Installing Democracy

By Russett, Bruce | Commonweal, December 3, 2004 | Go to article overview

Installing Democracy


Russett, Bruce, Commonweal


President George W. Bush concluded his final debate with John Kerry by declaring his faith in "the ability of liberty to transform societies, to convert a hostile world to a peaceful world." Now part of his rhetorical repertoire, this statement springs not just from the religious basis of his thinking, but more importantly it is a core principle of what is called the theory of "democratic peace." That theory does not insist that democracies are necessarily peaceful in general. But the last decade of social-science research has produced abundant evidence, besides theory, that democracies almost never go to war with one another. Policymakers from the administration of the first President Bush through that of Bill Clinton have also accepted it. But what this president neglects to mention is that those of us who helped formulate the theory of democratic peace have consistently argued for a second core principle: that a model of "fight them, beat them, and make them democratic" is a very bad idea.

Members of the current administration cite the post-World War II experience of Germany and Japan to bolster their case for invading and occupying Iraq. Certainly the victorious American and British occupation policy was built on the principle that the German and Japanese governments could never be peaceful without democratizing their systems.

But Germany and Japan make poor analogies with respect to the contemporary Middle East. The United States and Britain went to war not in order to make Germany and Japan democratic, but to repel a direct attack. Afterward they were willing and able to carry on a long occupation and to provide massive economic assistance. Most German and Japanese citizens no longer considered their own governments legitimate. In this respect and others, Germany and Japan met most of the conditions that political analysis has identified for successful democratic transitions and consolidation. In Iraq, the conditions obstructing democratization include low per capita income (at least after years of wars and sanctions), no previous history of democracy, major ethnic and religious divisions, the "resource curse" of an economy and political system dependent on petroleum exports that allow dictators to keep themselves wealthy and in power, and an authoritarian political and social culture. …

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