Democratic-autocratic Military Interventions in the MENA (Post-Doc Projekt Pfeifer)


10. Juli 2019

Hanna Pfeifer (seit 2018)

Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen are in the middle of internationalised military conflicts, with several states and (transnational) non-state actors being involved as conflict parties (see overview in the attachment). Even though the three cases are very different, they have one aspect in common: both democracies and autocracies have intervened – and they have done so at least partially “on the same side”. This means that these military actions are marked by some form of democratic-autocratic cooperation. This aspect of interventions has attracted very little academic attention. Yet, there are several fields of research that are relevant to investigating them.

Democratic peace and democratic war

There is a vast body of literature on the democratic peace thesis (DPT), its theoretical foundations and explanations (Russett 1994; Russett/Oneal 2001; Doyle 2005) the “dual finding” (Risse-Kappen 1995) as well as qualitative and quantitative empirical studies (Doyle 1983: 226). More recently, however, academic attention has shifted to liberal interventionism and democratic wars – or “the flipside of ‘democratic peace’” (Geis/Müller 2013: 6; Freedman 2005; Jahn 2005). There are two main sorts of explanations behind the DPT (Geis/Wagner 2011: 1557-1559). Rationalist explanations argue that democratic institutions hold political leaders accountable and raise the incentives for them to provide public goods, such as peace, in order to satisfy their electorate. In contrast, constructivist accounts hold that a specific democratic culture and the (liberal) norms related to it enable democracies to externalize their internal norms and values to international interactions, at least vis-à-vis other democracies.
The debate about democratic wars, however, points to the ambivalence of these theoretical explanations. From this point on, it was argued that “the same domestic preferences, institutions and norms that promote peacefulness in interaction with other democracies” can serve the legitimation of democratic wars (Geis/Müller 2015: 6-7). Thus, the externalisation and universalisation of democratic norms may be reasons for the use of force, and democratic publics may not always be war-averse, but indeed favour military action by their country.

Be this as it may, the question of autocratic (non-)participation in military interventions and war is under-researched. Do similar mechanisms apply as in the cases of democracy for autocracies’ decision (not) to go to war? How can autocratic participation in military interventions be understood and empirically researched? Besides this, the mixed nature of recent interventions in the MENA supposedly has ramifications for the participating democracies: As earlier studies have shown, the idea of a common liberal identity plays an important role in the justification of democratic wars. A second question is thus: How do interventions by democracies alongside autocracies affect the legitimising strategies of Western states.

Humanitarian intervention, R2P and the liberal world order

The origins of post-Cold War liberal interventionism are rooted within an important shift of focus toward the individual and its rights in the field of security. The “universal human rights-centred language of global or cosmopolitan law […] [replaced] the state-based territorialized language of international relations” (Chandler 2012: 214). Most prominently, the framework of “human security” arose in the mid-1990s. The academic debate soon problematized the potentially violent manifestations of “human security” in the forms of “humanitarian inventions” and, more recently, the R2P (Welsh/Thielking/MacFarlane 2002: 489-490; Evans 2006: 705-706). The old security agenda had focused on containing violence between sovereign states. Within the new framework of human-centred security, a state could (temporarily) forfeit its sovereignty in the most severe cases of human rights violations (Slaughter 2005: 628; Evans 2006: 708-709). However, these costs were supposed to have great benefits: advocates stressed the normative power of R2P in bringing about liberal progress within the world order and advancing the international protection of human rights (Hehir 2013b).

Critics of the R2P feared that it would be used to legitimise “intervention to change a political regime” (Hurrell 2007: 280) and lead to a re-hierarchisation of the international sphere. The risk was thus that the principle of equal sovereignty would be replaced by a version of liberal internationalism that tended to legitimise liberal democracies as superior states when global governance decisions were being taken (Reus-Smit 2005; Geis 2013). For instance, there were more and more calls to abandon multilateral procedures as instituted within the UN system and regional organisations because of their deficient input legitimacy and regular deadlocks. Some argued that instead, ad-hoc “coalitions of the willing” should be allowed to intervene without multilateral authorisation in case of a humanitarian emergency (Recchia 2016: 50-56).

The recent cases of democratic-autocratic cooperation in military interventions may have consequences for the liberal character of post-Cold War interventionism. Except for the Libyan case, the interventions have not been based on humanitarianism, nor did the UN provide them with a mandate. Finally, the interveners in all three cases were democracies and autocracies, which counters the liberal idea of a “concert of democracies” (Geis 2013).

International dimensions of authoritarian rule

For a long time, the literature on authoritarian resilience and stability was dominated by “domestic-level explanations” (Tansey 2016: 3). During the last few years, however, several attempts have been made to advance research by investigating the role played by international factors. In particular, mechanisms of norm and policy diffusion were also identified as important within authoritarian contexts: authoritarian regimes not only actively manage and intervene in diffusion processes in order to prevent democratic diffusion (Vanderhill 2017: 43-44); they also diffuse and promote autocracy (Kneuer/Demmelhuber 2015; critically: Way 2016). Consequently, the research on inter-autocratic behaviour or “autocratic linkages” is growing (Tansey/Koehler/ Schmotz 2017). This shift in academic attention has brought about some important insights into how autocracies learn from each other, e.g. assuring the regime’s survival in times of crisis by observing similar cases; how they cooperate, such as preventing liberalisation and democratic change; and how linkages including trade, migration, diplomatic ties, and geographic proximity influence regime stability (Heydemann/Leenders 2014; Bank/Edel 2015; von Soest 2015).

Despite the attention for the international dimension of authoritarianism, research on how authoritarianism affects external behaviour is still scarce, in particular with regard to participation in military interventions. In the early 2000s, some studies systematically dealt with relations between authoritarian regimes and the involvement in military disputes. Similarly to the DPT, two main explanatory frameworks were relevant: institutional and normative approaches. The former are based on the premise that the main goal of political elites’ behaviour is to stay in power. Consequently, the less legitimacy and stability a regime has, the more likely it is to initiate a military conflict. The contributions differ with regard to what institutional characteristic is decisive for making a regime more belligerent than others. In contrast to these monadic approaches, normative accounts argue that shared values between two states are the decisive factor in their peacefulness toward one another (Peceny/Butler 2004; Lai/Slater 2006). All these studies are quantitative large-n analyses based on pertinent indices (Polity IV, COW etc.).

However, qualitative studies are still missing on the (non-)participation of autocracies in military interventions and how they justify the use of military force vis-à-vis their public, but also other states and the international community. While authors agree that legitimation is an important pillar of autocratic stability (Gerschewski 2013), there are no qualitative studies on how the external use of military force gains legitimacy.

In my larger post-doctoral project (Habilitation), I would like to contribute to closing these research gaps by addressing the following questions:

  • How do Arab autocracies legitimise their engagement in and the initiation of external military interventions vis-à-vis international, regional and domestic audiences?
  • How do mature democracies legitimise these interventions vis-à-vis international, regional and domestic audiences, in particular with respect to democratic-autocratic cooperation?
  • How and why does democratic-autocratic cooperation take place in these military interventions?

During the first phase of my research, I will concentrate on one empirical case study, i.e. the intervention in Iraq and Syria that is referred to as the “Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve”. With regard to the three research questions set out above, this case can provide important insights into the phenomenon of democratic-autocratic interventions and their legitimation because of the following characteristics:

  • With 68 countries joining the “Global Coalition”, the intervention has significant global and regional support. Moreover, the intervention arrangement is rather complex, given that 14 democratic and non-democratic countries are participating militarily in the air and ground operations.
  • There is significant difference between the time periods during which the various interveners took part in the operations. Several countries temporarily dropped out of the coalition and suspended their air strikes. Thus, the burden-sharing arrangement among the intervening states changed over time. The US took part in all military operations from the beginning on. Apart from that, only Arab countries conducted air strikes in Syria while the Western countries concentrated on Iraq initially. However, Jordan began air strikes on Iraq in February 2015 and several Western countries had extended their operations to Syria by September 2015.
  • The legal basis of the military operation “Inherent Resolve” is intensely debated by experts, mainly because the coalition targets areas in two different national territories (see also attachment). While the intervention in Iraq appears unproblematic (“intervention by invitation”), the legal situation is more complicated with regard to Syria. In fact, there was no mandate for the operations until November 2015. This changed with UNSC Resolution 2249. Yet, the significance of the resolution with regard to the authorization of the use force is still contested (Scharf 2016). Moreover, while the lack of mandate could explain the initial abstention from operations in Syria by Western countries, the majority began conducting air strikes in Syria before the resolution.
  • Since the beginning of the interventions, important political events in the region and the intervening states have taken place and have supposedly had an impact on the way in which the intervention has been conducted. For instance, the UAE’s decision to suspend air strikes was linked to the shooting of a Jordanian plane and the capturing of its pilot by “ISIL”. After the release of the pilot’s burning, though, the UAE decided to resume their operations and sided with Jordan that had declared its intention to extend air strikes both quantitatively and geographically (i.e. to Iraq) in Feb. 2015. Furthermore, there are indications that – like Western democracies – some Arab countries are extremely sensitive to casualties among their own soldiers (Hokayem/Roberts 2016: 177). This supposedly impacts the room of manoeuvre for legitimising military engagement, in particular given the public displaying of the killing of soldiers by ISIL. As for Western states, events such the attacks in Paris and Brussels have served as an explanation for a deeper involvement in military actions by some European states – even though they had extended their operations to Syria before these events occurred.
  • Finally, there are severe obstacles to the intervention’s legitimation for both the democratic and the autocratic participants. With regard to the Arab participation, their domestic publics do not welcome American leadership of the intervention. Issues of identity also play against the legitimacy of intervention in fellow Arab and Muslim countries. The intervention’s shaky legal grounds complicate its legitimation vis-à-vis Western publics (Scharf 2016). Given the highly selective participation of Western countries, the significant participation of non-democratic countries and the lack of a liberal purpose, this is not an intervention by a “concert of democracies” with the goal of stabilizing the “liberal world order” (Geis/Müller/Schörnig 2013: 314).


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