Tough transitions

Edward Mansfield Photo credit: Candace diCarlo

Democracies don’t go to war with democracies. So says conventional wisdom, at least.

The idea that democracies are inherently peaceful has been an underpinning of American foreign policy for at least the past two decades, as American presidents from Reagan to Bush II have used the notion to support democracy-building efforts—some military, some not—in authoritarian nations around the globe.

Most recently, the maxim has been put to use in Iraq, where President Bush insists a democratic government could not only heal a war-torn nation, but also bring much-needed stability to the Middle East.
Unfortunately, says Penn Professor of Political Science Edward Mansfield, democracy building isn’t all that simple. More importantly, he says, fledgling democracies aren’t necessarily all that peaceful.

In his latest book, “Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War,” Mansfield and co-author Jack Snyder argue that if nations transitioning to democracy don’t have strong courts, a viable press, organized political parties or other public institutions, they are unlikely to succeed in their transitions. Worse, such nations could also become sources of global violence.

Q. This idea that democracies are inherently peaceful is interesting. Where does it come from?
A. The idea has been around for a while. One of the taproots for a lot of these arguments is Immanuel Kant’s “Perpetual Peace,” and that’s been around for centuries. There had been some sporadic work done in the 60s and 70s on this topic, but the idea generated a lot more momentum in the 80s. Some of that had to do with developments within the academic study of international relations and some had to do, quite frankly, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, and the feeling that these countries were moving in a democratic direction, and that this [suggested a chance for] peace in the world. It was a moment that needed to be seized and there was a feeling that we were on the precipice of something that was unique and good. In a lot of ways, it has been unique and good, it’s just that it’s been a rocky road in a lot of places, and the democratization process hasn’t worked quite the way people thought it would.

Q. When did democracy building first become a goal of the U.S. government?
A. Really, it’s the Clinton administration. That’s not to say that people didn’t have an interest in promoting democracy before that. They did. The Reagan administration, the first Bush administration did some, but they were much more cautious about this. It was much more of what we in the international relations community would refer to as a “realist foreign policy.” But the Clinton administration made promoting democracy a part of its foreign policy agenda. The Bush administration, of course, is doing this in a much more muscular way. But if you’re asking when you begin to see this big push toward democratization become most apparent, it comes with the Clinton administration. Indeed, there was a State of the Union address in 1994 where he actually says democratization in other countries is important, and we’re going to promote it.

Q. Do you think it’s really possible for nations such as the U.S. to build democracies in other nations?
A. It’s a good question, and it’s very complicated. The way I would respond to that is this: It’s possible, but you need a variety of things in order to make it work. First of all, you need a compliant public. People generally aren’t so thrilled about having a foreign power come in and reorganize their political life. This was one of the problems in Iraq. The Bush administration really thought we were going to be hailed as liberators in Iraq, and they were shocked that people started shooting at us after Saddam was deposed. You can have the best intentions in the world, but that doesn’t mean people are going to necessarily be pleased when you come in and decide what their form of government is going to be.

Q. In your book, you argue that nations need certain strong institutions for democratic transitions to succeed. Explain what you mean.
A. You need certain prerequisites for democracy to work. You need a relatively highly educated public. You also need certain political institutions, and this is one of the points that we emphasize in the book—that democratization in the absence of certain institutions can really yield a mess. Part of what ends up happening in these cases is that the autocratic government falls, but there really isn’t a democracy to replace it, though there is pressure for liberalization. You have all these groups that have been shut out of the political process that are now energized and mobilized. You have the elites from the previous autocratic regime that are still trying to cling to power. And they’re all competing, but you don’t have any significant means for organizing this. There aren’t any political parties in place. There isn’t a court system that you can turn to. The police are corrupt. The military are either involved in politics or are at each other’s throats. You don’t have journalists who know how to vet opinion. You lack all of that.

So what do these folks do? They’ve got to find a way of outbidding the other possible leaders, and often you have very heterogeneous societies that are ethnically divided and people are at each other’s throats, so you turn to nationalist appeals. You say, “We may not like each other, but you know what? We hate them even worse. I will make sure we take care of them.” That becomes the basis for rule in a lot of places.

Q. And, obviously, that would create an unstable regional situation, correct?
A. Where that happens it can be explosive. Because of course the them hears this, and they think, “Uh-oh, this is bad news,” and then they must lash out back at you. Or you get backed into a corner, because your whole basis for rule is behaving aggressively toward them. If you don’t push the pedal to the metal on that, your constituents are going to start saying, “You got soft on that.” Now, this is a highly simplified version of things, but you see a lot of this. That doesn’t mean it goes on everywhere. In some cases, there are actually usable institutions left over from the previous government that can be used—in South Africa, for example, it was a very smooth transition. In South Korea, ditto. In Chile, ditto. In certain Eastern European nations as well, to different extents, there were some cases where there were at least some usable institutions left over that could be utilized to avoid the worst excesses of these problems.

Q. Iraq, it appears, had none of these.
A. Iraq had none. In a sense we reinforced all the ethnic divisions instead of trying to spend some time trying to bridge them. A lot of the parties are ethnically constituted parties. The police and militia are riven with these conflicts between Shia and Sunnis. The Kurds are off on their own, and the government is supposed to somehow reflect all of this. Meanwhile, surprise, surprise; now you have Iran and Syria involved, and as of today, the Saudis announced they’re getting involved too. They’re not going to stand idly by while a power vacuum is created and the Iranians walk right in. I think we thought that we could build the institutions necessary to support a democracy in relatively quick order. And I suppose under the right circumstances, it might be possible to do so, but the circumstances in Iraq were certainly not right.

Q. At the outset of the U.S. operations in Iraq, were there people in your community who believed the effort might work?
A. I think there were certainly differences of opinion. There are a lot of people who are surprised at how badly this has turned out. That’s probably the fairest way to put it. I’m not sure there were a lot of people who thought it was going to be possible to, in relatively short order, turn Iraq into a well-functioning democracy. But there are certainly people who believed that it could be made into something functional over the medium term, and that a lot of the sectarian violence that is now going on could have been avoided. But there were also an awful lot of people who were worried that exactly what is going on now could play itself out.

Q. So here’s the big question: Can Iraq be saved?
A. I don’t think it can be turned into a viable democracy in the short term. If you’re asking whether, in 20 years, Iraq might be a functioning democracy, then yes, it’s possible. But a lot of other things are possible, too. It could at that point be two countries. Or three countries. Or just a mess. The worst solution, though, is that Iraq turns into a Somalia, where it’s just one step away from anarchy. If Iraq becomes a failed state, then there’s a real problem. You can’t, in a region as volatile and strategically important as the Middle East, have a country the size of Iraq in that sort of position. I’m not big on predictions, because I’m usually wrong, but I think what is most likely is a sort of semi-democratic situation. To have something that would look like, to the people of the United States, a well-functioning democracy, I think is a long way in the future. The most important thing is to avoid having a situation where the government collapses, where either the U.S. is placed in a position of having to in effect put Iraq into receivership and govern it, which is clearly something the U.S. has no interest in doing, and is probably unwilling to do, or at that point just withdraw and allow this to turn into a full-fledged civil war that is very likely to involve outside powers into the situation—the Iranians, possibly the Turks. Because then, this could be an awful mess.

Originally published February 15, 2007.

Originally published on February 15, 2007