Academic journal article Independent Review

The Prospects for Democracy in High-Violence Societies

Academic journal article Independent Review

The Prospects for Democracy in High-Violence Societies

Article excerpt

What does it take to implant democracy in a foreign land? For more than a century now, the United States has been sending troops into troubled countries, holding elections, and hoping democracy will take root. The results, overall, have been disappointing.

The results of one of the first efforts, the 1898 intervention in Cuba, are typical. Following the Spanish-American War, the United States administered Cuba for four years, turning power over to an elected Cuban president in 1902. A violent revolution forced him from office, and U.S. troops came back in 1906. After more reforms and new elections, the United States again turned power over to the Cubans in 1909. More instability ensued, including another violent revolt. The U.S. Marines came back yet a third time in 1917, restored order, held elections again, then withdrew in 1922. Since that time, Cuba has endured a succession of unstable and autocratic regimes, most recently Fidel Castro's totalitarian dictatorship.

Recent nation-building efforts--in Haiti, Afghanistan, and Iraq--seem to indicate that our understanding has not progressed since the days of the Cuban intervention. The problem is not that we have the wrong theory about nation building. A bad theory can be corrected and improved. The problem is that U.S. policymakers do not have any theory. They dogmatically assume that wherever U.S. troops end up as a result of this or that foreign-policy initiative, democracy can be made to flourish. Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky expresses this mindset: "One should not make the mistake of believing that there is anything inherent in Islam, or any other faith or culture, that will prevent the emergence of democracy" (2004, 76, emphasis added).

Perhaps Dobriansky is correct in saying that Islam does not preclude democracy, but her sweeping insistence that there can be no possible cultural barriers to democracy--anywhere, anytime--flies in the face of the U.S. experience. Common sense suggests that there are bound to be countries in which democracy cannot be made to succeed, at least not within any reasonable time. We might save ourselves frustration and guide policy more intelligently if we began to understand what the limits to democracy are.

Democracy's Minimum Requirement

Although the nation builders have casually assumed that democracy can be established anywhere, the scholars have gone to the opposite extreme. For them, democracy is a delicate flower that requires a host of social and institutional prerequisites. Over the years, they have compiled a long list of requirements. One scholar suggests that democracy requires a populace endowed with nine psychological traits, among which are tolerance, realism, flexibility, and objectivity, and, further, that the country must have economic well-being, economic equality, and an educated citizenry (Cohen 1971). Another political scientist names seven conditions necessary for democracy, including "a strong concern for the mass of people" and "high social mobility" (De Grazia 1952, 546-47). Two other scholars claim that democracy rests on seven basic beliefs, including "respect for individual personality," "belief in rationality," and "equality of opportunity" (Corry and Abraham 1958, 29, 33, 35).

Such comprehensive lists overshoot the mark greatly, however. They represent an effort to describe the perfect context for democracy--or, indeed, the perfect context for the perfect democracy. They are thus largely irrelevant to the task of understanding real-world democracy, which is always compromised and flawed. Instead of pointing to all the desirable features, we need to focus on the bare minimum needed for even an imperfect democracy to exist.

What is that minimum? I would put it this way: a restraint in the use of violence in domestic political affairs. In a functioning democracy, we tend to take this condition for granted. We assume that opposition leaders do not routinely take up arms to try to shoot their way into power. …

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