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U.S. Policy Responses to Potential Transitions: A New Dataset of Political Protests, Conflicts, and Coups

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Early in the first term of the Obama administration, as popular uprisings spread from Tunisia to Egypt and then to much of the rest of the Arab world, American officials publicly encouraged democratic reforms. In Cairo, President Obama declared, “These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.” But supporting them everywhere turns out to be tricky, as the unfolding of the various Arab uprisings has well demonstrated. However worthy, democratic and humanitarian goals are difficult to promote amid the complicated politics and competing priorities of U.S. foreign policy. Intervening in the internal politics of other countries is fraught with risks and potentially unpleasant consequences. But enough policymakers believe that intervention can work that the option (or temptation) remains on the table for those occasions when foreign political crises do arise.

This report presents the results of research on U.S. policy responses to potential transitions: protests, armed conflicts, and coup attempts that threaten a country’s political leaders seriously enough to trigger a defensive response of some kind. They are “potential” transitions in the sense that the attempt by challengers to effect major changes in leadership might succeed in removing the regime, government, party, or top leader from power—or the attempt might fail. It might result in immediate reforms or a gradual transition to democracy—or it might lead to bloodshed. How has the United States historically responded to the possibility of a regime or leadership change in a foreign country?

The CSIS Potential Transitions Dataset (v1.0) has new data on 396 protest movements, minor armed conflicts, major armed conflicts, and attempted coups worldwide between 1989 and 2010. The dataset, available at, includes all instances of social or political disruptions in which an incumbent regime, government, party, or leader was faced with a political or social opposition movement (peaceful or violent) that was significant enough to warrant some material, defensive response. Each event was divided into event-years (one event during one year); the full dataset includes 758 event-years. For each observation, data were collected for 20 new variables describing how the incumbents responded to the challengers and 31 new variables describing whether and how the United States responded to the events. In addition, 18 significant interventions by the United States were studied to tease out details of the decision to respond.

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