The Myth of Democratic Peace

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The Myth of Democratic Peace

by Leon Hadar by Leon Hadar

If you've been listening to the recent "democracy is the way to go" sermons by US President George W Bush and his advisers, you’ll have to conclude that embracing "democracy" — a concept that is open to different interpretations — is the cure for most of humanity’s ills, ranging from political violence and economic underdevelopment to male baldness and erectile dysfunction. ("Keep the spark alive…become the best guy… for her… take Democraticialis….").

Even in the more modest version, the global democratic crusade launched by the White House and inspired by the Wilsonian neoconservative ideologues adopts what the neocons consider to be an axiom of international relations, that democracies rarely, if ever, wage war against one another. Translating that maxim into policy terms means that Washington has the obligation based not only on moral considerations but also on pure self-interest to promote democracy worldwide as the most effective way to establish international peace and stability.

Indeed, in his second inaugural address Mr. Bush has proclaimed that "the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands; the best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world." He and his foreign policy aides have argued that one of the main rationales for ousting Saddam Hussein and occupying Iraq — especially since no weapons of mass destruction were discovered there — was the need to rid Mesopotamia of a tyrant and establish a democratic system and pursue similar regime changes and advance freedom in the rest of the Arab Middle East.

The Bushies argue that democracy would not only respond to the legitimate demands of those living under authoritarian systems, but also reduce the chances for domestic instability and international wars, and in that context, would retard the spread of terrorism. Not surprisingly, the Pentagon and the State Department have become major instruments for nation building and democracy promotion, as most members of the policy community in Washington seem to subscribe to a catchy slogan: "Make Democracy, Not War."

The debate hasn’t been on whether the spread of democracy helps to strengthen the foundation for international peace, but on the most cost-effective way to promote political freedom.

But two American academics and political thinkers are challenging now this conventional wisdom. In a new book, Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War (The MIT Press, 2005), Edward D Mansfield of the University of Pennsylvania and Jack Snyder of Columbia University seem to pull the intellectual rug from under the rationale presented by the Bush administration for what it’s doing in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East — arguing that states in the early phases of transition to democracy are actually more likely than other states to become involved in war.

Drawing on both extensive qualitative and quantitative analyses hat they and other political scientists have conducted, Prof. Mansfield and Prof. Snyder demonstrate that emerging democracies tend to have weak political institutions and are especially likely to go to war. Leaders of these countries attempt to rally support by invoking external threats and resorting to belligerent, nationalist rhetoric and slogans. They point to this pattern in cases ranging from revolutionary France to contemporary Russia. One of the most interesting case studies is the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.

Bloody chapter

As the mostly peaceful and relatively prosperous communist Yugoslavia started transitioning into democracy, the leaders of all the major ethnic groups in that country, like Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and Franjo Tudjman in Croatia, succeeded in exploiting nationalist sentiments as a way of getting to power and mobilizing public support through an open democratic process, including free elections, creating the conditions for a civil war that has turned out to be the bloodiest chapter in European history since the end of World War II.

The thesis is backed by complex statistical models but is in its essence quite simple: Be afraid, very afraid of new democracies as they are more likely than not to be unstable and warlike. The authors provide a mostly "institutional" explanation for that phenomenon, noting that such countries often lack the rule of law, organized political parties and professional news media and other political and legal institutions that can place constraints on the political leaders. In a period of sweeping political changes and uncertainty that characterizes the transition to democracy, many voters aspire for a sense of identity and security and elects populists and demagogues who promote bellicose nationalism that lead to civil and inter-state wars.

Pointing to the Bush administration’s campaign to build up democracy in Iraq and spread it to Palestine, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the authors warn that "unleashing Islamic mass opinion through a sudden democratization could only raise the likelihood of war." In a way, the political changes in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East have become a political science laboratory to test the author’s theories, and it seems that they have been corroborated by what has been happening in these countries.

In Iraq, the recent parliamentary elections helped to consolidate the power of the leaders of radical Shiite parties and those who represent the Kurdish separatist national movement; not surprisingly, the Arab-Sunnis also voted in support of their sectarian representatives. If anything, the ousting of Saddam Hussein and the free elections has led to more political instability and ethnic and religious violence and is creating the conditions for a Yugoslavia-like civil war. In Egypt, the members of the anti-western Moslem Brotherhood movement have strengthened their position in the last elections, while in Palestine, most observers expect the radical Islamic Hamas to gain more power in the coming parliamentary vote there.

Unstable states

And let’s not forget that last year’s presidential election in Iran — which is clearly more open than in, say, Saudi Arabia — has ended with the victory of the most radical anti-American figure in the race. In short, as the authors suggest, the collapse of the old authoritarian regimes in the Middle East has given birth to weak and unstable states and to the rise to power — through free elections — of warlike ultranationalist politicians.

Prof. Mansfield and Prof. Snyder focus most of their discussion in their book on emerging democracies and suggest that mature democracies tend to be peaceful. Hence, their implication is that Washington and other western powers have an interest to help create the foundations of functioning political, economic and legal institutions in emerging democracies before moving to hold elections there.

But they don’t explain why would, say, Iraqis or Palestinians accept such an arrangement, that is, postponing free election until their country would be ready for democracy? Who will make that decision and who will take control of the country’s security until a democratic elected government comes to power sometime in the future?

Moreover, it seems to me that you don’t need to apply complex statistical models to figure out that the main cause of wars in the modern age, since the time of the French Revolution, has been nationalism, and that democracy is the most loyal ally of nationalism in a sense that it indeed empowers the people to rally behind their nation, ethnicity, religion and tribe and help drive into power populist figures that thrive during times of civil wars and wars between nation-states.

If anything, the history of Europe in the 19th century suggests that authoritarian governments were more successful in maintaining a relative peace in the continent for close to a century. Similarly, the most peaceful European states during World War II and the ones that avoided entering into the war were Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, and Turkey, three non-democratic regimes, and Switzerland that granted women the right to vote only in 1971(!).

Perhaps the time has come for an innovative political scientist to conduct a research to determine whether — and I know that’s not very PC — non-democracies are actually more peaceful than democratic states.

Leon Hadar [send him mail] is Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore and the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). Visit his blog.

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