The Limits of Democratization

Will promoting democracy bolster national security?


George W. Bush may cite Jesus as his favorite political philosopher, but his ideas on foreign policy bear a distinctly Kantian imprimatur.

In his second inaugural address, Bush offered a clear and succinct articulation of a foreign policy vision that makes fostering democracy abroad the key to domestic security. "The concerted effort of free nations to promote democracy," he said, "is a prelude to our enemies' defeat."

Many apparently viewed this as a radical new strategy—perhaps understandably, given Bush's aggressive interpretation of what "democracy promotion" entails—but it is in many ways continuous with Bill Clinton's idea of "engagement and enlargement." Underlying both presidents' strategies is a theory known to international relations buffs as the democratic peace hypothesis, the ur-text for which is Immanuel Kant's 1795 essay "Perpetual Peace." (Kant was at pains to emphasize that he supported "republicanism" rather than pure "democracy," but as few today explicitly advocate pure democracy, the distinction isn't especially relevant in this context.) Kant argued that, in addition to being a great good for its own citizens, democratic self-determination at the national level was uniquely conducive to a stable, peaceful system of international relations:

The republican constitution, besides the purity of its origin (having sprung from the pure source of the concept of law), also gives a favorable prospect for the desired consequence, i.e., perpetual peace. The reason is this: if the consent of the citizens is required in order to decide that war should be declared (and in this constitution it cannot but be the case), nothing is more natural than that they would be very cautious in commencing such a poor game, decreeing for themselves all the calamities of war.

In addition to the check on belligerent leaders offered by risk-averse electorates, democratic peace theorists added the idea that democracy's constitutive norms of compromise and deliberation would metastasize into the international arena, replacing armament with argument as a means of resolving disputes. Others emphasized the pacifying effects of trade, which increases the interdependence of nations and thereby raises the opportunity costs of aggression. In the great classical liberal Richard Cobden's formulation, "commerce is the grand panacea." (Modern readers may recognize the idea in the form of Thomas Friedman's "golden arches theory," based on the observation—falsified by NATO's bombing of Serbia—that no two countries with McDonalds franchises had ever gone to war.) And our post–World War II experience seems to bear out the hypothesis: That democracies don't fight each other is now, for many, all but a truism.

For liberals (in the broad sense) the idea that the best domestic political order is also most hospitable to friendly relations between countries is an extremely appealing postulate, the political equivalent of discovering a breed of spinach that happens to taste like crème brulée. But while it has a fixed place in the international relations liturgy, the democratic peace hypothesis is scarcely without its critics. Among the more forceful is Princeton's Joanne Gowa, who in her 2000 book Ballots and Bullets argues that the democratic peace is largely an illusion, an artifact of Cold War–era alignments of interests rather than some deep fact about democratic polities.

Gowa notes that in democracies, even when conflict is contrary to the interests of the population at large there exists the potential, familiar to students of public choice, for policy "capture" by narrower interest groups, while even in undemocratic regimes competing power groups (military officials, for example) may provide a less formal but no less potent check on leaders. And Gowa is largely concerned with conventional military conflict, where the demands of mobilizing an army impose a certain unavoidable degree of transparency. When conflict is by proxy, as with American interventions in El Salvador or Nicaragua in the late 20th century, democratic scrutiny is apt to be lessened.

Trade's pacifying power, meanwhile, may be a victim of its own success: As the world becomes more globalized, Gowa suggests, the relative harms of disrupting commerce with any one trading partner are diminished. But even assuming that troops are less likely to cross borders when goods do, Gowa finds that the empirical case for thinking that trade volume between democracies is consistently higher than between other kinds of states is weak.

All this might seem perfectly academic in light of that one intransigent fact: Democracies really don't seem to fight each other. But when Gowa disaggregated the historical data, a very different picture began to emerge. In the century preceding World War I, the evidence for a "democratic peace" was, she found, nonexistent: Pairs of democracies were as apt to fight as any other two countries. The apparent democratic peace following World War II, she suggests, is better explained by the alignment of interests produced by a bipolar world in which all international relations stood in the shadow of the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Gowa's position remains highly contentious among academics. But less controversial is the observation that, however stable relations between mature democracies may be, the transition to democracy can be highly destabilizing. Jack Snyder, a professor of international relations at Columbia University and a critic of Gowa's thesis, argues that in addition to its many benefits, democratization can empower nationalist elites who radicalize previously quiescent populations. Radical Islamism (ummah-ism?) is a distinct phenomenon from nationalism, of course, but much of Snyder's analysis seems likely to cross-apply.

If the shift to democracy is not properly "sequenced," Snyder says, with a gradual strengthening of media, civic, and bureaucratic institutions preceding elections, it can be a "recipe for disaster." Snyder cites the case of Burundi in 1993, when rushed elections led to a wave of ethnic conflict that killed some 50,000 people. In his book From Voting to Violence, Snyder reports that while the average risk of a given state's being at war in any particular decade has averaged about one in six over the past two centuries, it is one in four during the decade following a country's democratization. And those countries were more likely to be attacking than defending.

Research that focuses explicitly on the problem of terrorism also finds that the move to greater political openness can be a mixed blessing. A study by Alberto Abadie of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government found a nonmonotonic relationship between political freedom and the incidence of terrorism. (Abadie considers domestic as well as international terrorism, but even from a strictly national security–focused perspective, this makes a certain amount of sense: As terror theorist Ayman al-Zawahiri explains in Knights Under the Prophet's Banner, the choice to target the "distant enemy" in the United States was seen as a mobilization strategy prompted by the failure of terror networks that first emerged to strike the "nearby enemy," corrupt regimes in the Muslim world.) Unsurprisingly, Abadie found the lowest incidence of terrorism in the freest countries—but the relationship was not linear at lesser levels of freedom. As one moves from the most authoritarian political systems (China, Cuba, Belarus) to somewhat greater levels of freedom, terrorist threat actually increases, peaking for states where political freedom is roughly at the level found in countries like Yemen, Morocco and Bahrain. Only for states as politically free as, or freer than, Honduras or Bolivia does terror risk fall below that of the most authoritarian states.

None of this should be taken as a brief against political freedom, which is clearly a good in itself, whether or not its instrumental value as a security tool has been oversold. But the case for democracy promotion as a guarantor of national security is neither as ironclad nor as straightforward is it might appear at first blush. In light of the problems associated with political transitions, especially when a well-grounded sense of urgency gives rise to a misplaced impulse to rush those transitions, there is a strong case for patience and caution. Democracy promotion may be an important part of a national security strategy, but it would be unwise to rely on it excessively or exclusively.

Democracy's chief virtue is that it gives the people what they want—often "good and hard," as H. L. Mencken famously added. In much of the world, alas, "what they want" does not, in the near term, include our safety or happiness. We assume that it does at our peril.