democratic peace

One of the oft-cited reasons for going to war in Iraq is that if Iraq were to be liberated and democratized, the entire area would be pacified, and a domino-theory-in-reverse type chain reaction of flowering peace (and democracy) would result. This appealing but rather delusional bit of wishful thinking has its roots in Democratic Peace Theory – or rather, a gross misinterpretation of it. Democratic peace theory argues that, basically, liberal democracies rarely or never go to war against one another.

The flaw in applying this theory as an argument in favor of democratizing a country or region by force is that DPT applies to established liberal democracies that have formulated their democratic institutions in an evolutionary, internal way. Emerging democracies don’t really fit this bill.

There’s a good review of Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War, by Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder in the latest Foreign Affairs. By studying the history of emerging democracies empirically, they clarify the folly of using the democratic peace theory in this way:

Indeed, by itself, the argument that democracies do not fight one another does not have any practical implications for the foreign policymaker. It needs an additional or minor premise, such as “the United States can make Iraq into a democracy at an acceptable cost.” And it is precisely this minor premise about which the academy has been skeptical. No scholarly consensus exists on how countries become democratic, and the literature is equally murky on the costs to the United States of trying to force them to be free.

Mansfield and Snyder present both quantitative and case-study support for their theory. Using rigorous statistical methods, the authors show that since 1815, democratizing states have indeed been more prone to start wars than either democracies or authoritarian regimes. Categorizing transitions according to whether they ended in full democracies (as in the U.S. case) or in partial ones (as in Germany in 1871-1918 or Pakistan throughout its history), the authors find that in the early years of democratic transitions, partial democracies – especially those that get their institutions in the wrong order – are indeed significantly more likely to initiate wars. Mansfield and Snyder then provide several succinct stories of democratizing states that did in fact go to war, such as the France of Napoleon III (1852-70), Serbia between 1877 and 1914, Ethiopia and Eritrea between 1998 and 2000, and Pakistan from 1947 to the present. In most of these cases, the authors find what they expect: in these democratizing states, domestic political competition was intense. Politicians, vying for power, appeased domestic hard-liners by resorting to nationalistic appeals that vilified foreigners, and these policies often led to wars that were not in the countries’ strategic interests.

The review then takes a look at what this says about our recent experience in Iraq (this is why I love Foreign Affairs book reviews – they are like Applied Science):

This brings the conversation back to Iraq, and in particular the notion that the United States can turn it into a democracy at an acceptable cost. In effect, Mansfield and Snyder have raised the estimate of these costs by pointing out one other reason this effort may fail – a reason that few seem to have thought of. Forget for a moment the harrowing possibility of a Sunni-Shiite-Kurdish civil war in Iraq. Set aside the prospect of a Shiite-dominated state aligning itself with Iran, Syria, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. What if, following the departure of U.S. troops, Iraq holds together but as an incomplete democratizer, with broad suffrage but anemic state institutions? Such an Iraq might well treat its own citizens better than the Baathist regime did. Its treatment of its neighbors, however, might be just as bad.