Prone to Violence: The Paradox of the Democratic Peace

By Mansfield, Edward D.; Snyder, Jack | The National Interest, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Prone to Violence: The Paradox of the Democratic Peace


Mansfield, Edward D., Snyder, Jack, The National Interest


THE BUSH Administration has argued that promoting democracy in the Islamic world, rogue states and China will enhance America's security, because tyranny breeds violence and democracies co-exist peacefully. But recent experience in Iraq and elsewhere reveals that the early stages of transitions to electoral politics have often been rife with violence.

These episodes are not just a speed bump on the road to the democratic peace. Instead, they reflect a fundamental problem with the Bush Administration's strategy of forced-pace democratization in countries that lack the political institutions needed to manage political competition. Without a coherent state grounded in a consensus on which citizens will exercise self-determination, unfettered electoral politics often gives rise to nationalism and violence at home and abroad.

Absent these preconditions, democracy is deformed, and transitions toward democracy revert to autocracy or generate chaos. Pushing countries too soon into competitive electoral politics not only risks stoking war, sectarianism and terrorism, but it also makes the future consolidation of democracy more difficult.

Difficult Transitions

FROM THE French Revolution to contemporary Iraq, the beginning phase of democratization in unsettled circumstances has often spurred a rise in militant nationalism. Democracy means rule by the people, but when territorial control and popular loyalties are in flux, a prior question has to be settled: Which people will form the nation? Nationalist politicians vie for popular support to answer that question in a way that suits their purposes. When groups are at loggerheads and the rules guiding domestic politics are unclear, the answer is more often based on a test of force and political manipulation than on democratic procedures. (1)

When authoritarian regimes collapse and countries begin the process of democratization, politicians of all stripes have an incentive to play the nationalist card. Holdovers from the old regime realize that they need to recruit mass supporters to survive in the new, more open political setting. Slobodan Milosevic, for example, opportunistically misled Serbs about threats from ethnic Albanians to win votes in the elections held after Tito's death.

Rising new political figures also have incentives to tout nationalism in the early stages of a democratic transition. Nationalist rhetoric often involves criticism of monarchs, colonial overlords, dictators or communist apparatchiks for ruling in their own interest, rather than in the interest of the people. Where ethnic or religious groups were oppressed under the old regime, the emergence of a new regime often emboldens them to demand a state of their own, which they think will protect them better than some hypothetical ethnicity-blind liberal democracy.

Elections in many newly democratizing states have been an ethnic census, not a deliberation about public issues. Ethnic leaders can quickly mobilize nationalist mass movements based on crony and clan ties, common language and cultural practices. It is harder for secular or "catch-all" leaders to forge new ties across groups. When Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed in Iraq, for example, Shi'a groups readily formed political parties and militias based on existing social networks and religious authority figures. Kurds did the same from their regional base, and Ba'athi remnants were able to mount a fierce insurgency among some elements of the divided but resentful Sunnis. In contrast, secular leaders worked futilely against the grain of the existing social timber to construct an army and credible political parties.

The earlier the elections come during the process of democratization in deeply divided societies with weak political institutions, the worse this problem is. In Bosnia after the 1995 Dayton peace accord, elections were won by nationalist parties representing the three major ethnic groups, because the power of ethnic factions was not yet broken. …

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