Why Do Dictators Start Wars?

In the next class we will discuss how domestic political institutions (democracy/dictatorship) affect the propensity for war. The two papers on the syllabus try to explain why democratic countries rarely fight one another: Bueno de Mesquita et al (1999): An Institutional Explanation of Democratic Peace and Debs and Goemans (2010): Regime Type, the Fate of Leaders, and War. But what do these papers say about Putin’s military intervention in Crimea?

Bueno de Mesquita et al argue that dictators often start wars because they risk little if defeated. A dictator’s ability to stay in power depends more on his ability to provide private goods to key supporters than his/her ability to provide public goods. The authors argue that victory in war is a public good – it benefits the entire population. In this case, dictators’ survival in office depends little on whether they fight and win a war. So dictators put less effort into fighting war than their democratic counterparts because they have no big incentives to win. As a result, dictators rarely start conflicts against democracies. So why did Putin intervene in Ukraine, risking conflict with the democratic Western backers of the new regime in Kiev?

Putin’s actions are even more puzzling in light of Debs and Goemans’ research. In contrast to the previous paper, Debs and Goemans find empirically that defeat in a conflict is punitive for dictators: it makes dictators less likely to stay in power; furthermore almost half of ousted dictators face significant punishment (exile, jail or death). In this context, dictators tend to only gamble on war if peace would result in concessions which would diminish their ability to stay in power. But this theory does not fit Putin’s actions entirely. Putin was not facing a choice between costly concessions and war: he could have stayed out of Crimea and maintained peace without any concessions.

Together the two papers imply that Putin must have been confident of being successful in Crimea despite the likely opposition from democratic countries, and/or perceived a large benefit in terms of domestic survival from controlling Crimea. What is this benefit? Will his gamble pay off?


About politakos

Hello, my name is Akos. I am a Ph.D. student in the Political Economy and Government program at Harvard. I am originally from the world superpower called Hungary, which explains why I currently teach a sophomore tutorial on international security. More specifically, the tutorial is on game-theoretic models of war (econ 970-AL). The primary purpose of this blog is to share interesting links with my students that are connected to the material we are covering in class.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ 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