This week’s topic for both my grad and undergrad human rights courses is “foreign policy and human rights promotion.”  On the list of readings-not-on-last-year’s-syllabus is this little gem: “Enter the Dragon!  An Empirical Analysis of Chinese versus US Arms Transfers to Autocrats and Violators of Human Rights, 1989-2006” by Indra de Soysa and Paul Midford.  It appeared in last December’s issue of ISQ.  Drop what you are doing now and read it!  Seriously.  It is thought -provoking, made me want to download their replication dataset and play with it before class, and made my students argue aggressively with each other in class.[1]

Consistent with most of the larger literature on foreign policy actions for human rights/democracy promotion as “organized hypocrisy,” the authors of the paper argue that foreign policy rhetoric rarely corresponds one-to-one with reality.   So, really, as almost a completely empirical exercise, the authors then examine whether more arms transfers, as captured by the Stockholm Institute for Peace Research’s (SIPRI) data and weighted by the importing country’s GDP, from China and the United States, are associated with regime type, human rights performance, and whether a country is involved in a civil war.  Just to be clear: their dependent variables are regime type, human rights, and civil war and they are looking at arms transfers as the key independent variables.  The authors look at both a global sample and at a sample of just African states.  I won’t give all of their SURPRISING results completely away – but, their results differ greatly from the common foreign policy rhetoric (and human rights NGO rhetoric):

“We do not claim on the basis of the empirical results here that China seeks to promote democracy and human rights. Rather its policy of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other states may naturally lead Beijing to sell more weapons to democracies because they may prefer Chinese arms to expensive American arms. By the same token, we are not saying that the United States is trying to undermine democracies that respect human rights, but rather that some autocracies are strategically more important for the United States than the liberal agenda of promoting democracy and human rights.” (853).

The authors then conclude with some calls for future research to explain this “skewed elite perception” between human security outcomes and armed transfers (853).  Why would the popular media and human rights NGO message be so anti-China if their arms transfers aren’t associated with “bad” outcomes?  I’m postulating here that the answer has much to do with agenda-setting in the popular media and funding/historical legacies of NGOs. Hopefully, future research picks up this exiting topic!



[1] My three biggest criteria for what is a good article.  And, I like a little research-inspired student UFC, as long as there isn’t a Jon “Bones” Jones in the group who can just whoop-up on everyone.  Unfortunately, both parties backed down today.

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