2016 Volume 2016 Issue 184 Pages 184_59-184_73
This article explores domestic political conditions under which dictators choose to go to war. Drawing on recent growing literature about authoritarian foreign policy behavior, it seeks to establish an alternative logic of dictator’s war choice and test its observable implications against the case of China’s war with Vietnam in 1979.
This article first critically reviews recent quantitative accounts on autocratic conflict behavior. In doing so, it makes it clear that despite attempts to embrace new insights from comparative authoritarianism, most extant research still focuses on identifying what type of authoritarian regime is more or less likely to initiate international conflict, falling far short of investigating specific causal mechanisms shaping authoritarian conflict behaviors.
Taking account of preferences and survival strategies of dictators, this article then presents two distinct logics of autocratic war choice. First, dictators have an incentive to capitalize on the use of force to obtain private goods to distribute to the core constituency within the regime. Second, dictators are incentivized to go to war when he faces a political crisis which he thinks may be circumvented by the conduct of war. Equally important in dictators’ calculation are the political risks that a crushing defeat or large-scale military and popular mobilization may entail.
China’s war with Vietnam in 1979 offers a useful case study to examine polity effects on dictator’s war choice. Using newly available materials, the article clarifies the political condition under which Deng Xiaoping decided to initiate and execute the war as it unfolded, confirming that the logics for dictatorial war choice discussed above are empirically valid.