Tracking Democratization: Insights for Planners

By Wiechnik, Stanley J. | Parameters, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Tracking Democratization: Insights for Planners


Wiechnik, Stanley J., Parameters


ABSTRACT: Drawing from previous debates on the topic of state- and nation-building in this journal, this article offers a baseline understanding of the theories of democratization. It then provides a convenient visualization of the political transition from an autocratic or failed state to democracy. This visualization should be useful to practitioners and policymakers engaged in strategically expanding democracy.

The officially stated goal in Iraq was, and the ultimate political objective of many recent US ground military operations has been, promoting democracy. (1) In two recent Parameters articles on nation-building, it became clear that a general disagreement exists over whether postconflict rebuilding can realistically entail creating a "successful democracy." (2) Obviously, understanding what it takes to promote democracy "can precondition the Army's ability not only to fight effectively but also to secure the political objectives of war." (3) If the ultimate end state includes the successful transition from military authority to democratic civilian authority, then it is incumbent upon military commanders to set conditions for the success of the nascent democracy. To do this, commanders and planners need a basic understanding of democratization even though guidance for military leaders on how to promote democracy is lacking.

Broadly speaking, there are two methods to promote democracy. (4) The political approach concentrates on building institutions that support democracy by transition from autocracy to democracy. Alternatively, the developmental approach concentrates on setting conditions for a stable democracy to develop over time. Success requires both. Even though applying only the political approach leaves out key social aspects of democratization, most doctrinal literature concentrates on the political approach and neglects the developmental approach, making the task look far easier than it really is.

This article explores what the developmental approach can provide strategists and planners and offers a rudimentary, but quantifiable, understanding of the efforts necessary to transition and consolidate from an unstable state to a viable democracy. This discourse does not explore the academic nature of democracy but distills an extremely complex sociopolitical event down to its essence--the fewest possible variables that still yield a demonstrable relationship--to provide a simple way to conceptualize and visualize the transition to democracy. While discussing other metrics, this analysis focuses on theories of democratization, the process of democratization, a functional definition of democracy, and the most salient democratization data points. An introduction on using key metrics to estimate timelines relevant to defense policy is also provided. The article concludes with some thoughts on factors to consider when discussing democratization with civilian leaders and policymakers.

Theories of Democratic Transitions

The causes of a society's transition from an autocratic to democratic government are not fully understood. Over the years, researchers have proposed multiple theories that are generally placed into one of four categories: social structural evolution, where both the elite and the general populations simply witness the inevitable transformation of civilization; top down, driven by the elites; bottom up, forced by the general populace; or a hybrid combination of the three.

The structural approach, commonly referred to as modernization theory, recognizes a societal correlation between democracy and certain structural factors that usually include average income, average education, availability of media sources, and levels of industrialization and urbanization. (5) Namely, increases in income, education, and urbanization associated with industrialization create conditions favorable for democracy. With these changes, the population adopts "equalitarian" value systems. …

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