Meddling foreigners

Posted in cold war, democracy, foreign policy, history, politics, US by jrahman on October 18, 2015

Updated: 431pm 19 Oct 2015 BDT

As I try to get back to writing, I asked an old friend and longtime reader about potential topics.  Syria came up, hardly surprising given the recent news.  I have, however, been quite surprised with the way Bangladeshi cyberspace has been reasonably united in reaching the conclusion that Putin’s Russia is the ‘goodie’ in the conflict and America is responsible for everything that has gone wrong in that benighted country.

I have nothing particular to add on Syria except to observe that the United States and allies occupied a country to get Saddam Hussein, bombed another but stopped short of invasion to get Muammar Qaddafi, and did neither when it came to Bashar Assad, and yet Syria is just as much a mess as Iraq or Libya — so the ‘it’s all America’s’ fault line doesn’t really gel with me.  But hey, if it unites Shahbag revellers, Shapla Chattar mourners, and everyone in between and beyond, who am I to disagree.

Of course, beyond Bangladeshi cyberspace, at least in the English speaking world, the mainstream view is that for all its imperfections, the US is a force for good, that at least some of its interventions have been for freedom and democracy, in contrast with the interventions by the old European imperialists.  When it comes to the Soviet Union or Mao’s China, even their supporters would claim that these powers intervened not to support western-style democracy — free and fair elections, freedom of speech and faith, fair trial, property rights and so on — but to promote national liberation or people’s democracy or dictatorship of the proletariat.

Regardless of the intention, have American interventions actually improved democracy?  A recent paper recent paper by New York University’s William Easterly and colleagues, Shanker Satyanath and Daniel Berger explore that question.  The abstract:

Do superpower interventions to install and prop up political leaders in other countries subsequently result in more or less democracy, and does this effect vary depending on whether the intervening superpower is democratic or authoritarian? While democracy may be expected to decline contemporaneously with superpower interference, the effect on democracy after a few years is far from obvious. The absence of reliable information on covert interventions has hitherto served as an obstacle to seriously addressing these questions. The recent declassification of Cold War CIA and KGB documents now makes it possible to systematically address these questions in the Cold War context. We thus develop a new panel dataset of superpower interventions during the Cold War. We find that superpower interventions are followed by significant declines in democracy, and that the substantive effects are large. Perhaps surprisingly, once endogeneity is addressed, US and Soviet interventions have equally detrimental effects on the subsequent level of democracy; both decrease democracy by about 33%. Our findings thus suggest that one should not expect significant differences in the adverse institutional consequences of superpower interventions based on whether the intervening superpower is a democracy or a dictatorship.

The United States’ wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have revived again the phenomenon of “regime change” that was thought to have died with the Cold War. We study Cold War “regime changes” for insight, although of course they do not extrapolate exactly to modern events. The recent declassification of Cold War documents now makes it possible to develop a new time series cross section dataset of superpower interventions during the Cold War which takes account of interventions by the secret services. We find that US interventions to prop up a leader are associated with significant short term and medium term declines in democracy in the intervened country. We observe a similar size effect for Soviet interventions, but they are not robustly significant like US interventions. Although the negative effect of interventions dissipates once the intervention ends, an intervention has a large effect on democracy when it lasts for a long time.

That is, during the Cold War, any American intervention in a given country did considerable harm as much harm to democracy in the short to medium term while having no positive impact on democracy in the long term as happened after any Soviet intervention.  To further elaborate on the authors’ methodology: they use declassified information from both sides of the Cold War to analyse interventions, which include not just overt foreign meddling but also covert stuff such as support for coups and slush funds for elections.  They use two measures of democracy, one purely election based (if the incumbent loses an election, then it’s a democracy) and the other a bit more subjective.

Unfortunately, Bangladesh is not included in their analysis.  And yes, Bangladesh is included in their dataset.  Of course, Bangladesh in the 1970s and 1980s was not a democracy under any reasonable definition of the term.  But what authors’ analysis suggests is that, after accounting for Bangladesh’s geopolitical and historical/economic circumstances, American and Soviet meddling significantly hurt our democratic evolution. And I am not sure if this empirical analysis reflecting the Cold War conditions can be generalised to today’s world.  But it least should make one a bit cautious about seeking foreign help to change Bangladesh’s political status quo.


Easterly W, Satyanath S and Berger D, Superpower Interventions and their Consequences for Democracy: An Empirical Inquiry, NBER Working Paper 13992.

Berger D, Corvalan A, Easterly W and Satyanath S, Do superpower interventions have short and long term consequences for democracy?, Journal of Comparative Economics, February 2013.

(Thanks Shafiqur Rahman for the updated paper).









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