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When is Regime Change OK?

Words: Rob Levinson

As the crisis in Venezuela grows, the topic of “regime change” has emerged as part of the discussion. While few are supportive of the increasingly authoritarian regime of President Maduro, and even more are concerned with the humanitarian crisis plaguing the Venezuelan people, many are wary of the idea that the United States is actively trying to remove a foreign leader from power — a policy of regime change.

Our track record on regime change, especially in Latin America, is not exactly one to be proud of. By one count, between 1947 and 1989 the US attempted to change a foreign regime 64 times and actually succeeded 39 percent of the time. The outcomes of even these successful efforts were mixed, sometimes ranging from bad to truly horrific. Still, there are some cases, our covert and overt support of the Solidarity movement in Poland for example, where things seem to have worked out rather well.

Given this decidedly mixed record, we have to ask: Is a policy of regime change always a good idea? Never a good idea? Or sometimes yes and sometimes no? And if the US is to embark on such a policy, how do we know when it might be right or wrong?


First, we should try to define what exactly we are talking about when we say, “regime change.” Forcing change as a result of a full-scale war is something different. We changed the regimes in Germany and Italy and Japan after World War II, but those were adjuncts or subsets of much bigger policy choices regarding war and peace. Nobody conceived of winning a war against Germany and then leaving the Nazis in power. Likewise, at the other end of the spectrum, we shouldn’t confuse the sort of normal foreign policy efforts that happen every day that seek to modify a foreign state’s behavior with a policy of trying to change their regime. We are imposing economic sanctions on adversarial nations such as Russia, China, and North Korea and even tariffs on imports from allied nations like Canada. While some might like to see different people in power in places like Russia and China and North Korea or even Canada, our policies are not designed to topple their rulers or destabilize their political structure. Countries employ a variety of incentives and disincentives (otherwise known as carrots and sticks) to alter the behavior of other states. This is normal foreign policy, not regime change.

Setting those boundaries, a policy of regime change is confined to those times when the United States, through a variety of policy mechanisms, potentially both covert and overt, actively seeks the removal of the leadership or the political power structure of another nation-state. This will involve the removal of at least the chief executive of that state from power but may extend beyond it to other key figures or the entire political power structure in a given country. The methods employed to achieve this goal may involve all elements of national power including diplomatic, economic and informational tools. Military operations may also be part of the effort but will fall short of full-scale war.


Now that we know what we’re talking about, we should ask: Is it ever permissible? At first blush, the short answer is no. The modern system of nation-states got its start with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that ended the Thirty Years War in Europe. Those agreements are seen as establishing the inviolate sovereignty of each individual state. Somewhat ironically, because he was involved in a lot of regime-changing himself, Henry Kissinger wrote:

The Westphalian peace reflected a practical accommodation to reality, not a unique moral insight. It relied on a system of independent states refraining from interference in each other’s domestic affairs and checking each other’s ambitions through a general equilibrium of power. No single claim to truth or universal rule had prevailed in Europe’s contests. Instead, each state was assigned the attribute of sovereign power over its territory. Each would acknowledge the domestic structures and religious vocations of its fellow states as realities and refrain from challenging their existence.”

The United Nations Charter incorporates this principle of Westphalian Sovereignty, “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” A solid case can be made, grounded in a lot of precedent and international law, that states ought not to be trying to change the regimes of other states, period. As Kissinger noted and the UN codified, a world which legitimized nation-states trying to interfere in the domestic affairs of one another was a recipe for constant conflict and turmoil. Sovereignty has to be sacrosanct.

In Venezuela the socialist orientation of the regime, harkening back to Cold War days, is enough for some to justify regime change — but that really doesn’t hold up.

But, and there’s always a but, a counterweight to Westphalian Sovereignty has emerged known as the Responsibility to Protect. After atrocities in the Balkans, Rwanda and elsewhere, in 1999 the Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan stated in his annual address:

“The core challenge to the Security Council and to the United Nations as a whole in the next century: to forge unity behind the principle that massive and systematic violations of human rights — wherever they may take place — should not be allowed to stand.”

Annan’s speech began a process which led in 2005 to a document and a UN resolution which stated:

“Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

The resolution went on:

“The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”
When peaceful means might prove inadequate to the task the UN members stated:

We are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations.

The UN set a high bar for intervention “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity,” and envisioned collective action approved by the security council, but as Annan envisioned, it put a chink the armor of immunity from foreign interference that states heretofore enjoyed at least de jure if not de facto.

This is a serious departure from the principle of Westphalian Sovereignty. What happens inside the borders of one state, now became the business of other states. Nation-states might still enjoy a presumption of sovereignty but sometimes, in some places, when things get really bad, foreign nations might step into another country to prevent further harm. Regime change isn’t specifically called out or approved, but as we have seen in many cases the International Criminal Court’s (which the US does not participate in) jurisdiction extends to state leaders accused of serious crimes against their own people. They can be removed from power and put on trial and incarcerated. It is clear that while regime change may not be the preferred way to deal with a crisis, the international community does condone it under certain circumstances. Pushing for the downfall of the regime in Venezuela may or may not be wise, but precedent and international law don’t take the option completely off the table.


Examples of the US seeking a regime change for more parochial interests are plentiful. The books “Bitter Fruit” or the more scholarly The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention give an account of how the US engineered a coup against a democratically elected government in Guatemala in1954, primarily to protect the interests of the United Fruit Company. In Venezuela the socialist orientation of the regime, harkening back to Cold War days, is enough for some to justify regime change — but that really doesn’t hold up. Nobody is suggesting that socialist governments in Europe should be removed — or even the rather anti-US regime of Evo Morales in Bolivia. We may not like some of the policies of many other governments, or their ideological orientation, but these reasons are insufficient to justify regime change. The bar is considerably higher.

The idea of harm to the local population also leads to another concern that, in addition to bolstering a claim of legitimacy for the action, is an important practical consideration. If we’re going to try to change a regime there had better be a significant number of people in that country that want it gone as well as, and ideally, some sort of alternative waiting in the wings to assume power. In Venezuela’s case, Mr. Guaido is the President of the National Assembly and claims to be the legitimate president of the country and is recognized by an increasing number of countries. This claim may be debatable but he is presenting himself as a plausible alternative should Maduro step down. How effectively he and his allies might be able to rule and solve the country’s problems is very debatable.

Along with a high bar for the harm being done, the UN also envisions the Security Council acting “in cooperation with relevant regional organizations.” We may not seek UN approval for what we do, but having the support of other regional nations adds substantial legitimacy to US actions. If we were acting purely in our own self-interest other states, legitimately concerned for their own sovereignty, would be far less likely to go along. In the 1983 invasion of Grenada, the US cited the cooperation of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States to bolster the justification for the operation. Throughout the Chavez and now Maduro period in Venezuela, the nations of Latin America have been very reluctant to back harsh measures against the regime. Even now, the so-called Lima Group of Latin American nations has threatened to take Maduro to the International Criminal Court but is reluctant to impose new sanctions.

In addition to international law and questions of legitimacy, there is an additional consideration in making the case for regime change that is particular to the United States. We are a democracy and prosecute even our own citizens for trying to interfere in our elections and other democratic processes. As the so-called “Leader of the Free World,” it stands to reason that we ought to grant other democracies the same courtesy. President Woodrow Wilson once said, “I am going to teach the Latin American republics to elect good men!” It wasn’t a good idea in his day and it still isn’t. We may not like who foreigners elect but unless they become dictators, we probably should learn to deal.


Assuming the case is strong enough to pursue regime change, how should we do it? Again, the UN provides some insight “appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means.” All the normal tools of statecraft come into play. Diplomatic condemnations, individual and collective economic sanctions, humanitarian relief, political asylum for opposition figures, and other measures ought to be the first arrows we reach for. The president, with support from Congress and the American people, can employ these measures openly, legally, and legitimately. In 1986 Congress, overriding the veto of President Reagan, but with significant domestic support, passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (CAAA). This law imposed punitive sanctions on the white minority government in South Africa, helped galvanize international pressure on the regime, and ultimately contributed to the removal of that regime when Nelson Mandela was elected to the presidency in 1994. It would be hard to imagine a better example of legitimate and successful regime change than the South African case. A detestable regime was pressured to step down through the use of economic and diplomatic means, backed by an international consensus. A peaceful transition occurred and a legitimate and highly respected leader took over. If every case were like South Africa, this article probably wouldn’t be worth writing.

Where things get tricky is when we go beyond the traditional open tools of statecraft. Is it wise to provide covert assistance to internal opposition groups? In Poland in the early 1980s, the CIA along with the AFL-CIO, the Catholic Church, and the National Endowment for Democracy provided various forms of support to the Solidarity movement in Poland. Notable in this effort was that the support was provided in a kind of hands-off approach, giving the Polish activists what they asked for rather than trying to direct their efforts. This likely avoided one of the biggest risks in covertly assisting foreign opposition groups. If the assistance is exposed, the legitimacy of domestic opposition can be tainted as a foreign-directed effort, undermining popular support. Financial and informational support, and today perhaps even cyber-related efforts can be helpful, but there is risk. Ultimately you can never be sure of who you are dealing with, what their motives really are, or how US assistance might be used. It may be legitimate to seek the downfall of certain regimes, but overt or covert support for internal opposition can be very risky. Moreover, this is when that Westphalian Sovereignty line is definitely crossed, and when we cross it we set a precedent that other states may do the same to us or our allies.

The risks associated with assistance to internal opposition groups becomes even more pronounced when lethal means are provided. We’re all aware that Osama bin-Laden got his start working with the CIA fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. In addition to the problems he later caused us, recovering the Stinger missiles we provided to the Mujahedeen posed a lengthy and expensive problem that we may not have completely solved. Redeye missiles provided to the Nicaraguan Contras posed a similar problem. The provision of lethal means to internal opposition only amplifies those risks posed when non-lethal means are provided. Who are we dealing with? What are their motives? And what will they do with what we give them? The risk that they will kill innocents or eventually American citizens or soldiers is not zero. Still, George Washington might not have made it without French support in arms and men.


Finally, we must consider the most important factor, what comes next? If we’re going to try to take down a regime, we better have a pretty good idea of who will next take up residence in the presidential palace and be prepared to assist the new leaders. Guys like Mandela are probably the exception, not the rule. It’s hard to imagine a worse leader with a more legitimate case for removal than Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. His successor, Mr. Mnangagwa may prove to be little better. The admonishment to be careful what we wish for would seem to apply. The devil we know may indeed be superior, or at least tolerable, when compared to the one we don’t.

So what’s the right formula? If there is a non-democratic regime, committing atrocities with substantial organized domestic opposition and there is a regional or preferably broader consensus that it needs to go, perhaps regime change efforts would be legitimate. If we head down that path, employing normal foreign policy tools makes sense. Taking the next step to covert non-lethal and particularly lethal means to assist internal opposition is very risky and should probably only be considered in the most extreme circumstances and only as a last resort when all non-lethal means have been tried and proven ineffective.

Rob Levinson is a retired Lt. Col in the US Air Force with over 20 years of service as an intelligence officer. He is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and served in Latin America, the Middle East and South Korea as an intelligence officer, foreign area officer, commander and politico-military affairs officer.

Rob Levinson

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