Autocrats in Outer Space. International Autocratic Linkage and Regime Survival

In this post Alexander Schmotz, Oisín Tansey, and Kevin Koehler argue that dense economic, societal, cultural and diplomatic linkages between autocracies stabilize autocrats in power. They present the results of two recently published papers statistically analyzing the effects of autocratic linkages on regime survival.

A few weeks ago in early October, Saudi Arabia’s king Salman visited Russia for the first time in his reign. The king spent four days in Moscow, signing 15 cooperation agreements. Naturally, these deals included selling and buying oil and military equipment, but also covered more extravagant themes like space exploration.

Autocrats in outer space? Well, maybe. More importantly though, the king’s trip is an example of cooperation between two prominent autocratic regimes. The Guardian senses a “shift in global power structures”. At the very least, however, the boost in cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Russia marks a rise in what we call international autocratic linkage.

In two recent articles (in CPS and EJPR), my colleagues Oisín Tansey and Kevin Koehler and I examine the development and effects of autocratic linkage. Autocratic linkage includes a broad range of things. The way we think of it, autocratic linkage entails all the cross-border ties between two or more autocratic regimes: political and economic ties, shared histories, languages and culture, civil society networks, media and communication – everything. Linkage does not only relate to the intentional, purposeful cooperation of two countries, but also to the more subtle and maybe inadvertent connections.

You will have guessed it by now: we borrow the concept of international linkage from Steve Levitsky and Lucan Way’s famous book on competitive authoritarian regimes. In contrast to Levitsky and Way, however, we do not look at linkage to the West, but at linkage to the Rest – the ties one autocratic regime entertains with all the other autocratic regimes in the world.

Our work on autocratic linkages relates to a vibrant new field of research on the international dimension of authoritarian rule. Many great analyses have been written in recent years about the influence of authoritarian Black Knights, authoritarian diffusion and learning, and authoritarian international politics more generally. For a great place to start reading up on this, check out Oisín’s new book on the International Politics of Authoritarian Rule.

Measuring Autocratic Linkages

Given that autocratic linkage is so diverse, it is very hard to measure it adequately. We give it a shot, though, by employing four indicators: trade, migration, diplomatic exchange, and geographic proximity. We think these four indicators get at a good portion of what autocratic linkage is all about. They capture some of linkage’s important political, economic, social, and geographic dimensions, and we hope that they pick up some of the more subtle things we cannot measure, like the personal contacts across borders and the cultural connections two autocracies might have. If two countries trade a lot and there are many migrants travelling between them, we assume that some of these more obscure things will probably be quite developed as well. We are aware, however, that our measure can only be an approximation to the very complex phenomenon that is international autocratic linkage.

So, for every autocratic regime in every year we can get our hands on data, we compute the average volume of trade, migrants, and diplomatic envoys it exchanges with all other autocratic regimes in the world, and the average distance to them. To relate these figures to the size of the country and its economy, we divide trade by GDP, and migration and diplomatic exchange by population size. (Distance is just distance.) In the figure below, you can see how autocratic linkage so measured developed for an average autocracy in the past sixty-or-so years.



The three panels depict your average autocratic regime’s autocratic linkage in trade, migration, and diplomatic exchange. The figure differentiates autocratic linkage within and without the world region a regime is located in. Not surprisingly, regional linkage is always way higher than extra-regional linkage. More interestingly, though, autocratic linkage on average appears to be rising in all areas recently. (Admittedly, diplomatic linkage only a tiny bit.) 

Autocratic Linkages Stabilize Autocratic Regimes

We do not know for sure whether this is autocratic regimes closing the lines: do they purposefully increase their cooperation with other autocratic regimes, in order to build a counter-weight to the West in international relations, as the Guardian headline suggests? Well, we cannot know for sure.

What we do know, however, is that autocratic linkage helps. We can show that the more linkages to other autocracies you have, the more stable your regime is going to be. The idea is that autocratic linkages do two things: on the one hand, they strengthen the autocratic forces at home. Regime elites and supporters might benefit from the contacts to other autocratic regimes, and this might increase their stake in the regime – who knows if these benefits will keep flowing once the current ruler or regime is removed. Best try and keep them in place. Autocratic linkage can also release some of the international pressure for democratic reform. If you are for example met with sanctions for human rights violations, autocratic partners are less likely to join in and instead might help you out. For example, when the US considered freezing economic assistance for Egypt in the wake of protests on Tahrir Square, Saudi Arabia’s late king Abdallah made clear to President Obama in an infamous phone call that he would cover the bill and substitute for withdrawn US aid.

On the other hand, autocratic linkages make it more likely that an external power supports you. External powers might also worry about linkage benefits to go when the regime does; so they will do their best to prevent that from happening. Particularly in times of crisis, say by large scale anti-regime protests, close linkage connections might facilitate contagion and make external partners step in to avoid the worst and protect their own regimes from spill-over effects.

We use a statistical method, survival analysis, to show that autocratic linkages do indeed have stabilising effects on autocratic regimes. I won’t bore you with the details – to learn more, have a look at the articles and appendices here and here. Let’s just say we are quite sure of our findings; the results are very robust and statistically significant (the magic words of frequentist inferential statistics).

Finally, we zoom into one the of our linkage mechanisms and show how autocratic linkage can bring about external support in times of crisis. In a case study of Saudi Arabia’s reaction to the Arab Spring, we demonstrate that Saudi Arabia supports those Arab Spring countries with which it has dense linkage relations (Bahrain, Egypt, and Yemen), but does not support the ones with weaker linkage ties to the kingdom (Libya, Syria, and Tunisia).

All this does not bode well for international democracy assistance. The West might have to think of ways to counter autocratic linkage if their efforts to promote democracy are not to be in vain. The latest test case might be Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe has just been forced to resign. Zimbabwe entertains extensive linkages to autocratic partners in the region and beyond.

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