Earlier this week, I asked why democracies would try harder to win their wars. Of course, harder is a relative term. BdM2S2 (or BdM and Smith, depending on the citation) argue both that democracies have an incentive to do their best to win and that autocracies have very little such incentive. I focused primarily in that post on reasons why I'm skeptical of the former claim. Now I'm going to tell you why we should doubt the latter part of BdM2S2's story.
My argument is twofold. First, one of the more celebrated results of selectorate theory itself casts doubt on the notion that autocrats can only win wars by taking money away from core supporters, in contrast to the argument put forth by BdM and Smith in The Dictators Handbook when discussing the Six Day War (see previous post). Second, we should only expect autocrats to find themselves fighting a war when they genuinely care about the issue in dispute.
First, one of prominent results of selectorate theory is that leaders of small coalition systems behave like kleptocrats (see chapter 4 of The Logic of Political Survival). As a result, such leaders (the ones we typically have in mind when we refer to autocrats) tend to amass rather significant personal fortunes. For example, it appears that Qaddafi stashed away $200 billion. Other members of what BdM and co-authors call the Haul of Fame include Indonesia's Suharto, Zaire's Mobutu, the Philippines' Marcos, and Sudan's al-Bashir. In contrast, democratic leaders are forced to spend just about all their available resources on satisfying their supporters. It is precisely the inability to amass a rainy-day fund that might help be drawn upon to dole out extraordinary compensation to key supporters during hard times that explains why democrats tend to lose power following economic crises and natural disasters, while dictators manage to cling to power.
So why doesn't the rainy day fund come into play during war? Why are we supposed to believe that Egypt lost the 1967 Six Day War because trying hard to win would have required Nasser to deprive his key supporters of the kickbacks to which they'd grown accustomed? Are we to believe Nasser couldnt' have simply drawn upon his own personal wealth to fund the war effort, without requiring any real sacrifice from his supporters?
At this point, you are no doubt thinking, yes, fil, but you forget that we assume that all any leader cares about is remaining in power. It might be true that Nasser could have tried hard, if he wanted to, but unless he had to try hard in order to remain in office, there's no reason he would.
To which I would respond with two points.
First, selectorate theory tells us nothing about what leaders like to spend their money on. It is no more unreasonable to think they might not want to influence policy outcomes purely because it brings them personal satisfaction. The world does not lack for wealthy billionaires who spend their own money trying to shape political outcomes (e.g., George Soros, the Koch brothers), and I suspect that most of us who (sadly) are not billionaires would consider spending at least some of our vast fortunes on changing a few things if we were.
Put differently, it is no more appropriate to say that Nasser would or would not want to use his money to see Israel defeated than it is to say that Nasser would or would not want to use his money to purchase a mansion.
The authors are quite clear, and appropriately so, in stressing that they do not assume that the reason leaders wish to hold power is purely for its own sake, or purely to use the levers of power to enhance their ability to buy mansions and attract wives. Rather, they assume that all leaders must first and foremost concern themselves with remaining in power because even those who do genuinely hold policy preferences must be in power in order to control policy. As the phrase "good policy is bad politics" makes clear, their story for why we observe failed policies in autocracies is not that autocrats don't care, or are bad people, but that they couldn't make things better even if they wanted to.
Of course, just because the core assumptions of the theory do not tell us what leaders will want to spend their money on, we might nonetheless ourselves impose the auxiliary assumption that very few dictators will in fact care much about the outcomes of international crises. Sure, they are permitted to do so under the core assumptions of selectorate theory. But that doesn't meant that they do.
Fair enough. And I won't say it surprises me that few dictators draw upon their personal fortunes to build hospitals and schools, though they certainly could.
But consider this: if autocrats don't care about the issues in dispute in the wars they fight, why the heck are they fighting them in the first place?
The trivial answer is that BdM2S2 apparently don't believe in anarchy, at least not in the sense that IR scholars typically use the term. I say this because their proof of the democratic peace fundamentally relies on the assumption that the interactions preceding war can be characterized as a unilateral choice between accepting some "negotiated" outcome (whose terms are given exogenously and need not be accepted by both players) and war. So if Leader 1 is democratic and Leader 2 is autocratic and Leader 1 doesn't like the terms of the "negotiated" agreement, then we're going to get a war.
But let's set that aside.
BdM and Smith have also argued that democrats often buy policy concessions from autocrats using foreign aid (see here and here). Given the inefficiency of war, and given that democrats often find it easy to get what they want from autocrats anyway, must we not assume that when a democratic state goes to war with an autocratic state, it clearly indicates that the autocratic leader did in fact care about the issue? Why refuse to take bribes only to go to war, then once in war, despite having resources available that could have produced victory, sit back and watch your army get crushed? Even if we believe that war threatens the ability of autocrats to remain in power less so than it does democrats (and it's not clear that this is the case), that's not quite the same as explaining what could possibly possess an autocrat to fight a war it didn't have any interest in winning when there were alternatives available that would have avoided whatever costs the autocrat will incur, and perhaps even put money in their pockets besides.
If you ask me, it simply will not do to say that the reason why Israel defeated Egypt and Syria in 1967 is that the latter didn't care about the issue and had no reason to try to win. Nor do I find it persuasive to argue that, as a general rule, autocrats fight wars haphazardly, just for kicks, without really caring about the outcome. I do think that, all else equal, it would seem like the assumption that autocrats don't care much about the outcomes of international crises is a reasonable one. But if that really was true, I don't see why they'd ever fight wars. The very fact that they do tells me that they must, at least in some cases, genuinely care about policy outcomes.