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Dictators, Ministerial Cronyism, and International Conflict
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My dissertation examines an underexplored actor on the world stage: the personalist dictator. Personalist dictators are leaders that have consolidated all domestic power for themselves. Idi Amin, Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, and Benito Mussolini are all examples of these heads of states. Their names often live in infamy, etched in the history books with the blood they spilt. Although these regimes are usually remembered for the violence they exhibited within their own regimes, recent studies have found that these leaders also show a proclivity for conflict at the international level. In this dissertation, I ask, “Why are personalist dictators so conflict-prone?" To answer this question, I show how domestic institutions vary across autocracies in response to leaders’ incentives and how this variation can be used to explain the propensity of international conflict. In particular, I investigate the role that advisers play in conflict occurrence and outcomes. Often, leaders rely on individuals, such as defense ministers, to give them assessments on the potential outcomes of conflicts. Little attention has been paid to the effects these ministers have. However, if we believe that war may be the product of miscalculation of capabilities or resolve, then we might expect that states with less capable advisers are more likely to experience international conflict. Using this logic, I argue that personalist dictators are more likely to experience conflict, because they are more prone to employ incompetent advisers and ministers. My theoretical argument starts with the assumption that personalist dictators live in constant fear of being overthrown. In comparison to other leaders, the despot can expect that his removal will more likely end in a negative post-tenure fate: exile, imprisonment, or death. The reason for this propensity is that a personalist leader’s legitimacy is uniquely tied to personal traits. So long as the despot is living, he poses a threat to his successors. The extreme costs for removal and the proximity of the likely culprits result in the dictator’s regime being characterized by paranoia and mistrust. In order to protect himself, the personalist dictator surrounds himself with small, exclusive circles of crony advisers whose loyalty is ensured through bloodlines or long-standing friendships. In utilizing this lever, the dictator trades bureaucratic independence and competence for loyalty and survival. This loyalty-competency tradeoff results in a personalist leader’s inability to get accurate and honest assessments of his opponents from these advisers, making him more likely to underestimate his opponents, experience war (particularly ones in which his state is the weaker party), and incur worse conflict outcomes. After constructing an original cross-national dataset of over 1500 defense ministers from 1945 to 2005, and performing in-depth examinations of the Gamal Abdel Nasser and Saddam Hussein regimes, I provide evidence that personalist leaders are more likely to place cronies in advisory positions, and these advisers undermine the ability for personalist leaders to form accurate war-time assessments, leading to bargaining breakdowns, and subsequently, war.
Radtke, Mitchell Thomas (2017). Dictators, Ministerial Cronyism, and International Conflict. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from