Former Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol made waves in November 2018 when he suggested on Twitter that regime change in China should be an important goal of U.S. foreign policy in the coming decades. This provocative statement caused the internet to do its usual thing, with scores of people jumping into the conversation, both on Twitter and elsewhere, to offer their two cents.
Noticing the reaction, Kristol went on to elaborate and clarify what he meant in a longer tweet thread, saying that the “case for regime change shouldn't really be controversial. The United States at its best has always stood for the proposition that all people everywhere deserve to be free.” He went on to say that “[we] rarely use and should rarely use military force . . . I do think a relatively open embrace of freedom as our goal, and a relatively candid debate over means, would serve the nation well.”
Any debate over the relative merits and demerits of regime change as a legitimate tool of foreign-policy needs to begin with Lindsey A. O’Rourke’s fantastic new book, Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War . O’Rourke is an assistant professor of political science at Boston College, and her book is the perfect start to the debate that Kristol called for in his online manifesto. O’Rourke both develops a theory of regime change and meticulously details the history of America’s covert regime change efforts during the Cold War. Her findings throw cold water on any regime change enthusiast’s belief that it should be an “uncontroversial” idea.
O’Rourke answers two basic questions about covert regime change: why would a state attempt it, like the U.S. did sixty-four times between 1947–89, and how effective is it at achieving its stated goals? Pundits and scholars have offered many competing theories over the years for why the United States has employed overt action to topple a given regime, but these are less compelling to O’Rourke when also considering America’s covert track record.
O’Rourke’s logic for regime change is simple. “State’s launch both covert and overt regime changes to increase their security and the security of their allies,” she writes. But that is only part of the equation.
There are many different actions a state can take when it finds itself in a dispute with another state such as outright war, or sanctions, among other options. Regime change, however, holds unique appeal in that it “offers the possibility of altering the underlying preferences of a foreign government.” For states to maintain continual influence in another’s affairs, as many are often wont to do, simply installing a government that shares its interests offers a permanent solution.
Most interstate disagreements between states don’t end in regime change, though. O’Rourke identifies two necessary, but not always sufficient, conditions for when policymakers will consider ousting a sitting government. The first is that the dispute “must be based on the perception of a chronic, irreconcilable divergence of national security interests.” The most common causes of regime change involve the intervener demanding something that would jeopardize the incumbent party’s ability to rule. This can lead policymakers in the intervening state to believe “regime change is their only way for the two states to break their political gridlock.” The second condition is that the intervening state must be able to identify a plausible alternative to the government it is attempting to overthrow.
There is also the choice of covert versus overt action. During the Cold War, according to O’Rourke, the United States chose covert actions instead of overt by a ratio of ten to one. This is because covert action is less costly. “Covert conduct lowers a mission’s potential military, economic, and reputational costs because the heart of covert action is ‘plausible deniability,’” where the intervening state can attempt (often unsuccessfully) to hide its role in the operation.
The more important question to consider, though, is how effective is covert regime change? Superficially, they work okay—not great but not terrible. U.S.-backed covert efforts succeeded 39 percent of the time in replacing the targeted regime. But the ultimate goal of regime change is not just a different face in charge, but a long-term alignment of strategic interests between the two states. On this count, the history is decidedly negative. “Covert regime changes seldom worked out as intended,” O’Rourke writes. “Contrary to policymakers’ expectations, changing the policy preferences of a foreign government requires more than simply changing the political leadership of the state.”
This is because the domestic political conditions that caused the rift between the United States and the target country in the first place do not disappear when the new regime takes power. States that did align with the United States were seen as puppet regimes that would eventually be overthrown. For the states where the covert action failed, an already tense relationship was made even worse “because most covert regime changes do not remain covert.”
O’Rourke’s book should, contra-Kristol, make the idea of regime change very controversial. It’s a well-written, important work that should productively inform foreign-policy debates going forward, particularly in the post–Iraq, post–Libya world where we can see, fully on display, the destructive power of regime change gone wrong.
Covert Regime Change also deftly informs another debate, perhaps unintentionally on O’Rourke’s part, that has raged in the foreign-policy world since the election of President Donald Trump: the post–1945, American-led liberal international order. Without completely rehashing this extensive debate, O’Rourke’s book shows that, at the very least, we can dispel this notion of it being a “liberal” order. There may have been an American-led order that was beneficial to the broader world, but there is nothing liberal about more than five-dozen attempts to covertly overthrow another country’s government.
There’s nothing liberal about making countries susceptible to civil war and mass killings, which O’Rourke shows was more likely in states targeted by the United States for covert regime change. There’s nothing liberal about promoting Nazi collaborators and other war criminals, as the United States did in Albania in the late 1940s as part of efforts to topple its Soviet-backed regime (to name just one example of the United States allying with authoritarians).
For this and many other reasons, O’Rourke’s book should be essential reading.
Jerrod A. Laber is a Washington-based writer and journalist, and senior contributor for Young Voices. Follow him on Twitter @JerrodALaber.