Thursday, December 08, 2005

Challenging Orthodoxies

We had a stimulating discussion at the magazine today with Jack Snyder (Columbia University), Barry Lynn (New America Foundation) and Edward Mansfield (University of Pennsylvania), on the articles they are publishing in the forthcoming issue of The National Interest--"Prone to Violence" and "Trade, War and Utopia." In this post, let me summarize the Snyder/Mansfield arguments about premature democratization:

Snyder/Mansfield and Lynn are taking aim at two of the article of faith of the utopians--that promotion of democracy and closer economic ties between states guarantees international peace and harmony.

A strategy of forced-paced democratization, Snyder warned, is more likely to engender greater conflict and instability. A stalled transition to democracy in a country with weak political institutions greatly increases the likelihood of internal conflict or external war--between four to fifteen times more likely--than in states that remain authoritarian or are stable, mature democracies.

Mansfield notes that incomplete democratic transitions are the rule rather than the exception--that a state that starts to democratize is twice as likely not to complete the process. This calls into question the U.S. strategy that all one has to do is to "get the ball rolling" and the process will complete itself. Unless you are prepared to devote the resources and energy to manage the process all the way through--with all of the expense that entails--you are better off letting democracy occur under a gradual, evolutionary process.

Snyder and Mansfield note that successful democratic transitions are associated with states that are rich, have high rates of literacy and civic participation and a usable state framework (strong state institutions) and the legacy of previous attempts at democratization (a responsible press, political parties, etc.) In other cases, premature forced democratization usually leads to ethnic and sectarian polarization and inhibits the development of effective, neutral institutions capable of providing good governance.

In such cases, new elites seeking to gain legitimacy or old elites trying to hold on to power are more likely to stoke the fires of aggressive nationalism--significantly increasing the chances of civil war or external conflict.

A policy of nurtured evolution--building institutions, strengthening rational state administration, moving to develop the rule of law and a mass media culture predicated on responsibility--is the precondition to successfully opening the political system.

It'd be also interesting to do some emperical research on the rates of relative democratization (measured by some sort of comprehensive democratization index) in relation to the different institutions present. For example, one could investigate whether a free press has a greater effect on political openness than secure capital markets or whatnot. Either one would find that there are certain institutions that are more adept at transitioning to democracy or that there is no definitive grab bag of civil institutions to choose from when a state begins to take the steps to democratization.
Another point - if one delivers democracy through a brutal invasion and occupation, the perception of the prospective democratizees in the region is going to be quite negative, and may well push them into the hands of just the ideologies that we are trying to get them away from, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for example. There is the possibility of dominoes falling, but falling in the wrong direction - I think Egypt and Syria exemplify such a conundrum.

Could it be possible that the problem is not really being looked at through the right dimensions. Perhaps its not just a matter of institutions or processes that may be missing. If there is an ideology that holds power over masses and draws them away from rational progress that is in their own economic interests, then institutions, processes such as elections etc. and even reasonably developed democracy may not be sufficient to erode support for extremist or terrorist elements. That after all is the ultimate goal - if this is still about reducing terrorism and improving security around the world.
Afghanistan right now stands as an exception to the Mansfield/Snyder argument--and the reason is crucial--because of continued U.S. and Western involvement. The Snyder and Mansfield approach is useful to the extent that it forces us to remember that a commitment to democracy has to be generational and with sufficient resources. My concern is that their argument is going to be used as a reason not to engage in democracy promotion at all.

I agree with the criticism of the neocon approach that all you have to do is start the process and that is that. I think I am more in line with the Krauthammer thesis--in those countries where democracy promotion is tied to U.S. security interests, you have to go the distance.
Thanks for the comments. It also reflects some of the comments from my presentation at the World Affairs Forum. A question was raised about the disconnect between the economic interests of Ukraine and Georgia--which lie with Russia--and the political orientation and desire to leave Moscow's orbit. For the time being it appears that the "What's Wrong with Kansas" question applies here too--that voters are willing to see their standard of living decline for non-material reasons (national independence, for instance).
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