What the Democratization Literature Says-Or Doesn't Say-About Postwar Democratization

By Bermeo, Nancy | Global Governance, April-June 2003 | Go to article overview

What the Democratization Literature Says-Or Doesn't Say-About Postwar Democratization


Bermeo, Nancy, Global Governance


Herodotus was probably right when he argued that wars make history, but whether and when wars make democracy remain open questions. The classics in the democratization literature are surprisingly reticent about the links between war and lasting democracy. Most of our theoretical literature on democratic transitions or democratic consolidation leaves the connection to war either wholly neglected or seriously undertheorized.

This is perplexing because so many new and renewed democracies emerge in the context of war. Of the seventy-three democracies founded after 1945 that still exist today, over half emerged either in the immediate aftermath of a war or as a means of bringing an ongoing war to an end. Table 1 shows how many electoral democracies emerged in a postwar setting.

The cases in Table 1 are electoral democracies--meaning that they are regimes in which leaders are selected in competitive elections. If we define democracy more strictly and consider only cases in which a full (or nearly full) range of individual liberties is provided, the pattern is the same. Half of all "free" regimes formed after World War II that are still in existence today were formed in the immediate aftermath of war (see Table 2).

The percentage of free regimes that were founded in postwar settings was as high ten years ago as it is today, so the existence of "postwar" democracies is far from new. (1) The subject of democratization after war is clearly worthy of close attention.

What do we currently know (or think we know) about how war affects democratization? What does the democratization literature teach us about building democracy in postwar settings? I sketch brief answers to both of these questions in the following sections. For the purposes of this article, my definition of democracy corresponds to the definition used most often in the canon of democratization literature: democracy "is a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable . . . by citizens acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives." (2) Though I acknowledge that this is a minimalist version of a much more complex and multifaceted phenomenon, I focus on electoral democracy because it defines a politically important and numerically large subset of regimes.

Can War Be Good for Democracy?

The democratization literature portrays the association between war and the transition to democracy as broadly positive. Indeed, wars seem to be associated with democratic transitions whether the state in question is vanquished, victorious, or simply a partner in an inconclusive struggle. It is ironic that a devastating defeat seems to be an especially propitious setting for a transition to be made. Yet several scholars have marshaled sound evidence in favor of this proposition. They remind us that "the great majority of historical examples of successful redemocratization ... are ones in which warfare and conquest play an integral part" (3) that conquest by a democratic power allows for the dismantling of problematic military and political institutions; (4) "that military failure contributed to the downfall or weakening of at least five authoritarian regimes between 1974 and l989" (5); and that "defeat in warfare" often precipitates the elite settlements that lasting democracy requires. (6) The defeats that l ead "most readily" to a democratic regime change are the devastating ones in which "elites are thoroughly replaced." (7)

Authoritarian regimes that conduct a war successfully may be toppled too. Victory in wars against "subversion" can eliminate a dictatorship's raison d'etre and provoke a crisis of legitimacy. (8) Surprisingly, elites who face neither victory nor defeat may still make the transition to democracy if their armed struggle appears to be both "costly and inconclusive." (9) Theorists insist that the elite compromise that democracy requires emerges when leaders recognize "that the next round of conflict is likely to visit disaster on all sides. …

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