In the wake of the Cold War, a new term entered the lexicon of international politics: “regime change.” It replaced an older, more familiar one: “revolution.” Revolution had roughly the same meaning as regime change, but it had a very different connotation and had outlived its usefulness. 

Both terms refer to a change (usually by force) not only of a specific government but also of the kind of government. Revolution, however, with its origins in the great French upheaval of 1789, came to be associated in the 20th century with the goals of the global left. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and of orthodox Communism virtually everywhere, the word, as commonly understood, lost its relevance. While revolution was presumed to come about through the uprising of the oppressed masses, moreover, what came to be called regime change in the late-20th and early-21st centuries occurred through the exertions of the armed forces of the United States. Most important, for most of the 20th century, successful revolutions led to governments dominated by Communist parties, as in the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and Fidel Castro’s Cuba. The American exercises in regime change, by contrast, had as their goal the installation of stable, decent, peaceful democracies.

If revolution, as the word was defined in the last century, has become obsolete, its successor, regime change, has become discredited. The American military engagements in Haiti, Afghanistan, and Iraq not only failed to yield democratic governments; they proved, in the last two cases, costly to the United States, both in lives and treasure. The American public has, consequently, little appetite for more such ventures.

Yet there is another type of regime change to consider: the peaceful replacement of dictatorship by democracy through the efforts of local people rather than the American military. That’s occurred with heartening frequency over the past four decades, and, in 2019, it has greater relevance and importance than ever. Such regime change offers the solution to the most dangerous challenge facing the United States and its friends and allies. That challenge comes from the ambitions of three major countries to overturn the existing political arrangements in their regions and to expand their own power and influence at the expense both of their neighbors and of the United States. All have already used force for this purpose. In Europe, Russia has seized Crimea and invaded and occupied eastern Ukraine. In East Asia, China has laid claim, contrary to international law, to virtually the entire western Pacific, where it has built artificial islands on which it has placed military installations. In the Middle East, Iran has funded, trained, equipped, and directed military forces outside the control of the local government in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. At best, these revisionist ambitions portend Cold War–like political and military competition in the three regions. At worst, they will lead to wars involving the United States.

These aggressive policies have, in each case, a variety of sources. But they have one major cause in common. Each of these aggressive governments is a dictatorship operating in what is still a predominantly democratic world, and each feels an acute need for domestic support and political legitimacy. To be sure, the rule of the current Russian, Chinese, and Iranian governments rests ultimately on coercion, but Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and the Iranian mullahs are wary of relying on coercion alone to remain in power. The leaders of Russia and China, in particular, are known to monitor public sentiment carefully, if not obsessively.

For the purpose of generating the support they believe they need, however, these dictators have few options. None can afford to indulge in the most common source of 21st-century legitimacy: democracy. For genuinely democratic politics would sweep them all away. Ideology was an important basis for autocratic regimes’ claims to rule in the 20th century. But ideology is unavailable to Russia and China, which have renounced, in the first case, and effectively abandoned, in the second, orthodox Marxism-Leninism (and in China, Maoism as well). The Iranian regime retains an ideological foundation—the Persian-Shia version of Islamic fundamentalism—but few Iranians outside the regime believe in it.

Authoritarian Russia and China, although not Iran, have relied on economic success to produce support for, or at least acceptance of, their rulers; but their economic performance and future economic prospects have taken a turn for the worse. The Russian economy depends on the sale of energy. The price of oil reached record heights during Vladimir Putin’s first stint as president, which generated income that underpinned the high levels of popularity that he enjoyed. The price has since fallen and is unlikely to return to its peak, which makes Russia’s economic outlook a gloomy one. As for China, the ruling Communist Party presided over three decades of double-digit annual growth based on the large-scale movement of labor from the countryside to the cities, massive investment, and ever-growing exports. That model for growth has run its course: China needs a new one that, even in the best of circumstances, will not deliver the extraordinary advances to which the Chinese people have become accustomed.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has seen only economic failure since its establishment in 1979, and unashamedly so. Its founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, said that the regime he installed was “not about the price of watermelons.” Still, the country’s poor economic performance, now aggravated by American sanctions, has increased the public’s already considerable discontent with its clerical rulers.

In the face of this common predicament, the three revisionists have turned to the one source of support on which they believe they can rely: aggressive nationalism. This underlies the policies that all three use to threaten their neighbors. In this way, aggression is a form of regime protection. Putin, Xi, and the Iranian clerics tell the people they rule that such policies are designed to achieve regional dominance, which, for reasons of history and culture, they deserve. The Russian, Chinese, and Iranian governments also justify their aggressive foreign policies as necessary to ward off the hostility of their enemies—above all the United States—which, the dictators tell their subjects, are bent on weakening, subverting, and even destroying Russia, China, and Iran.

Putin claimed that the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine in 2014, which triggered his invasion of that country, was part of an anti-Russian plot by the West. The Chinese government has repeatedly denounced what it alleges are American efforts to thwart China. The mullahs have, from the outset of the Islamic Republic, made opposition to the United States, “the Great Satan,” a cornerstone of their rule.

Such evidence as there is suggests that this political tactic works for all three regimes. Putin’s aggressive policies in Ukraine and Syria, for example, have raised his popularity among Russians. The successful employment of such policies in bolstering each regime’s standing at home increases the temptation to employ it repeatedly, which makes Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East increasingly dangerous places.

In sum, the roots of the greatest international problem that the United States and its friends and allies face—the Russian, Chinese, and Iranian challenges to the global order—lie in the nature of the regime that governs each country. The solution to the problem, it follows, is to change those regimes, and to change them not just to any other form of government but specifically to democracy. Democracy here means liberal democracy, a combination of popular sovereignty, whereby the people choose the government through free and fair elections, and liberty—the protection of religious, economic, and political freedom. The historical record shows that, in the modern era at least, liberal democracies seldom if ever go to war with one another. This is so because democracy’s basic features counteract the age-old incentives for armed conflict. Popular sovereignty, for example, imposes a check on the government’s freedom of action, including the freedom to wage war. Democracies resolve domestic differences by peaceful means and so are inclined to act similarly with respect to international disputes.

None of this is to say that the spread of democracy guarantees the elimination of war: Nothing can do so. What has come to be called the “democratic peace” theory does not rise to the level of an iron law of politics because there are no such laws. It is to say, however, that were Russia, China, and Iran to become full-fledged democracies, each would surely conduct less belligerent foreign policies toward its neighbors. 

A democratic Russia would not devote itself to carving out a traditional sphere of influence on the territory of the former Soviet Union against the wishes and at the expense of the now-independent countries there. It would remove the forces it has dispatched to or sponsored in eastern Ukraine and would agree to hold an honest plebiscite on the Crimean Peninsula to determine whether Crimea’s inhabitants wish to belong to Ukraine or Russia. A democratic China would likely adhere to the widely accepted international laws and customs governing the western Pacific rather than disregarding them and claiming virtually all of the East and South China Seas as its sovereign territory. An Iran in which a democratically elected, rights-protecting government replaced the rule of the clerics would not attempt to subvert other Middle Eastern governments or sponsor terrorism across the region and around the world. A world in which the Russian, Chinese, and Iranian governments were democratically chosen and dedicated to the protection of their citizens’ religious, economic, and political liberties would not necessarily be entirely peaceful. But it would be considerably more peaceful, and far less dangerous, than the world of 2019.

Existing democracies, however, cannot put democracy promotion at the center of their foreign policies because they have no reasonable prospect of accomplishing it. There are two reasons for this. First, because Russia and China are continent-sized, nuclear-armed countries, no outside power can forcibly change their ruling regimes. Imposing regime change on Iran, by contrast, is possible, and the mullahs’ pursuit of regional domination in the Middle East and of nuclear weapons to achieve that aim may ultimately trigger a war with the United States and its allies that puts an end to the Islamic Republic. In no Western capital, however, including Washington, is there any enthusiasm for such a course: The United States will certainly try to avoid having to follow it.

Second, even if the dictatorships in Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran were to disappear, there can be no assurance that liberal democracies would replace them. Democracy cannot simply be transplanted anywhere and everywhere: Particular values, experiences, and institutions are required to support it, and it is far from clear that Russia, China, and Iran possess them to the necessary degree. The United States did not, after all, succeed in creating smoothly functioning democratic governments in Haiti, Afghanistan, and Iraq even when occupying them. To take a more pertinent example, the end of Communism in Russia did not lead to the growth of liberal democracy but rather to Vladimir Putin’s non-Communist kleptocratic dictatorship.

The reality of democratic peace in conjunction with the disappointing experience of democracy promotion in the post–Cold War era yields a vexing condition. The good news is that a formula for peace exists. The bad news is that the world lacks a way of putting that formula into practice.

How, then, should the United States and its allies proceed? A realistic policy begins with the recognition that autocracies can become democracies, even when other countries do not engineer the transformation. The past four decades have seen the peaceful disappearance of dictatorships around the world, although no distinctive political term has emerged to describe this supremely important pattern. The overthrow of the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974, the “People Power” uprising in the Philippines in 1986, the end of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe in the annus mirabilis 1989, and the “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in the 21st century all demonstrate that dictatorships can and do fall peacefully, and through the efforts not of outside powers but of the people they govern. Regime change is entirely possible without the American use of force. As the experiences of Portugal, the Philippines, and Central and Eastern Europe also demonstrate, autocracy can give way to stable democracy, although this is not inevitable.

Moreover, pro-democratic sentiment is not absent from Russia, China, and Iran. Indeed, an ongoing struggle is occurring within each of these countries between the forces of democracy and the current government’s efforts to suppress them. It takes place, for the most part, beneath the surface of events, since the governments punish open displays of pro-democracy advocacy. That struggle occasionally breaks through to public awareness, however, as with the protests against Vladimir Putin’s rigged elections in Russia in 2011, the large demonstrations in Tiananmen square in Beijing and other Chinese cities in 1989, and the Green Movement in Iran in 2009.

In all three countries, the one certainty about the internal, subterranean tug-of-war over democracy is that it will continue. In a world where democracy is the most common form of government, and at a time when the richest parts of that world are democratic, no country can avoid the domestic pressure to follow their example. Russia, China, and Iran have long histories of autocracy, and the rulers of each are counting on being brutal and shrewd enough to resist the global democratic current. 

While the United States and its friends cannot win the struggle for the pro-democracy forces, the existing democracies can assist these forces by adopting and updating three policies that contributed to the peaceful outcome of the Cold War. First, they can and should carry out a policy of containment toward the three regional revisionists to prevent them from dominating their home regions at the expense of their neighbors. This is precisely how the democracies approached the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Second, they can and should search for ways to weaken the Putin, Xi, and clerical regimes at the margins, as they also did during the Cold War as part of the policy of containment. Last, the democracies should do everything possible to strengthen their own institutions and enhance their own economic performance, the better to provide an attractive counterexample to the three autocracies.

The main work of regime change, however, falls to the people of Russia, China, and Iran. Only they can bring it about, and nothing is more important than their doing so. For on their capacity to bring popular sovereignty and liberty to their countries depend the prospects for peace on Earth.