NSF grant allows Rice political scientist to pursue study of foreign-policy change after political transitions

NSF grant allows Rice political scientist to pursue study of foreign-policy change after political transitions

Rice News Staff

New governments are often quick to alter the foreign policy of their predecessors. The government of Ayatollah Khomeini dramatically shifted Iran’s policy toward the United States after the 1979 revolution that overthrew the shah. But sometimes political change doesn’t lead to a different foreign policy. Ten successive U.S. presidents have largely kept intact the economic sanctions imposed by President John Kennedy on Cuba in 1962.

Brett Ashley Leeds, the Albert Thomas Associate Professor of Political Science, received a National Science Foundation grant to study the often complex relationship between a nation’s political change and its foreign policy. The goal, Leeds said, is to “look more systematically at instances in which (political transition) does and does not produce change in foreign policy.”


The task is formidable. Leeds will collect data on leadership transitions in all countries from 1919 to 2008. She and her collaborator, Michaela Mattes, a 2006 Rice Ph.D. alum and currently assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt, plan to study the background of each of these transitions to determine whether the new leaders represent different societal groups than their predecessors or are supported by the same groups. They will then study the effects of these leadership transitions on a variety of foreign-policy behaviors, including United Nations voting, fulfillment of alliance obligations, adherence to peace treaties and compliance with International Monetary Fund commitments.

Even the most autocratic governments must weigh domestic pressures when they design their foreign policies. “Existing theories of international relations are much better at explaining consistency in (foreign-policy) behavior rather than predicting change,” said Leeds, because they fail to take into account domestic political influences on change in foreign policy.

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Government leaders have an incentive to pursue policies — including foreign policies — that are in the best interest of the political coalition that keeps them in power, Leeds explained. Changes in that leadership that do not reflect significant changes in those domestic coalitions should have relatively little effect on the country’s foreign policy, she added, citing the transition from the administration of Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush in 1989 or the handing over of power from Fidel Castro to Raul Castro last year. “Certain kinds of domestic political systems are better at maintaining consistency in foreign policy” than others, Leeds said.

By the same token, “when leaders who depend on the support of different groups than their predecessors assume power, the opportunity for domestically motivated policy change arises,” Leeds said, pointing to Fidel Castro’s revolutionary triumph over Fulgencio Batista or George H.W. Bush’s electoral loss to Bill Clinton.

While the domestic context can propel dramatic foreign-policy change, it can also constrain it. In systems that do not vest complete control over foreign policy with the executive, for instance, other political actors influence a nation’s relations with the outside world. Moreover, Leeds noted, formal international commitments like treaties and alliances may limit a new government’s range of actions.

Leeds and Mattes hope their research will assist policymakers in three important ways. First, it can help predict abrupt changes in countries’ foreign policies. Second, it may add to the discussion over the costs and benefits of democratization for international relations. (Some have argued that democracies tend to adopt more consistent foreign policies; this research may illuminate that debate.) And finally, it will add to the understanding of the role of international law in international relations. If governments are less likely to change foreign policy because they have entered into formal legal agreements, it would demonstrate that international law does indeed constrain behavior.

Leeds and Mattes will lead parallel teams from Rice and Vanderbilt that will collect and analyze the data. They plan to begin presenting their findings in 2011.

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