Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The Pandemic Should Kill Regime Change Forever

| July 08, 2020

If the United States can't stop a virus at home, there's no reason to think it should ever try running another country.

A few weeks ago, I tweeted the following: "A country that cannot convince its own citizens to wear masks to halt a pandemic has no business toppling foreign governments and trying to remake whole societies that it barely understands." It received more retweets and "likes" than I usually get, along with the usual amendments, endorsements, and snarky replies. The logic of my tweet should be fairly obvious, but since there are still prominent people and organizations who think regime change is a ready solution to vexing foreign-policy challenges, it's worth unpacking the argument in a bit more detail.

Let's begin with the nation-building side of the equation. Despite what you may have thought as the "forever wars" dragged on, the past 25 years have taught us quite a bit about why foreign-imposed regime change rarely works. For starters, toppling a foreign government inevitably damages or destroys whatever political institutions existed previously (which is the whole point of the intervention), which means there is no effective local capacity to keep order after the old regime is gone. Even a limited operation that removes a tyrant and his immediate henchmen but leaves lower-level officials in place would unravel lines of authority and patronage and thrust the country into uncertain territory.

By definition, regime change also creates winners and losers, and the latter (normally those who held privileged positions in the old order) are likely to be unhappy about their diminished status. They are bound to resist their loss of power and wealth and are likely to take up arms to try to regain their former positions. In societies riven by significant ethnic, religious, sectarian, or other divisions, some combination of fame, greed, or ambition encourage separate groups to begin jockeying for position and power. Foreign powers and transnational terrorist organizations are quick to interfere in various ways, aided by the breakdown of existing institutions and the chaos that is likely to result.

In response, the original intervening power may have to occupy the country and use its own armed forces to keep order while the new government is being formed. Unfortunately, a large foreign military presence usually triggers local resentments and encourages more violent resistance, which in turn requires the occupying power to send more troops to try to suppress it. And because this often takes place in a country that is some distance away from the intervening power and that may lack sophisticated transportation systems, it is expensive to keep the occupying forces supplied and fed....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“The Pandemic Should Kill Regime Change Forever.” Foreign Policy, July 8, 2020.

The Author

Stephen Walt