Essays & Reviews

Foreign Policy and Regime Change: Classic Dimensions

The recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with subsequent U.S. efforts to promote democracy in those countries, have raised fundamental questions as old as—even older than—the Republic itself. To what extent does the character of other nations and peoples, especially their form of government, affect American national security? American national security affected by the character of other nations and peoples, and especially by their form of government? Under what circumstances are Americans justified in becoming involved in the domestic affairs of others? To put the issue in its sharpest relief: should the United States intervene actively to bring about the change of a foreign regime—or take sides in a civil war among contending regimes—even to the point of governing other peoples without their consent?

Regime change, in the sense applied here, is not merely the replacement of a particular foreign leader (although some leaders are so closely identified with their regime as to make this distinction irrelevant), but a deliberate decision by the United States to bring about a complete alteration in the character of a foreign political system. Americans have demonstrated consistent patterns of thought about regime change but there has also been a significant evolution of their views to accommodate new conditions in the international environment and alterations in the U.S. system of government. The political and intellectual dynamic of the debates, as well as their particular outcomes, have had major significance for the overall direction of basic U.S. national security policy. Indeed, the debaters often went to the core of what constituted the American national interest. These controversies are as much about the character of our own regime as that of others.

The American understanding of “regime change” is not necessarily synonymous with “democratization.” Americans have accepted the legitimacy of other forms of government and have acknowledged that non-democratic regimes abroad are necessary and even preferable under certain circumstances. Americans have disagreed about the theoretical and practical meaning of “democracy” and the relationship of human rights to different types of regimes. Their deliberations have not been two-sided, between interventionists and abstentionists; or between promoters of democracy (however defined) and advocates of benign neglect. The policy debate has always been complex and surprisingly dynamic. Individuals and entire schools of foreign policy thought have altered or even reversed their views. These debates typically involve shifting political coalitions and complicated policy perspectives. They do not move in a straight line. The political, strategic, and economic difficulties associated with a policy of directly-enforced regime change have led Americans frequently to favor instead compromise policies or an indirect approach—e.g., relying on international institutions and norms, general economic progress, or dynamic local forces. But compromises and the indirect approach too have their difficulties. The impersonal forces of history, globalization, and international good will often fail to meet the expectation of American moral sensibilities and interests in critical areas such as the Middle East.

This website, American Foreign Policy and Regime Change: Classic Dimensions, a former adjunct of the Classics of Strategy and Diplomacy, will explore notable occasions during which American public officials and citizens debated seriously the feasibility and morality of adopting a policy of regime change. The site will include a Working Paper Series and links to critical documents and resources.

Working Paper Series

The American Revolution and Regime Change: Exploring the Indirect Approach (PDF)

“It is a common observation here that our cause is the cause of all mankind, and that we are fighting for their liberty by defending our own.” Benjamin Franklin’s statement, written from Paris in 1779, was indeed commonplace among the American Revolutionary leaders and among the progressive thinkers of Europe. But what precisely did this mean? How exactly did American liberty relate to that of other peoples? Did Americans have any responsibility to do more than defend their own liberties, to work or fight actively for the liberties others? This Working Paper on American Foreign Policy and Regime Change considers the Founders’ view of how the United States might, and might not, properly promote the cause of liberty, and especially foster changes in foreign governments. It is not a comprehensive review or assessment of the thinking of the American revolutionaries about regime change, but rather a selective introduction to the Founders’ concepts, and disagreements, about their relationship to other peoples and governments. The Paper’s line of argument is suggestive, designed to provoke thought and stimulate further research, and not to put forward a definitive analysis of this complicated topic.

The Paper begins with an assessment of the colonial background in which American thinking about regimes first developed, especially the colonists’ admiration for the British Constitution and for the cutting-edge thought of the European Enlightenment. After the French and Indian War, however, a significant number of Americans interpreted London’s effort to rationalize the imperial structure as an immense conspiracy against their individual and corporate liberties – an effort by the political center to force regime change on the peripheries of the empire, as well as to destroy the liberties of the home country itself. The American revolutionaries did not seek to achieve their aims through world revolution. Nor did they claim the right to alter and abolish other governments. Indeed, they sought the aid and cooperation of former enemies such as France and Spain, which the colonists had once regarded as the essence of despotism. The Americans, however, sought to limit U.S. foreign relationships to the realm of commerce, avoiding “entangling” political-military alliances. They hoped that American entrance into the Euro-Atlantic state system would bring about a new configuration of international power, and rules of behavior, which would be conducive not only to American security but also to domestic political reform in nations like France, and to the cause of liberty and republicanism more generally. They appealed to the national interest of the rulers but also to enlightened public opinion among the European nations.

The American revolutionaries assumed that France, which was the most powerful nation on the continent and the long-standing enemy of Britain, would be the linchpin of this strategy. The necessities of war caused American diplomats, led by Benjamin Franklin, and the American Congress to agree to a conditional political-military alliance with France and to defer increasingly to French leadership. John Adams, who represented a minority in Congress – and who was a minority of one in many respects – challenged this drift in American policy. He believed that the French had their own distinct interests in the conflict and that the United States was best served by multiplying its political-commercial contacts throughout Europe, especially with compatible regimes such as the Dutch Republic. Adams’ independent, activist approach – his so-called “militia diplomacy” – not only went around the French but also challenged, directly or indirectly, the rulers and entrenched interests in those nations being asked to align themselves with the United States. Adams, in order to obtain loans and to develop commercial ties with the Netherlands, developed a close relationship with the Patriot movement in that nation – a movement that opposed the pro-English House of Orange and that favored major domestic political changes. Adams insisted that he was not interfering in Dutch politics or supporting regime change there; but he acknowledged that his public arguments and private efforts on behalf of the American cause stimulated interest in popular participation in government and in political reform or regime change throughout Europe, including a possible British Revolution.

For Franklin and his supporters in Congress, Adams’ efforts represented a vast overreaching of limited American power that threatened to undermine the essential ties with France and perversely to encourage those in Britain and America would wanted to restore an Anglo-American Union. Militia diplomacy would unnecessarily alarm European political and strategic conservatives, who still held the upper hand in most nations. Franklin, of course, was no reactionary (some of his closest friends in France would be the leaders of the early stages of the French Revolution). He insisted that he had no intention of making the United States a French satellite or subservient to despotism. America should instead bide its time and wait for the natural increase of its power, rather than an overly-aggressive diplomacy, to improve the prospects for enlightened rule elsewhere.

Jefferson, the Barbary Regencies, and Regime Change: The Attraction and Limits of Limited Liability (PDF)

For the first few decades of its existence as an independent nation, the United States faced a threat to its commercial interests in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic from the Barbary “pirates”—popularly known as corsairs—who sailed under the auspices of four Islamic polities on the North African coast (Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers and Morocco). Americans debated whether their national interest in the Mediterranean was best achieved through accommodation of the Barbary rulers; or through a more assertive policy designed to change the behavior of those rulers or even to overthrow them. This Working Paper on Regime Change examines American policy and the policy debate concerning the Barbary regencies at the turn of the 19th century.

Thomas Jefferson became the central figure in this debate. As a diplomat and Secretary of State, he favored strongly the change-of-behavior alternative through a form of international containment of the corsair threat. As president, he waged war against Tripoli and allowed military commanders on the scene to provide support to the domestic opponents of its ruler. But because the opposition could not bring about regime change and rule in its own name, Jefferson decided that the United States was at liberty to follow its own interests and settle the dispute on the best available terms with the existing regime. This policy of limited liability, which seemed an attractive middle ground between the extremes of appeasement and imperialism, had its own problems and critics. By cooperating with the opponents of a hostile regime to gain tactical advantages over the current ruler, the United States created a sense of obligation from which it found difficult to disengage with honor. The United States risked developing a negative reputation for fomenting revolution with promises of political or military support that did not materialize—a reputation that was bound to undermine the limited liability approach over the long term. Opposition factions could exploit the ambiguity of such a policy and promote their own cause among individual U.S. government officials, Congress, and the American public. Finally, rulers who the United States had once threatened in this fashion would likely harbor a sense of grievance and continue to work against U.S. interests. Americans nevertheless came to regard the First Barbary War as a triumph of U.S. strategy and military skill and as a template for future policy towards non-European strategic contingencies.

The High, Plain, Yet Dizzy Ground of Influence: American Views on Regime Change and the European Revolution of 1848 (PDF)

This Working Paper examines American attitudes towards the European Revolutions of 1848 and the national debate over whether and how, to support foreign political reforms and regime change. The intellectual and political impetus for a more assertive approach to foreign policy and for the promotion of foreign regime change came largely from a new generation of Democrats, who sought to advance American interests and ideals through territorial expansion, free trade, and support for liberal movements abroad. The New Democrats sought to overcome factional and intellectual resistance to such activism from within their own party and from the opposition Whigs, who traditionally held that America’s world-historic mission was one of democratic example rather than the conquest of foreign territories or the subversion of other regimes. Nevertheless, the Whig persuasion also contained a strain of activism on behalf of human rights, especially strong rhetorical support for republican government and national self-determination. The New Democrats thus had potential allies among up-and-coming progressive Whig politicians and advocates of the Free Soil movement. This raised the prospect that a political majority might emerge across parties in favor of a more activist or even interventionist foreign policy—a national majority that might transcend differences over slavery.

Popular interest in foreign regime change reached its peak with the arrival in the United States of Hungarian revolutionary leader Lajos (Louis) Kossuth, after the Hungarian Revolution was suppressed by Russian and Austrian intervention. Kossuth and some of his American supporters envisioned a second Revolution, which would be enabled by an American-British-Turkish military alliance directed at Austria and Russia; or by some other type of American “intervention for non-intervention.” But most New Democrats, such as Douglas, and progressive Whigs, including New York Senator William Seward, carefully avoided taking such provocative ground. They argued that active American moral and diplomatic support would alter the political climate in Europe sufficiently to allow a future Hungarian revolution to succeed on its own terms, if the Hungarians were truly capable of self-government. Even this modest approach was opposed by eminences such as Kentucky Senator John J. Crittenden, a Whig, who argued that it was impossible to establish a clear line between moral-diplomatic support for the Hungarian cause, on the one hand, and outright military intervention, on the other. Either the United States would find itself on the slippery slope that led to war for matters that were not vital to the nation, or it would be forced to back down in humiliating fashion. These conservative Whigs successfully aligned with the Fillmore administration and a strong majority of Southerners of both parties to create an effective opposition to the New Democrats and progressive Whigs on the Kossuth issue. As the nation slid deeper into domestic crisis over slavery during the 1850s, the prospect of a new political coalition based on an assertive foreign policy and an aggressive approach to foreign regime change, disappeared.

This foreign policy debate was in many respects the most “modern” of those which took place during the American Republic’s first century, in that the protagonists anticipated many of the arguments and policy options that later emerged when the United States became a world power. Daniel Webster, as Senator and Secretary of State, was in many ways the central character in this mid-19th century search for ways to maximize American influence in favor of regime change without crossing the line into direct political-military intervention. Webster’s soaring rhetoric about human liberty seemingly put him on the side of those who challenged the perceived tradition of American non-involvement in the political affairs of Europe. But at the same time, Webster’s official actions were cautious, taking into account the fragile state of the Union and the limits of American power.

The American Regime Change Debates of the 1890s: A Matter of Principle and Interest (PDF)

The late 19th century was a time of great hope and anxiety for the United States. Several decades of extraordinary growth had transformed the United States into the world’s leading industrial power, yet a financial panic in 1893 plunged the nation into a major economic depression. Americans watched with concern as the major European powers scrambled for new colonies and influence in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. These revitalized European empires threatened to exclude American business from vital overseas markets and to expand into the Western Hemisphere, thereby challenging American security. New technologies, especially steam power, the telegraph, and railroads, pointed to major changes in the conduct of warfare, and arguably lessened the traditional security provided to the United States by its distance from Europe. Yet there was considerable hope that science, commerce, and civilization had reached the point where great power conflict might be prevented or at least limited by international cooperation.

Many Americans felt that their bourgeoning economic power and the moral authority of their democratic society entitled – indeed, compelled – them to exert greater influence over this brave yet frightening new world. They disagreed considerably over the means and ends of doing so, however – especially when the exertion of American power, or the claims of American example, required the United States to consider actively intervening in the affairs of other peoples and nations. This Working Paper on American Foreign Policy and Regime Change examines three major controversies that emerged during the 1890s:

  • The debate over regime change in Hawaii in 1893, when the Cleveland administration considered restoring the native Hawaiian monarchy following a republican “revolution” fostered by American planters, who then sought annexation by the United States.
  • The 1896-1898 debate over possible American intervention in the Cuban civil war (or insurrection or revolution, depending on one’s viewpoint), which focused on the desirability and feasibility of removing the Spanish imperial regime in favor of Cuban independence, or some other form of political governance over the island.
  • The “imperial debate” of 1898-1900, in which Americans deliberated whether their national interest and moral authority required them to go beyond the removal of a European power in the Philippines and replace it with a regime, temporarily or permanently, under American political control.

These debates were driven, in a conceptual sense at least, by those who considered themselves “large Americans,” heirs to the expansionist tradition of the pre-Civil War Republic, which tradition they believed had to be revived and adapted properly to the conditions of the time. The unification of the nation in the years following the Civil War, and the increased thereat represented by European colonialism, both allowed and required the United States to become more “outward-looking.” Events in East Asia, as well as in Latin America, directly affected the economic strength and security of the United States. To retain its freedom of action, America would have to increase substantially its naval forces, and enhance its ability to operate away from its shores by acquiring strategically located bases. There seemed to be no good reason why America’s Manifest Destiny should halt at the eastern edge of the Pacific Ocean. War was an essential, even beneficial element of national policy; the maintenance of armed forces and the most modern weapons were the best guarantees of peace and security. The United States did not necessarily have to expand territorially, save in a few strategically critical locations (e.g., Hawaii), but it did have to widen its methods of political control outside of the continental United States. These methods included protectorates and neo-colonial arrangements (by and large, the large Americans insisted that they did not favor establishing European-style empires). To the extent that foreigners, whether colonial powers or natives, resisted American political intervention, they would be subject to more forceful action and a change of regime. Alfred Thayer Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt, and Henry Cabot Lodge were among those promoting the “large” view, but it was supported by substantial figures from the old-line Republican Party, such as Benjamin Harrison.

The opposing intellectual camp went under various names, including little Americanism, anti-expansionism, anti-imperialism. As a rule, those in this camp did not regard the activities of the European powers as representing a significant threat to the security of the United States. The economic well-being of the nation was best secured through free trade, a small, non-offensive navy, and no overseas bases. Any further territorial expansion (with the possible exception of Canada) was unnecessary, and would only involve the United States in foreign entanglements. Armaments were the cause of war and hence ought to be limited or abolished, through international agreement or unilateral actions. The anti-imperialists emphasized morality rather than self-interest as the core of their argument: the principles of the American regime compelled policymakers to consider themselves first with the welfare of the citizens of the United States, and to avoid interference with or intervention in the affairs of other nations, especially when it came to the constitution of their regimes. The health of the American regime would be undermined if it attempted to emulate the Europeans and establish a full-blown empire in which it would rule other peoples without their consent, or deny other peoples their right to national and political self-determination. The leading anti-imperialists included individuals from various backgrounds and from both major political parties, including Carl Schurz, David Starr Jordan, and William Jennings Bryan; but this outlook was particularly identified with the Democratic Party.

In the practical, political arena, as this Working Paper will demonstrate, the division between these two foreign policy schools was not quite that clear-cut. Many of those who considered themselves anti-imperialists, such as Bryan, came to support what they regarded as humanitarian intervention in Cuba, which meant the overthrow of the Spanish colonial regime. Bryan, for tactical political reasons, also supported ratification of the Treaty of Paris and with it the acquisition of the Philippines. Some of those who might have counted themselves in the large American camp, such as Harrison, opposed the acquisition of those islands because they were “a bridge too far.” Overshadowing the debate was the enigmatic William McKinley, who was considered to be aligned with the business interests of the Republican Party, which by and large opposed war, and who promised “no jingo nonsense;” yet led the nation into conflicts in which regime change was actively promoted. At the heart of these debates, and shifting points of view, was the possibility, held by Roosevelt and Bryan among others, of an enduring and decisive domestic political realignment based in large part on foreign policy issues.

This Working Paper offers a modest and selective reprise of these debates, designed to bring out the major arguments of both camps, and to demonstrate the complexity of how the debate played out in the policy world. The Paper will also bring out, again selectively, the broader elements – e.g., strategic, constitutional, moral – that framed the debates.