The Ethics of Supporting Regime Change

| February 2014
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How does the ethical foreign policy practitioner develop policy to respond to the upheavals in Ukraine, Venezuela, or Thailand, or deal with the aftermath of changes of government in places like Egypt? How is “consent of the governed” to be assessed and measured? (After all, Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in 2010 in elections deemed reasonably free and fair; his party and its allies won a slim majority of the seats in the Rada in 2012. In Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro beat out opposition candidate Henrique Capriles by an extremely slim margin in an election contest accepted by most as legitimate but contested by the opposition, but the ruling party won most of the municipal elections this past December in a ballot that was a quasi-national referendum on Maduro’s administration.)

Last week, writing in World Politics Review, I noted that:

U.S. effort to bring calm to these conflicts fails because Washington has still not worked out two conundrums that have been on clear display in recent events. The first is whether a government has the right to use armed force to put down a challenge to its rule, especially when the challengers are prepared to use force, even if unequal to what the state can muster. Does the occurrence of popular protests ipso facto deprive a government of any right to claim legitimacy? At what point does a protest cease to be the expression of free speech and begin to inhibit the rightful work of government? … The second is how to treat a democratically elected government that moves in an authoritarian direction—with, as a bonus, a tendency to be less interested in advancing U.S. interests—once in office, as is the case in Venezuela and Ukraine. At what point does an elected government’s efforts to change the rules of the game for the political opposition cause it to lose the assumption of legitimacy, and thus not have the right to counter challenges to its rule?

Add to the mix extremely polarized politics–where the give-and-take of compromise is replaced by the attitude that a 50.1 percent victory at the ballot box gives the winning side carte blanche to impose policy choices that ignore the wishes and desires of the other 49.9 percent–and the situation becomes even more complicated.

In addition, what happens when a candidate for office makes promises that he or she later reneges on or is unable to fulfill? In Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych “won a narrow victory in 2010 because many Ukrainians believed, despite his corruption, that he would be more likely than the politicians associated with the Orange Revolution to finesse Ukraine’s ties with Europe in a fashion that Moscow would accept.” He negotiated an association agreement with the EU but refused to sign it–in part because he was unwilling to accept some of the transparency provisions that would have affected his use of power in Ukraine and in part because Russia, one of Ukraine’s main trading partners, felt its interests would be adversely affected by the agreement’s terms and was prepared to take harsh economic measures in retaliation. This was the initial cause of the EuroMaidan movement last November, and the start of the protests.

Once protests start and unrest develops, what is the proper response to take? Is there an obligation to take part in negotiations to defuse the crisis? In Venezuela, the protestors blocked roads and the government called out the security forces, leading to bloodshed. An effort to have key leaders dialogue to defuse the situation, however, failed when Capriles declined to meet with Maduro, with some analysts concluding that he may wish to keep up the pressure to force Maduro to step down. Is dialogue to be preferred over confrontation–and what is the obligation of both sides to come to the table to negotiate?

There is also the longer-term impact to consider. Robert Dahl’s definition of a mature polyarchy is one that can have several uncontested transfers of power via established constitutional procedures. Georgia, for instance, took a major step forward when Mikheil Saakashvili became, this past year, the first Georgian president to hand over power to a successor in a constitutional manner; his two predecessors, of course, had been driven from power by civil war and revolution. The concern is that political change by revolution can be more destabilizing than political change by established process–with some noting that, in Ukraine, for instance, Yanukovych was already facing a tough re-election bid for 2015. But others argue that if an elected leader begins changing the rules of the game to “rig” the process, then a strict adherence to procedure is not to be preferred and that revolution is justified. This latter approach, for instance, has guided the U.S. recognition of the military intervention to depose Mohamed Morsi as president of Egypt and the removal of Yanukovych as president in Ukraine.


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  1. Nikolas Gvosdev says:

    To update this: it is interesting to see in some of the coverage in Ukraine the discussion about whether a government should be formed in adherence to process or whether you will have “Maidan” governance–essentially submitting political decisions to the approval of protestors in Kyiv for ratification (or allowing the protestors to exercise veto power over choices). Given that the members of the Rada (parliament) hold their mandates as a result of the 2012 elections–but are often connected to different oligarchical groups and are not seen by many of those who protested as being truly representative of “the people”–but on the other hand, the protestors number in the tens of thousands in a country of 45 million–how is true “consent of the governed” to be reached?

  2. JC says:

    Interesting point in light of the announcement of the new government in Ukraine. The New York Times reports:

    As the names of the proposed ministers were read from the stage — with flowers and candles blanketing the square in memory of the dead — it became clear just how completely the ordinary people on the street had seized control of the direction of Ukraine. Desperate for the crowd’s legitimacy, officials felt compelled to present the slate on stage in the square before putting it up for a vote by Parliament.

    The reaction from the crowd was decidedly mixed. …

    Officials in Parliament, led by Mr. Turchynov, had struggled to reach a deal on the interim government in part because of the demands by civic activists that it include a number of people who did not have prior experience.

    • JC says:

      And from the Times today (1 March):

      “You have a revolution, with unelected guys seizing power,” said Andrew Wilson, a Ukraine expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

      “The people on the Maidan might be right, they might be martyrs, and they have good arguments, but no one elected them,” he said. “You need to get real politics and competition and more legitimacy. Of course, the counterargument is just concentrate on economy. But the credibility question is tearing the country apart and the transfer of power cut a lot of corners constitutionally.”