What Have We Learned about Forced Democratisation? Scott Walker Warns That Promoting Democracy by Force Is Difficult, Expensive, and Problematic, and Unlikely to Be Successful

By Walker, Scott | New Zealand International Review, May-June 2012 | Go to article overview

What Have We Learned about Forced Democratisation? Scott Walker Warns That Promoting Democracy by Force Is Difficult, Expensive, and Problematic, and Unlikely to Be Successful


Walker, Scott, New Zealand International Review


Since the Second World War democracies, especially the United States, have periodically taken it upon themselves to intervene militarily with the purpose of bringing about democratic change. While the 'track record' of such interventions is not very successful--they are generally expensive and problematic--leaders of powerful democratic nations will often nonetheless periodically be tempted to force democracy in the future. This tired old strategy may be taken out of mothballs and used again by leaders who believe that they can increase their standing among the public by pushing for democracy (even in hostile situations) through military interventions.

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'Countries such as the U.S. and Britain have taken it upon themselves to decide for us in the developing world, even to interfere in our domestic affairs and to bring about what they call regime change.'

Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe (1)

Several years ago, I began researching the topic of forced democratisation in order empirically to assess the claim that it is possible for powerful democratic countries to bring about democracy through hostile military intervention. My mission was largely an empirical one, as I wanted to test the 'track record' of such interventions. Were attempts to issue democracy by military force successful or not successful? Or did the results wind up somewhere in the middle? Somewhere along the line, however, I began to appreciate the fact there was a deeper story. People in positions of power (particularly in the United States, but also in the United Kingdom) appear to base their support for military intervention as a tool for regime change not on their faith in its 'track record' or likelihood of success, but on their perception of the utility of such interventions as a means to gain popular standing by being viewed as champions of democracy and liberalism. In many cases, it is not known for many years whether an intervention can be deemed successful. The temptation exists for leaders to take credit for successes (even limited ones), while pushing off the consequences of failure onto their successors.

But more than this, many leaders and policy-makers view success as dependent only upon a certain level of technical prowess. To powerful and wealthy democratic countries, it is tempting to replicate one's own political and economic systems. So installing a similar political system in a troubled country seems on the face of matters to be an attractive policy option. After all, Germany, Japan, Italy and Austria are all fabulously successful cases where democratisation occurred after hostile military interventions.

Thus, perhaps it should have come as no surprise when, on the eve of the Iraq invasion, George W. Bush made specific

reference to how intervention led to democracy in Germany and Japan:

   There was a time when
   many said that the cultures
   of Japan and Germany
   were incapable of sustaining
   democratic values. Well
   they were wrong. Some say
   the same of Iraq today. They
   are mistaken. The nation of
   Iraq--with its proud heritage,
   abundant resources
   and skilled and educated
   people--is fully capable of moving toward democracy
   and living in freedom. (2)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman recalls a flight to Baghdad in 2003, when he had agreed to serve on the Coalitional Transitional Authority. Feldman expressed his shock when he noticed what his colleagues were reading: 'Not one seemed to need a refresher on Iraq or the Gulf region. Without exception, they were reading new books on the American occupation and reconstruction of Germany and Japan.' (3)

Reality tests

Of course, few tasks are ever as easy as one imagines them to be during the planning stages. In the case of Iraq, the plan was to have an American 'governor general' (Jay Garner) hold power for 90 days, and then have elections as US troops withdrew from major cities. …

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