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Strongmen and Straw Men: Authoritarian Regimes and the Initiation of International Conflict


How do domestic institutions affect autocratic leaders’ decisions to initiate military conflicts? Contrary to the conventional wisdom, I argue that institutions in some kinds of dictatorships allow regime insiders to hold leaders accountable for their foreign policy decisions. However, the preferences and perceptions of these autocratic domestic audiences vary, with domestic audiences in civilian regimes being more skeptical of using military force than the military officers who form the core constituency in military juntas. In personalist regimes in which there is no effective domestic audience, no predictable mechanism exists for restraining or removing overly belligerent leaders, and leaders tend to be selected for personal characteristics that make them more likely to use military force. I combine these arguments to generate a series of hypotheses about the conflict behavior of autocracies and test the hypotheses using new measures of authoritarian regime type. The findings indicate that, despite the conventional focus on differences between democracies and nondemocracies, substantial variation in conflict initiation occurs among authoritarian regimes. Moreover, civilian regimes with powerful elite audiences are no more belligerent overall than democracies. The result is a deeper understanding of the conflict behavior of autocracies, with important implications for scholars as well as policy makers.

Corresponding author
Jessica L. Weeks is Assistant Professor, Department of Government, Cornell University, 210 White Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853 (
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