Regime Subversion: A Survey

By Janet Malzahn

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Vladimir Putin. Xi Jinping. Saddam Hussein. Drawing on a wide playbook of tactics ranging from abolishing term limits and engaging in diversionary conflict, to ordering the death of journalists, each of these leaders has made his own desperate attempts to maintain the stability of his autocratic regime and keep himself in power. Even democratic leaders, in the United States and elsewhere, must worry about the staying power of democracy. Maddeningly, stability in all regime types is not entirely within the regime leader’s control.

Beyond waging war and diplomacy, states take international affairs into their own hands by attempting to affect the stability of other states regimes. The ability to sow domestic unrest and weaken another state’s government can allow a country to tilt global politics in its favor. An attractive way for many states to deal with a regime hostile to their goals is to seek to replace it with a better one.

For the state looking to meddle in the affairs of other states, there are many tools at its disposal. Intervening in elections, military interventions, and economic sanctions all allow states disrupt their rivals and enemies.

Electoral Meddling

Recent Russian interference in the 2016 US elections has put a spotlight on the most common and effective tool in subverting democratic regimes: electoral meddling. The CIA has confirmed that Russia influenced the 2016 presidential elections. Americans are in uproar: how dares another country deliberately subvert American democracy?!

The hard-to-swallow truth is that interfering in other countries’ elections is a widely accepted move in the foreign intelligence playbook. Steven L. Hall, former chief of Russian operations at the CIA, confirmed this when he said: “if you ask an intelligence officer, did the Russians break the rules or do something bizarre, the answer is no, not at all.”[i]

The United States has been exerting its influence in foreign elections since the Cold War. In 2016, Don Levin, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, found that the United States has intervened in 81 elections between 1946 and 2000. In other words, one in nine elections that took place in that period were subject to American or Russian interference.[ii]

Not only ubiquitous, electoral interference can also be very effective. According to Levin’s research into the electoral interventions of the US and Russia/USSR, on average, an intervention in favor of one political party or candidate increased his or her vote share by 3%.[iii]

Finally, foreign interference in elections can compromise a political regime’s stability. AA regime’s stability depends on the consistency and power of the rules that determine which governs and how. When a foreign power exercises influence over the democratic selection of leaders, the question of who governs is no longer determined by the regime, but by an external actor. According to historian Timothy Snyder, foreign interference then creates unease, as“the technique of undermining democracy abroad is to generate doubt where there had been certainty. If democratic procedures start to seem shambolic, then democratic ideas will seem questionable as well.”[iv]

In democracies, therefore, who is in power is only so important to the essence of the regime. Regardless of which candidate wins an election, the rules and norms of a free electoral process persist. What is most important about electoral intervention is not necessarily the difference in leadership, but the subversion of the democratic institutions that pick them. Foreign meddling undercuts a country’s faith in the democratic process, weakening the norms that stabilize the regime.


Beyond the ballot box, states can use physical force to affect the stability of other regimes. Democracies, particularly the United States, have intervened in dozens of countries abroad to try to transition autocracies to democracies; during the Cold War, these interventions stemmed from the pro-democracy logic of the time. These foreign-imposed regime changes (FIRC) have been a mainstay in American foreign policy, persisting into the 21st century.

George Washington professor Alexander Downes and Boston College professor Lindsey O’Rourke divide these FIRCs into three categories: Leadership, Institutional, and Restorational. Leadership FIRCs, such as such as the 1973 US-supported coup in Chile that put Pinochet in power, replace the leader in power. Institutional FIRCs go further, altering a regime’s institutions and structure. For example, institutional FIRCs can include supporting greater freedom of speech and implementing open elections. Following their defeats in World War II, both Germany and Japan saw their entire states restructured, with only vestigial parts of their original regimes left in place. Restorational FIRCs aim to restore a former leader to power.[v]

Although Leadership FIRCs intend to affect a regime’s stability, they are not always successful. Leadership FIRCs often leave the underlying regime intact, and the intervening country without the influence it had hoped to gain. Downes and O’Rourke find that regimes only change when the country had prior destabilizing domestic circumstances independent of the FIRC. Following an intervention, countries with higher levels of development, ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, and experience with representative democracy are more likely to transition from an autocratic regime to a democratic one.[vi]

Some FIRCs, however, prop up authoritarian regimes and increase their stability. The United States, for example, supported coups in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), and Chile (1973), but then actively impeded efforts to hold democratic elections. Intervening countries can also provide economic aid and military support to lend stability to amenable autocratic regimes.


Short of wielding physical force, countries can use economic sanctions to try to impose their political will. Economic sanctions punish the “receiver” country for behaviors, policies, and actions that either defy the “sender” country’s interests or are incompatible with the “sender” country’s norms.[vii] Encompassing trade restrictions, embargoes, aid limitations, restrictions on capital movement, and even simply antagonistic behavior in large multilateral institutions, sanctions offer a large range of possible tactics.[viii]

The destabilizing threat of sanctions can compel a government to alter its course and change its actions. As Nikolay Marinov, a political science professor at UT Austin, argues, sanctions only work if they generate political costs for the target state’s leader or regime, and these costs must be greater than the costs of compliance.[ix] Costs for a democratic leader can manifest in reduced approval ratings from impacted citizens and fewer votes in an upcoming election. Simply changing who is elected does not destabilize the democracy, merely who sits at its helm, so sanctions have little impact on regime stability. Political costs for an autocratic regime, on the other hand, include domestic unrest and a potentially spiral into a loss of power.

But how effective are economic sanctions? Generally, scholars agree that sanctions are relatively ineffective at achieving their intended political objectives.[x] In their book Sanctions Reconsidered, Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliott examine 174 cases of sanctions from 1914 to 2008. Of these 174 cases, in only 13 cases were sanctions instrumental in fully achieving their explicit goals.[xi]

Sanctions do not come without expense for the “sender” country. Trade brings benefits to all countries involved; when sanctions interrupt this trade, industries, businesses, and citizens at home suffer. Their costliness and ineffectiveness must be weighed carefully.

With little regard for their ineffectiveness as political instruments, the US and many of its allies have increasingly used sanctions as cornerstones of their foreign policies. President Obama successfully used sanctions to help bring Iran to the negotiating table for the 2015 nuclear deal, but his sanctions against Russia were seemingly brushed aside by the Putin regime, perhaps even strengthening its US-bully narrative.[xii]

By nature, sanctions can be very effective at introducing instability into “receiver” countries. After looking at 169 sanction episodes between 1947 and 1999, Marinov found significant evidence that sanctions destabilized the governments of the receiving country, resulting in a change of leader.[xiii] Additionally, in keeping with most of the literature on sanctions,[xiv]democratic executives were more likely than autocratic leaders to be replaced at the hand of sanctions.[xv]


Regimes do not exist in a vacuum: in order to maintain their stability, they must consider international political threats. Foreign policy leaders have used electoral meddling, economic sanctions, and foreign interventions to influence the stability of different regimes since the early 20th century. In the US in particular, prior Cold War logic has fueled a long US policy of engagement abroad to promote democracy in pursuit of a liberal international order.[xvi] Although President Donald Trump has publicly criticized the interventionist foreign policies of previous presidents, asserting a need to focus on domestic policy, recent Russian interference in US elections serves as a reminder that politics is not just a one-player game. To maintain stability at home, states must resist the urge to fix their gazes inward and look at the actions of those abroad.

Illustration by Samantha Malzahn

[i] Shane, “Russia Isn’t the Only One Meddling in Elections. We Do It Too.”

[ii] Levin, “Partisan Electoral Interventions by the Great Powers: Introducing the PEIG Dataset.”

[iii] Levin, “When the Great Power Gets a Vote: The Effects of Great Power Electoral Interventions on Election Results.”

[iv] Snyder, “How a Russian Fascist Is Meddling in America’s Election.”

[v] Downs and O’Rourke, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

[vi] Downs and O’Rourke.

[vii] Galtung, “On the Effects of International Economic Sanctions,” 379–80.

[viii] “What Are Economic Sanctions?”

[ix] Marinov, “Do Economic Sanctions Destabilize Country Leaders?”

[x] Taylor, “Do Sanctions Work?”

[xi] Hufbauer et al., Economic Sanctions Reconsidered.

[xii] Troianovski, “Russia Keeps Getting Hit with Sanctions. Do They Make a Difference?”

[xiii] Marinov, “Do Economic Sanctions Destabilize Country Leaders?”

[xiv] Nossal, “Liberal Democratic Regimes, International Sanctions, and Global Governance”; McGillivray and Smith, “Trust and Cooperation Through Agent Specific Punishments.”

[xv] Marinov, “Do Economic Sanctions Destabilize Country Leaders?”

[xvi] Brooks and Wohlforth, America Abroad: The United States’ Global Role in the 21st Century.