the turnover trap is particularly dangerous. They point out that, regardless of the type of leader or regime that has taken power, susceptibility to the turnover trap is dependent on how long the leader expects to be in office and how little foreign leaders know about their intentions. If the leader of County X doesn’t expect to be around long, then there’s not much point in risking a pointless war to deter its opponents, because any deterrence it gains will dissipate the moment it loses power. If it  has a long rule ahead, though, those deterrence gains start to look more valuable and the risks necessary to gain them more worthwhile. Similarly, if foreign governments believe they know an incoming leader’s policy program, then there isn’t much point in saber-rattling to try to make them believe otherwise.

Wu, Licht, and Wolford suggest a heuristic for guessing how susceptible new leaders might be to the turnover trap. In autocracies, they argue, a new autocrat taking over for an old one using the old autocrat’s existing coalition has a reasonable expectation that they’ll be around for a while. Whether it is a throne passing from father to son or a single-party state selecting a new leader from within the governing elite, as long as the coalition underpinning the autocrat’s rule remains stable, then an autocrat has reason to feel at  home in the halls of power. An autocrat is still an autocrat, however, with a great deal of personal power over the country’s foreign policy decisions. A predecessor’s preferences for war or peace may not be aligned, and potential adversaries begin the reign in the dark about the new leader's intentions. Saber-rattling, therefore, is likely to become the order of the day. 

Conversely, the danger scenario in democracies is that a new leader draws support from a coalition opposed to the previous leader. When a party wins reelection with a new leader, foreign adversaries can reasonably assume that the new leader’s policy preferences are basically the same as the old one’s. The amount of aggression necessary to change minds almost certainly isn’t worth it. When a new party enters power after a period in the wilderness, however, they often bring with them both an electoral mandate and comparatively blank slate. Because they are less known quantities and have potentially long terms ahead of them, these new leaders have a much greater incentive for aggression than their domestic political opponents in the party of continuity.

Wu, Licht, and Wolford find through statistical analysis that democratic turnover is a bit less dangerous overall than autocratic turnover, but the incentive structure remains for both. No matter regime type, avoiding war when new leaders think they can benefit from added aggression is no layup.

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