Even Dictators have Friends: Autocratic Cooperation in the International System

In the 1990s and early 2000s, conflict scholars, especially those in the quantitative tradition, probed and prodded democratic peace theory and generally agreed that the phenomenon of peace (i.e., non-interstate war) to be an empirical reality for democratic pairs of states. [1] Understanding democratic state behavior is now a pillar of conflict research and includes examining crises behavior, war, foreign-imposed regime change, terrorism, intrastate war, and many other topics.

Although scholars explained where and when democracies increase or reduce conflict behavior, they paid comparatively less attention to autocratic states. In addition, the cooperative behaviors of certain regime types in the international system have often been treated as simply the lack of conflict. With democracy stalling or rolling back in both Latin America and the Middle East, understanding the external behavior of autocratic states is increasing in importance.

More recently, beginning with Barbara Geddes’ path breaking work, scholars began to think about disaggregating the concept of autocracy and comparing both within and across regime types.

This symposium highlights a forthcoming International Studies Quarterly piece, “Autocracies and International Cooperation,” by Michaela Mattes and Mariana Rodriguez that illustrates the development and extension of this important research area and deftly integrates insights from International Relations and Comparative Politics.

In this Symposium

Our symposium includes some of the most outstanding scholars working on issues related to autocratic behavior both from an international and comparative perspective. Our first contribution is from Jessica Weeks, a scholar of international relations from the University of Wisconsin Madison, whose work has been featured in International Organization and the American Political Science Review, as well as other top ranked journals. Additionally, she has a forthcoming book from Cornell University Press, entitled Dictators at War and PeaceWeeks lauds Mattes and Rodriguez for moving the literature forward by focusing on the “cooperative aptitude” or qualities that make an autocratic state a more attractive partner. Weeks suggests, however, that we still do not understand the conditions under which autocratic states cooperate or how to best disaggregate autocracies.

Our second piece is from Jen Gandhi, a scholar in the comparative tradition from Emory University, whose articles have appeared in the Journal of PoliticsComparative Political Studies, and other prestigious journals. Gandhi’s book, Political Institutions under Dictatorship, is from Cambridge University Press. Gandhi also sees the forthcoming article by Mattes and Rodriguez as applicable across fields and important for considering autocratic behavior. Gandhi questions whether we can transport elements of theories from research on democracies to autocracies, especially assumptions about state preferences that are applied across regime type. Like Weeks, Gandhi is concerned with conceptualizing autocracy and then measuring it. While Geddes work is the foundation of this literature, both Gandhi and Weeks suggest a need for moving beyond it.

Our third piece is by Courtenay Conrad, a scholar from the University of California--Merced whose work straddles International Relations and Comparative Politics. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Politics, the American Journal of Political Science, and other top journals in the field. Conrad’s contribution to the symposium is path breaking in its own right.  She replicates Mattes and Rodriguez’s statistical models, a practice that is sorely lacking in social science in general and international studies particularly. To probe the results, Conrad brings data on other institutions that can encourage or discourage cooperation not used in Mattes and Rodriguez’s empirical analysis. She argues for how specific institutions influence cooperation and conflict rather than more general regime type distinctions. Her analysis is preliminary, but accomplishes two things. First, it suggests plausibility for future work on these and other political institutions. Second, her piece does what more quantitative work should do and probes and prods existing results. We hope this will become a standard for future symposia on quantitative papers.

Our final piece is a response by Mattes and Rodriguez to the three discussions of their paper.  In sum, the authors are encouraged by the ideas offered by each piece. Mattes and Rodriguez suggest building on existing theory to identify which of the many dimensions of autocratic variation influences cooperative behavior and working harder in this research domain to match theoretical concepts to appropriate measures.

[1] Disagreement over why, however, has continued. See Maoz and Russett (1993)Owen (1994)Chan (1997), and many more.




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