A few days ago Yglesias wrote that China's domestic politics isn't as simple as many outsiders think:
Chinese political institutions aren’t the same as American ones, but what you can see here is that they’re not totally different either. This is not at all dissimilar to the debate playing out over the EPA’s Clean Air Act mandate to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Public officials, whether in China or West Virginia or Ohio, often see it as their job to defend the interests of local employers and businessmen.
Yesterday, Drezner added that these kinds of misperceptions can have an effect on policy:
It's incumbent upon the American foreign policy community to develop a better appreciation of the domestic politics of other countries. But, damn, it would be good if other countries could get a better working knowledge of the U.S. foreign policy community. It's not like we're all that opaque.
This led Farley to write a post about how the U.S. policy community seems completely uninterested in how politics actually works in other places:
In particularly, I was frustrated by the belief, apparently endemic to the US pundit and strategic class, that authoritarian states don’t operate under domestic constraints, and consequently can do whatever they want. It’s not quite right to say that academy has figured out how to successfully integrate domestic politics into theories of foreign policy behavior, but we’ve certainly worked on the question. The policy community, however, seems almost utterly uninterested in this literature, to the extent that “well, Ahmadinejad/Putin/Chirac/Chavez/Milosevic/Calderon/Netanyahu/Kim could comply with our demands, but his domestic coalition would almost certainly fracture, and it’s tough to expect leaders to do things that will lead to their downfall” becomes a repetitive refrain.
I think that this question is the one that I entered into grad school knowing the least about, or at least that I had the least appreciation for. I've since become persuaded that it is probably the most relevant variable in academic or policy work. I think Farley is absolutely right that the academic community has made greater strides than the policy community in this way. That doesn't mean that anything has been conclusively decided; many of the most discussed/cited works are also the most disdained. But where progress has been made it's been by analyzing how domestic political constraints can cause leaders to act in ways that are, quite frankly, perplexing to outside audiences.
I think that, in IR at least, Yglesias' take is the closest to the median position among academics. Politicians in different countries don't face the exact same structural constraints, but they do face similar ones. Political incentives come from interest groups interacting with structural constraints everywhere. The problem with much policy/punditry advice is that they completely ignore interest groups in other countries, because they have no idea what they are. The botched occupation of Iraq can at least largely be understood in this light. (For a crude example, remember that the coalition forces actually were greeted by liberators in some parts of Iraq, but certainly not everywhere.) Those who argue that China is an unstoppable force that will continue to grow 10% a year because they don't have to deal with messy local politics are wrong and should be ignored. (I'm looking at you, Captain Stache.)
In fact, as Rodrik argues in a well-put op-ed, authoritarian regimes face a very uncertain economic and political future precisely because of their local politics:
Democracies not only out-perform dictatorships when it comes to long-term economic growth, but also outdo them in several other important respects. They provide much greater economic stability, measured by the ups and downs of the business cycle. They are better at adjusting to external economic shocks (such as terms-of-trade declines or sudden stops in capital inflows). They generate more investment in human capital – health and education. And they produce more equitable societies.
Authoritarian regimes, by contrast, ultimately produce economies that are as fragile as their political systems. Their economic potency, when it exists, rests on the strength of individual leaders, or on favorable but temporary circumstances. They cannot aspire to continued economic innovation or to global economic leadership.
At first sight, China seems to be an exception. Since the late 1970’s, following the end of Mao’s disastrous experiments, China has done extremely well, experiencing unparalleled rates of economic growth. Even though it has democratized some of its local decision-making, the Chinese Communist Party maintains a tight grip on national politics and the human-rights picture is marred by frequent abuses.
But China also remains a comparatively poor country. Its future economic progress depends in no small part on whether it manages to open its political system to competition, in much the same way that it has opened up its economy. Without this transformation, the lack of institutionalized mechanisms for voicing and organizing dissent will eventually produce conflicts that will overwhelm the capacity of the regime to suppress. Political stability and economic growth will both suffer.
It's easy to observe the political controversies in the U.S., even if (as Drezner notes) other states don't always do it. It may be a bit harder for us to observe everything that's going on in less-transparent states, but it isn't impossible and it doesn't mean that there isn't any politics. China faces huge local political controversies related to the environment, public health, social welfare, demographics, worker safety and renumeration, immigration, secessionist groups, etc. Pretending that they are a unitary actor is foolish.
I've never felt it was my place to proffer policy advice, even into the seldom-read tubespace that this blog lives in. But the last half-century of American foreign policy reveals, to me, the importance of disaggregating the politics of foreign regimes, of closely examining political structures and constraints in other places, and of crafting nuanced policy that takes those factors into account. This is much harder than blustering, of course, but also much more beneficial.