Democratic versus Authoritarian
structure of Foreign Policy Decision Making:
which one is better and effective?


Generally, foreign policy refers to some artificial policies prescribed over the concerns or interests of the states. Foreign policy analysis is the study of these policies. It helps us to understand and examine the various reasons why policies are formulated and implemented and how this implementation or policymaking is influenced by some determinants, both internal and external.

Where international systems, international organizations, legal personalities, and others are impacted by policymaking, the decisions of this policymaking are largely dependent upon the nature of policymakers, the structure of government, public opinions, and some others. However, regarding the question, I prefer that a democratic structure in foreign policy decision-making is more effective than an autocratic system.

In favor of my argument, at first I will present the strong points of authoritarian structures provided by many scholars. Then I’ll try to point out their criticism of the Democratic system in foreign policy making. And then I will present my logic in favor of my argument about why the Democratic structure of government acts effectively in foreign policy decision-making. But before we delve into the depths, we try to discuss some basic concepts of our discussion.

What is Foreign Policy Decision Making?

When any persons, interested groups, or alliances act in favor of a nation-state, they may have to do it according to the state’s principles; these actions have some global consequences too. The decision-making process in foreign policy remains an important approach to studying such decisions. It is also called the rational choice model, which has been used as a traditional method of foreign policy analysis.

This approach has been developed to deal with the cognition versus structural rational choice model. Among these models were the organizational politics model, bureaucratic politics model, and rationality model theory. In spite of such advancements, both the rational choice model and the cognitive model are very useful in understanding the decision-making process.

Authoritarian Structure of Government

The term authoritarianism was first coined after the Second World War, before the term was referred to as totalitarianism. The ideological dimension of the concept was first developed by Sir Juan J. Linz, and he categorized such nod-democratic rulings into many subsections like sultanistic regimes, semi-constitutional monarchies, and oligarchy systems.

  • Limited level of pluralism,
  • less theoretical and more rational
  • suppression and opposition are some basic categories of Juan’s definition.

 Democratic Structure of Government

Like many concepts in the social sciences, democracy is still tough to define. Because often many military juntas, single-party regimes, and dictatorships also used their rulings as per democratic. Despite such claims, the core idea of public inclusion in the system remains very basic to democratic government and has been flourishing globally.

The Greek word ‘democracy’ has since emphasized the supreme power of ordinary people. It institutionalized the very word ‘freedom’. In policymaking, both domestic and external, the democratic government has to do it through some basic institutions, namely, the legislature, bureaucracy, and judiciary. However, there are some important characteristics of democratic rule:

  • Principles of individual rights and majority rules
  • Decentralization of powers
  • Protection of human rights
  • Fair election
  • Common satisfaction through mutual collaboration

Comparison Between Authoritarianism and Democratic Structure in Foreign Policy Decision Making;

Regarding the question, I prefer that a democratic structure in foreign policy decision-making is more effective than an autocratic system. In favor of my argument, at first I will present the strong points of authoritarian structures provided by many scholars.

Then I’ll try to point out their criticism of the Democratic system in foreign policy making. And then I will present my logic in favor of my argument about why the Democratic structure of government acts effectively in foreign policy decision-making.

Most of the scholars who support authoritarian structures as an effective approach to foreign policy decision-making take the effectiveness and efficiency of autocratic leaders as the foundational causes. Their effectiveness and efficiency depend on their rapid decision-making capacities. Unlike the Democratic system, autocratic rulers may take any decision in a short moment with a little research into the issues. Here, the rationality of the decision-maker plays an important role.

For example, during the 1990s, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait without any consent from his politburo. Here a rational choice of Saddam Hussein was that at the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States would be more busy globally to reclaim its unilateral position, and the past allied history with the USA and the rare geopolitical importance of Kuwait consolidated his mind to invade Kuwait with a quick decision. There are the effectiveness and efficiencies of authoritarian regimes obvious in history, but consequences are another discussion.

In authoritarian structures, rapid decision-making or any decision-making is mostly free from any bureaucratic complexities. There might be some important figures in the structure, but what the ruler says matters. Sometimes these people make some recommendations, but the ruler can easily ignore them.

For example, during the Syrian crisis, President Bashar al-Assad invited Russia into this conflict, though some of his politicians didn’t support this view. But Assad easily made his remarks about continuing the war with its historic alliance with Russia.

Moreover, there has always been a tendency toward compliance in autocratic regimes. The ruler exercises a great deal of power to comply with everyone’s decisions, and if anyone disagrees with this view, they may be put under punishment. If we look at North Korea or pre-Suchi Myanmar, a fear of punishment is or was surrounding the issues of non-compliance with autocratic decision-making.

Some scholars believe that the authoritarian reason is the best one for establishing external relations. Because they are free to choose their partners to be allied with it, they can easily give commitment for the further development of the relations and many others.

Unlike the Democratic system, they don’t have to wait for a great discussion about the past, present, and future of this relationship. They (dictators) go and make the relation; they are bound to no one except their rationality. Moreover, this dictator tries to centralize their power, and this is very significant for continuing this authoritarian system.

And the centralization of power freed itself from the dilemma of the elite and the public. Unlike the Democratic system, these two powerful bodies- people and elite have nothing but  comply over the decision make by the dictators.  The centralization of power helps these rulers keep their external relations and conditions in secret.

However, all the arguments here I mentioned in favor of autocratic rulings are based on their freedom of action as a leader, being less responsible to the public as an elite group, and the centralization of powers, which is used to inform others about their decisions. Now we will discuss the weakness dimension of our Democratic system.

Supporters of authoritarian rule accused that whether authoritarianism or democracy, foreign policy always remains out of popular consent and the interests of interest groups; it is called the Gray Area. A large gap between policymakers and the ordinary public is obvious in a democratic system, and in an autocratic system, it is established norms.

For example, in America, the military industrial farms funded during presidential elections by some candidates and the deal between them in the matter of foreign military expansion, emphasizing exporting capital goods to crisis-prone areas like the Middle East, remain almost secret, though the USA follows a democratic structure.

In addition, many criticize democracy because of its conventional methods of foreign policy decision-making. When any external problems are coming to them, they are always looking for the easiest way to solve them and how to defend themselves from them. Don’t take the risk that an autocratic regime does.

The main criticism of Democratic foreign policy decision-making by autocratic supporters is that the decision-making process in this particular system is very slow and stagnant; this is termed conservative paralysis. Besides being slow in nature, the decision-making process in this system is also very complex. Many actors are interconnected in making any policies for external relations, including special bureaucracy, legislation, think tanks, high-level and interest groups, as well as public concepts. These are the guys who don’t habituate with working under pressure. “Pass the next” tendency is obvious in democratic foreign policy decision-making.

Why Democratic foreign policy decision-making is better than autocratic system? 

One of the great points for Democratic foreign policy decision-making is that the Democratic system believes in progress and modifies its policies, both external and internal, to create a stable system countrywide.

Here, the authoritarian region is less interested in changing the policies on which they feel comfortable. The autocratic government was always happy to hear “Yes, man,” and those who said it got patronized and supported by these autocratic rulers. In democracy, yes or no doesn’t matter; what is exact matters. There are many parties involved in a democratic system, and they often disagree, debate, or support issues.

For instance, the US Senate didn’t support Woodrow Wilson’s plan of participation in the League of Nations and opened the door to the Monroe doctrine. Authoritarian regimes often adopt isolation policies by excluding any external relations. At present, the North Korean isolation stance is part of Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution and era of isolation. But democratic government cannot help establishing more and more external relations.

Which one is better between a democratic structure and an autocratic regime has depended on the commitments of the future from the structures. Here, consistency plays a major role. Unlike the autocratic system, which by default inconsists in decision-making because of its rational interpretation, the democratic structure always prefers and works in favor of consistency in both internal and external policies.

Consistency refers to better and long-term benefits. For example, US foreign policy toward third-world states, except for some, has been consistent for a longer period, and it ultimately produced interests for the US. In addition, US containment policy towards any emerging competitors against the US has remained stable since the Cold War context. India’s persistent policy toward Bangladesh and so Bangladesh to India is obvious, as scholars predicted.

Accountability and constraints have varied the foreign policy decision-making behavior of both democratic and autocratic systems. In a democratic system, accountability is a must during any policy-making process, and when there is external interaction, this policy has to go through a systematic examination. and many actors are assigned to study their affairs and examine how states can benefit from such decisions.

Even the concept of accountability makes conscious decision-makers aware of the consequences of their failures. They have to be accountable to ordinary people, interested groups, and state mechanisms. It is unlike a dictatorial structure where the ruler does as he believes and is not bound to project accountability for his decisions. Moreover, democratic structures are very skilled at tackling any constraints during policymaking. This constraint has tested their organizational politics and their core of state practice.

Some opponents of the democratic structure of foreign policy decision-making emphasized the lack of effectiveness in bargaining. Where authoritarian regimes can be the ultimate protectors of bargaining conditions and can provide facilitation to other parties, democratic government officials enjoy limited power in doing so. Because, in democratic government, the opposition is pressured to make some reservations during negotiations, and even some participants may leak confidential information that is decided during negotiations.

And moreover, both public and interest groups are questioned about the accountability and transparency of the decisions until they are displaced. For example, recently, President Trump’s conversation with President Putin has remained secret, and many discontents have arisen over the issue. It is not only criticized domestically but also by the US’s main allies, the EU, because transatlantic relations have been in crisis for some years and Russia has remained a great threat to the EU till now.

War and conflict are one of the important parameters between the autocratic and democratic structures of foreign policy decision-making efficiency. In an autocratic system, the ruler is more likely to engage in conflicts. In addition, many dictators are from military backgrounds, so they emphasized the enhancement of military powers, sanctioned more budget for it, and showed their hard power by engaging in conflicts.

For example, Saddam Hussein, during his rule, largely enhanced the military capacities of Iraq compared to the rest of the Middle East. So this attracted other foreign actors like the USA to support Iraq in engaging in war with Iran, and during the Kuwait invasion, Saddam Hussein used his own rational interpretation of capturing Kuwait militarily.

But in a democratic structure, we believe in fewer conflicts and a stable system. Unlike the authoritarian system, democracy always supports a diplomatic approach in the settlement of disputes. In this system, to wage a war or to engage in any conflict, it takes a complex amount of work: consensus from bureaucracies, legislation, interest groups, and also the sentiment of the people.

For example, during the Second World War, Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, had to convince both the House of Commons and the House of Lords that Britain must engage in unlimited war or offensive methods of war to counter Germany. But during WWI, though at the beginning Woodrow Wilson wanted to engage in conflicts, the US Senate rejected the view.

War needs resources—huge resources. Unlike autocratic governments, which believe that the resources of the state are their own and use these resources for military preparedness without thinking about what happens next, democratic systems have a provision for accountability. If they engage in war and use their important resources but don’t achieve their political objectives, then it will be disastrous for the country.

For example, in the recent Sino-India border conflicts, the central government of the People’s Republic of China provided Xi Jingping with a full hand in the matter of power practice if needed, but Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hasn’t had such opportunities. Because of COVID-19, India’s socio-economic structure has almost collapsed, so Lokh Shova of India didn’t approve any large military engagement with China.

Interestingly, the Democratic structure discusses not being engaged in conflicts or war, but if they do, they do it with heart and soul, and then the war becomes an unlimited war, where dictators can easily join in conflicts, but these conflicts never turn into unlimited warfare because there is a gap between the rulers and the rest. So that’s why the Democratic system always patronized cooperation and collaboration. And multilateralism—these points will be beneficial for all.


Foreign policy decision-making has some approaches to understanding the very nature of the decisions. This decision may be influenced by both internal and external determinants. Among domestic factors, government structure affects decision-making. Between authoritarianism and democratic government systems, I think democratic structures have better effectiveness than autocratic regimes. Consistency, less conflict,  awareness, skill, accountability, complex filtering, etc. make the democratic structure of government in a better position than that of an autocratic one.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *