The Origins of Overthrow: How Emotional Frustration Shapes US Regime Change Interventions

| October 11, 2022
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The Origins of Overthrow: How Emotional Frustration Shapes US Regime Change Interventions, Payam Ghalehdar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 256 pp., cloth $74, eBook $19.99.

Payam Ghalehdar’s fascinating book The Origins of Overthrow: How Emotional Frustration Shapes US Regime Change Interventions addresses an important puzzle: Why do states often pay exorbitant costs to pursue regime change when it so rarely achieves their objectives? Foreign-imposed regime change, for instance, often fails to improve bilateral relations, successfully advance the cause of democracy, or instantiate lasting regional peace. And yet, according to multiple studies, there have been over one hundred cases of overt foreign-imposed regime change in the last two hundred years (p. 15).

Existing explanations for the puzzle of regime change have pointed to democracy promotion or security concerns as prominent drivers of violent foreign intervention. But Ghalehdar’s book focuses on an altogether different force: leaders’ emotional frustration. The concept of emotional frustration at the heart of the book has three essential and related components, each of which plays a key role in driving states toward the aggressive pursuit of regime change abroad. First, states must hold hegemonic expectations, or the perception that they have attainable goals vis-à-vis a target state, but goals that ultimately challenge the target state’s sovereignty. Frustration derives from the anticipation that one should be able to achieve one’s goals but is unable to. The deeper and broader the hegemonic expectations, the greater the challenge to the target state’s sovereignty and the more likely that expectations will go unmet.

Unmet expectations alone are insufficient for explaining the radical choice to violently intervene in the affairs of others. The second component of emotional frustration is that leaders of the state with hegemonic expectations must also perceive that the goals of the state are unmet due to a deliberate and ingrained maliciousness in the obstructive acts of the target state, rather than an accidental oversight or even ephemeral hostility. The hegemonic state perceives the obstruction rooted in ingrained hatred as irredeemable, meaning that it sees anything less than a full-blown overthrow as unlikely to affect target state behavior.

Finally, the book’s model includes a third essential component: negative affect by the leader of the hegemonic state. The cognitive assessment of ingrained hatred engenders an uncomfortable negative affect, akin to anger but triggered by intentionally thwarted expectations rather than perceptions of injustice. Without the physical and psychological sensation of discomfort associated with negative affect, the frustration felt by leaders of the hegemonic state would be cold and logical and, therefore, less likely to lead to the drastic and violent overthrow of target state leaders. According to the frustration-aggression hypothesis, the discomfort associated with emotional frustration can best be assuaged through aggression. The impulse to minimize this discomfort lays at the heart of the model of regime change in Ghalehdar’s book.

The book’s evidence for the model of emotional frustration focuses on cases of overt regime change by the United States (the U.S. intervention in Cuba in 1906, in Nicaragua in 1909–1912, in the Dominican Republic in 1965, and in Iraq in 2003) and one case of U.S. abstention (the failure to intervene during the Iranian Revolution in 1979). The book justifies this exclusive focus on the United States in two ways: first, by sheer numbers. The United States has been responsible for roughly one-third of all cases of overt regime change in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, so explaining patterns in U.S. behavior goes a long way in explaining the broader set of cases (p. 15). Second, because “emotional regimes” or “emotional communities” govern modes of emotional expression, examining a variety of cases within one emotional community over time helps to control for cross-cultural variation in emotional expression and motivation.

In general, I found the book’s model of emotional frustration and the cases supporting it to be very useful for thinking about why states so often pursue regime change despite the low odds of success. The concept of emotional frustration adds much needed complexity to our understanding of how emotions shape foreign policy and the decision to use force. The book did, however, leave me with quite a few lingering questions that could shape this line of inquiry on regime change moving forward.

First, the book’s model of emotional frustration rests significantly on the perception of hatred and the negative affect it engenders. How hegemonic actors perceive the intentions of target states affects whether they consider diplomatic half measures or opt only for complete regime overthrow. But the book leaves the question of under what conditions we should expect perceptions of hatred to form almost completely unanswered. It presents an abbreviated list of potential forces shaping perceptions of the intentions of others, which includes cognitive biases, belief systems and operational codes, face-to-face diplomacy, and prior emotional relationships between the groups (pp. 35–36). If emotional frustration is as important as the book suggests in understanding regime change, then the next step in this research trajectory would surely be to more deeply analyze the conditions under which perceptions of hatred are most likely to arise and how leader specific such perceptions are. As the book indicates, there is a large literature on perceptions in international relations. Using this literature, we should look at what we can draw from these existing models to guide our predictions about when hegemonic states are likely to violently intervene in the domestic politics of other states.

Moreover, the cases in the book often left me wondering about the relationship between hegemonic expectations, spheres of influence, and security concerns. In addition to describing the role of hegemonic expectations in generating emotional frustration, the book also examines hegemonic desires for expansion and domination as a possible alternative explanation for instances of regime change. In the cases examined, leaders were not, the book argues, motivated by a desire to conquer or to act on imperial ambitions. But can more be said about the content of the more scaled-back hegemonic expectations? The book presents numerous cases of U.S. presidents motivated by a desire to redress incompetence, corruption, and civil unrest in Latin American countries, concerned that instability could spread throughout North America. At the same time that U.S. leaders warned of rampant anti-Americanism in Latin America, they also spoke of their determination to bring peace, stability, and competence to the region. Could this effort to pacify its sphere of influence not have underlying security rationales? U.S. leaders may not have desired territorial conquest, but they did seem to value the maintenance of a relatively peaceful backyard rather than one roiled by civil wars that could bring unrest up to the American border.

Finally, the book leaves unanswered several questions about how we should understand the dissipation of emotional frustration. According to the model, aggression and the forceful expression of agency offer catharsis from the discomfort imposed by emotional frustration. Resolutions achieved through diplomacy or less forceful measures offer little relief. But what exactly is the relationship between frustration and aggression? How much aggression should we expect? And aggression directed at whom? The case of redirected aggression in Iraq following 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan suggests that catharsis need not come from removing the source of one’s frustration. Does it come from the act of aggression itself? Moreover, why had aggression in Afghanistan not proved cathartic enough? Or why did it seemingly take three different episodes of intervention in Nicaragua in the early 1900s to bring emotional relief? If we are to predict where regime change is most likely to occur and when, answering such questions seems essential.


—Joslyn Barnhart

Joslyn Barnhart is assistant professor of international relations at University of California, Santa Barbara, and a senior research affiliate at the Centre for the Governance of AI in Oxford. Her book with Robert F. Trager, The Suffragist Peace: How Women’s Voices Lead to Fewer Wars, will be out by the end of 2022.

To access a PDF of this review, please visit Cambridge Core.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 36.3

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