Lessons in forced democracy

A key tenet of current U.S. foreign policy is to export democracy to other countries. So, how well does that really work? What are the critical success factors for one nation imposing democracy on another?

The Washington Post (17 September 2007) reports on new research by political scientists Andrew Enterline and J. Michael Greig that sheds light on this. Enterline & Greig studied 41 cases over the past 200 years and came up with four critical success factors (ingredients) for imposing democracy:

  • large occupation forces early on to stamp out nascent insurgencies;
  • a clear message that occupation forces were willing to spend many years to make democracy work;
  • an ethnically homogeneous population, where politics was less likely to splinter along sectarian lines; and,
  • the good fortune to have neighboring countries that were also democratic, or least didn’t interfere.

The two most successful “forced democracies” — West Germany and Japan — had all four ingredients. They’re in the category of “strong democracies,” which tend to survive at least 15 years and perhaps indefinitely.

Then there are the “weak democracies,” such as The Philippines, which tend to fail within the first 10 years.

Iraq, unfortunately, has none of the four ingredients.

“Trying to create a democracy in an ethnically diverse society is very dicey and historically very difficult, so to expect the opposite in Iraq runs counter to what has happened historically,” Enterline said. “The initial plan was democracy in Iraq would radiate outward and democratize the Middle East, but if you place a democracy in the middle of authoritarian regimes, what we found is the democracy oftentimes fails and becomes like its neighbors.”

One glimmer of hope is if Iraq could somehow mimic India, which has sectarian divisions but nevertheless has a strong desire for representative democracy.

History indicates that you only get one chance to impose democracy.

[S]hould the U.S. effort to impose democracy on Iraq fail, Enterline and Greig’s historical data show that the chance of reestablishing democracy there will be even dimmer than it was before the war. Imposed democracies that fail seem to undermine subsequent attempts at democracy.

That is, the citizens become disillusioned that democracy can ever deal with their problems.

“Exporting democracy, but not Bush’s way,” by James Traub, Los Angeles Times (8 June 2007)
“The Realities of Exporting Democracy,” The Washington Post (25 January 2006)
“The Folly of Exporting Democracy,” at TomPaine.com (12 September 2006)

“Can the U.S. export democracy?” by Owen Harries (28 November 2003)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s