Prone to Violence

Prone to Violence

Mini Teaser: Democracy comes to bring not peace but the sword.

by Author(s): Edward D. MansfieldJack Snyder

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. Ten years later, they remain locked into this pattern. Early elections likewise reinforced the divisions in Iraqi society, reflecting the party organizations that could be fashioned quickly, rather than ones that might have fostered more effective governance but would have taken longer to forge. Even worse, the Iraqi electoral law, which was based on country-wide proportional representation rather than local districts, magnified the exclusion of the Sunnis from the political process, since the insurgency kept a disproportional number of Sunni voters away from the polls.

Democracy and War

THE NATIONALIST and ethnic politics that prevails in many newly democratizing states loads the dice in favor of international and civil war. The decade following the end of the Cold War witnessed some peaceful transitions to democracy in countries where the preconditions for democracy were in place. Elsewhere, however, turbulent experiments with democratic politics led to bloody wars. In 1991 Yugoslavia broke up into separate warring nations within six months of elections in which ethnic nationalism was a powerful factor. In the wake of the Soviet collapse, popular nationalist sentiment expressed in the streets and at the ballot box fueled warfare between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. As Peru and Ecuador democratized fitfully during the 1980s and 1990s, troubled elected governments gained popularity by provoking a series of armed clashes that culminated in a war in the upper Amazon in 1995. Several years after the collapse of Ethiopia's Dergue dictatorship, the country's elected government fought a bloody border war from 1998 to 2000 with Eritrea, which had just adopted, though not yet implemented, a democratic constitution.

In an especially worrisome case, the nuclear-armed elected regimes of India and Pakistan fought the Kargil War in 1999. After the 1988 death of Pakistani military dictator Zia ul-Haq, a series of revolving-door elected civilian governments had presided over a rise in militant Islamic efforts to liberate majority-Muslim Kashmir from Indian control. In Kashmir itself, the restoration of elections after Indira Gandhi's period of "emergency" authoritarian rule (1975-77) had polarized politics and led to violent conflict between Muslims and the state. These turbulent processes culminated in the 1999 war, when Pakistani forces infiltrated across the mountainous frontier in northern Kashmir. The war broke out as Pakistan was taking steps toward greater democratization, including constitutional changes in 1997 that were intended to strengthen the powers of elected civilian rulers.

Democratization also played a catalytic role in the horrible slaughters that engulfed central Africa. The 1993 elections in Burundi--even though they were internationally mandated, free and fair--intensified ethnic polarization between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups, resulting in some 200,000 deaths. In neighboring Rwanda, an internationally orchestrated power-sharing accord that was intended to usher in more pluralistic and open politics instead created the conditions for the 1994 genocide that killed nearly a million Tutsis as well as some moderate Hutus.

In all of these varied settings, the turbulent beginning phase of democratization contributed to violence in states with weak political institutions. Statistical studies show that countries with weak institutions undergoing an incomplete democratic transition are more than four times as likely to become involved in international wars than other states, and that incomplete democracies are more likely to experience civil wars than either pure autocracies or fully consolidated democracies. Democratic transition is only one of many causes of war, but it can be a potent one.

Democratization "To Do" List

THERE IS no reason to believe that the longstanding link between democratization and nationalist war is diminishing. Many of the countries that are still on the Bush Administration's "to do" list of democracy promotion lack the institutional infrastructure needed to manage the early stages of a democratic transition. The "third wave" of democratization in the 1980s and 1990s consolidated democratic regimes primarily in the richer countries of eastern Europe, Latin America, southern Africa and East Asia. A fourth wave would involve more challenging cases: countries that are poorer, more ethnically divided, ideologically more resistant to democracy, with more entrenched authoritarian elites and a much frailer base of governmental institutions and citizen skills.

Many Islamic countries that figure prominently in the Bush Administration's efforts to promote democracy are particularly hard cases. Although democratization in the Islamic world might contribute to peace in the very long run, Islamic public opinion in the short run is generally hostile to the United States, ambivalent about terrorism and unwilling to renounce the use of force to regain disputed territories. Although the belligerence of the Islamic public is partly fueled by resentment of the U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes under which many of them live, renouncing these authoritarians and pressing for a quick democratic opening is unlikely to lead to peaceful democratic consolidations. On the contrary, unleashing Islamic mass opinion through sudden democratization might raise the likelihood of war.

All of the risk factors are there. The media and civil society groups are inflammatory, as old elites and rising oppositions try to outbid each other for the mantle of Islamic or nationalist militancy. The rule of law is weak, and existing corrupt bureaucracies cannot serve a democratic administration properly. The boundaries of states are mismatched with those of nations, making any push for national self-determination fraught with peril. Per capita incomes, literacy rates and citizen skills in most Muslim Middle Eastern states are below the levels normally needed to sustain democracy. The richer states' economies are based on oil exports, which exacerbate corruption and insulate regimes from accountability to citizens.

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