What’s next in Venezuela? (Foreign policy-wise, of course.)

The Hugo Chavez era has ended in Venezuela, and I’m not going to wade into what’s already an extensive public debate about his legacy and what impending change means for Venezuela itself (see, for example, this, this, and this). Being the IR conflict guy that I am, I’m going to address a different question: what can we expect out of Venezuela’s next leader when it comes to foreign policy?

Whether Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor, wins the next round of elections or someone else does, we can already say quite a bit about what we can expect from a new Venezuelan leader by knowing only two things: first, the risk of losing office in a coup or revolution, and, second, the simple fact that whoever takes office will be new. Unfortunately, it’s possible that these things add up to a more belligerent foreign policy, at least with respect to regional rivals. (Bizarre fantasies aside, the prospects for war against the US are really pretty damned low.)

Let’s start with the first question. Giacomo Chiozza and Hein Goemans have shown that, while the risk of losing an election doesn’t do much to encourage leaders to fight, the risk of losing office through a coup or a revolution certainly does. So, if Maduro or some long-shot successor finds the risk of being toppled violently high enough, war might be the best way to ensure survival—by sending plotters to the front, cracking down on dissent, or disrupting bases of rebel or dissident support. Whatever the specific strategy, it does seem that an increased risk of a coup or revolution—more so than losing an election, which is easy to survive—also increases the risk of international conflict.

On the second issue, Venezuela will—no matter what—be led by a new executive whose resolve (or willingness to use force) is more or less unknown to Venezuela’s rivals. How does one demonstrate resolve? Words won’t do it, but fighting will. How do one’s rivals gauge one’s resolve? You guessed it: pressing them to see if they’ll fight. I call this “the turnover trap,” in which new leaders have an incentive to demonstrate resolve, hoping to cultivate a reputation for toughness, and their opponents have an incentive to test them—a potentially dangerous combination, both for the escalation of disputes and, as Toby Rider recently discovered, arms races.

So, regardless of who’s in office, Venezuela’s new leader is likely to be a bit more belligerent than a longer-serving leader, to the extent that (a) Venezuelan politics is a violent place (particularly for toppled leaders) and (b) there are opportunities to cultivate a reputation for resolve with one’s rivals. Here’s the good news, though. Not only is the probability of war at any given time pretty damned low, I’d wager that its neighbors, including Colombia, Guyana, and Dominica (all of which have ongoing border disputes with Venezuela) would be more likely targets of any conflict that does break out than the big superpower country way up North. (Rhetoric aside, of course.)

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