Why do autocrats engage in war?


Autocrats engage in war for several intertwined reasons:

  1. Resource Expansion: Autocrats often initiate wars to expand their resource base, which can help sustain their rule and fulfill their self-interested desires for wealth. They tend to run inefficient economies that deteriorate over time, necessitating external sources of resources to maintain their regime's stability and to satisfy their cronies 1.

  2. Political Survival: Maintaining the loyalty of their cronies is critical for autocrats. War provides an opportunity to secure additional resources, which they can use to bribe these cronies and stave off any internal threats to their power. If the cronies believe the leader cannot deliver the goods, they may seek to replace him with someone who can 1.

  3. Policy Beliefs: Autocrats have significant discretion and often engage in war based on their personal policy beliefs. This can range from strategic territorial expansion to misguided economic or ideological pursuits 1.

  4. Low Political Cost: Unlike democratic leaders, autocrats face relatively minor political consequences for losing a war, as long as they can continue to deliver benefits to their key supporters. This allows them to engage more readily in riskier conflicts 2.

  5. Unchecked Power: Autocrats typically do not internalize the full costs of war. Their decision-making may be influenced by narrow interests and a lack of accountability, leading them to pursue conflicts that they believe will not significantly harm their personal or political standing 3.

    Calculus of War

    Explore the motivations behind why autocrats engage in war, including expanding their resource base and maintaining the loyalty of their cronies. Discover how inefficient economies and the need for additional resources drive autocrats to become adventuresome in foreign policy.


    Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on Democracies and Dictatorships

These combined factors explain why autocrats are often more willing and able to engage in war compared to their democratic counterparts, who must navigate broader accountability and higher political stakes.