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.

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Futurists need to be historians, too

“Look back twice as far as you look forward,” writes forecaster Paul Saffo in his Harvard Business Review article “Six Rules for Effective Forecasting” (July-August 2007). It would be easy to misunderstand that powerful statement — Saffo’s Rule No. 5 — so let’s dissect it a bit.

Notice that he says “look back twice as far.” Recent history rarely repeats itself directly. Futurists can make big mistakes extrapolating from recent history, Saffo says, so you need to look much farther back to identify useful patterns. For example, the Web’s dramatic transformation of the media landscape seems to defy categorization, unless you look back 50 years to the emergence of television. Saffo writes:

The texture of past events can be used to connect the dots of present indicators and thus reliably map the future’s trajectory — provided one looks back far enough.

He adds that, although you may find useful patterns in the past, don’t try to force exact matches.

It’s been written that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.” The effective forecaster looks to history to find the rhymes, not the identical events.

Two other interesting Saffo Rules (paraphrased by me):

  • Good forecasting is the process of having strong opinions that are held weakly. Always look for conflicting evidence so you can ditch a bad prediction.
  • Know when not to make a forecast. Sometimes there are “moments of unprecedented uncertainty,” when it’s better to let things settle down before even attempting a prediction.

How to Forecast the Future, a Q&A interview with Paul Saffo