International institutions and democracy
Matthew Yglesias's recent post
on international institutions, and dinner conversation with colleagues after the conference yesterday evening have gotten me thinking more. Why are there so many problems with the current US administration's stance, and where do I part company with the Oxblog guys
? Provisional answers below. There's a lot of hyped up talk in the blogosphere and punditocracy about creating a democratic Middle East. Most of this seems to me to be hot air; and runs directly counter to our past experience of what has and hasn't worked. Briefly, I think that the historical record suggests some important conclusions. First, it is extremely difficult for outside actors to impose democracy by force. Second, the conditions under which outside imposition might work do not apply in the Iraqi case. Third - and this is the theme that I want to develop - even if these conditions did apply, the Bush administration's general policy stance suggest that they would screw it up anyway.
The academic literature on democratic transitions doesn't provide much help to would-be democratizers from outside. Discussions of the relationship between international factors and democracy promotion tend, in Philippe Schmitter's words, to consist "mostly of bland reflections on 'linkage politics', 'penetrated systems', 'fusion of domestic and foreign policy' and, of course, 'interdependence'." In general, efforts by outsiders to create - or even to promote - democracy - have failed, or have had marginal success. However, there are a few key test cases in which outside international actors helped create relatively successful democracies (I don't count situations, like India, where there was a complex mix of external intervention and domestic pro-democracy movements). The key cases that I'm aware of are:
(a) The post WWII consolidation of democracy in the defeated Axis powers (Germany, Italy, Japan, Austria) and in European states that had a slightly wobbly democratic tradition (France).
(b) The democratization of authoritarian regimes (Spain, Portugal, Greece) in Southern Europe in the 1970's/1980's.
(c) The democratization of much of Central/Eastern Europe (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland etc) in the early 1990's.
Alert readers will spot that there is a common thread running through most of these cases - the European Union. Japan and Austria are the obvious exceptions. The EU provided a crucial cornerstone for democracy in post WW II Western Europe. As Timothy Garton Ash documents in
"In Europe's Name"
the EU allowed Germany substantially to redefine its national interest. It also helped shore up democracy in Italy (where opinion polls have commonly suggested that citizens find EU institutions more credible and legitimate than their own), and in France. This relationship holds at later historical junctures, such as the introduction of democracy to the quasi-military dictatorships of Europe's southern fringe - Spain, Portugal and Greece. Guillermo O'Donnell and Philippe Schmitter, two authoritative figures in the democratization debate, are pretty skeptical in general of international diffusion theories of democracy, but find that the EU played a key role in consolidating democracy in these countries. In the current era, the anticipation of EU membership has strengthened democracy in many countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Jeff Kopstein and David Reilly find that the EU's strategy of enlargement to include states in its local neighborhood is a key factor that helps explain the successful consolidation of many regimes (altho' see this piece
by Dan Drezner for a somewhat different interpretation of Kopstein and Reilly's results).
What does this suggest for the post-war situation in Iraq? It's hardly news to anyone that democratization is going to be difficult, even under the most optimistic scenarios. As Josh Marshall sez, it's not quite as hopeless as trying to develop faster-than-light warp drives
, but it's not far off it. The lack of an existing democratic tradition, ethnic and religious rivalries, neighbours with an interest in stirring up internal tensions; these make for a lousy balance sheet for democracy. It looks as though the US is going to try anyway; but it's blowing whatever minimal chance it has, by failing to take account of the lessons of history.
Lesson One - It's better to create future allies than client states
The US played a key role in fostering democracy in post-WW II Western Europe. And we should be damn grateful for it. But the US, more or less deliberately, encouraged the creation of independent, and sometimes rambunctious states in Europe that would disagree with it on key policy issues. Further, as John Ikenberry documents
, it created a set of international institutions (most prominently NATO) which constrained US power, and allowed it credibly to commit to its allies that it wouldn't trample all over them when it disagreed with what they were doing. These were tough decisions to make, and led to plenty of headaches and tensions over the next forty years. But they also allowed for the consolidation of democracy in Western Europe, and for allies to have some legitimacy with their domestic populations, precisely because they could speak their mind. Without that independence and legitimacy, they would have likely been failed democracies, or quasi-democracies at best. The contrast with, say, US treatment of states in Latin America, is clear, as are the consequences. Today, the smoke signals that are emerging suggest that the US is more interested in creating dependent regimes in the Middle East than independent allies.
Lesson Two - Multilateralism matters
The EU, is, in many respects, a mess. Its progress over the last thirty years is better described as a series of spasmodic lurches than a grand master plan; it suffers from endemic problems of political authority and legitimacy. But in one respect, it has been an unparalleled success. It has done incredibly well in shoring up democracy among EU member states, and to a lesser extent in promoting democracy in the states just outside its borders. States recognize the value of EU membership, and are willing to make important reforms in order to qualify; cf the recent changes in Turkey. The prospects for EU type institutions in the Middle East are bleak. But other kinds of multilateral institution can play an important role in promoting democracy, and more importantly, in making sure that democracy sticks. The current administration has rejected multilateralism in favour of ad-hoc "coalitions of the willing," and has deliberately or inadvertantly undermined relevant multilateral organizations. In so doing, it has weakened many of the international structures that might help bed democracy down. A rich international environment of multilateral institutions, in which democracies have privileged status, helps encourage democracy at the level of individual countries.
Lesson Three - Speaking softly works better than brandishing big sticks
The current US approach to Iraq and its surrounds is based on the massive and overwhelming application of military force. Neo-cons assumed that once the tyrant of Baghdad had his feet cut from under him, the Iraqi people would come flocking to the US side, and the Arab world would follow, albeit dragging its collective feet. This failure of imagination reflects the administration's continued contempt for "nation building" and other applications of soft force. Key administration figures presumed that once they broke the Iraqi army and security services, the nation would more or less build itself. I have news for them; nation-building is exactly what they're doing. Further, if they're going to have any success, they need to employ a different tool kit. Brute force doesn't win over populations. Nor do bullying, bribes and threats (the other cards played most frequently by this administration) prevail, as we've seen in Turkey, unless they're used sparingly, carefully and discreetly. Finally, nor do grand, if vaguely stated threats to neighboring powers. If the US is genuinely interested in building democracy in the region, it needs less trigger happy troops, less currying of favor with compromised figures from the Iraqi "opposition," and more use of traditional - if unfashionable - techniques of diplomacy. This is how the EU underpinned peaceful democratic transitions in the states of Southern Europe - friendly-ish diplomatic relations with the governments in question, quiet overtures towards the business community and civil society, and efforts to build transnational private relationships that could then be leveraged when the transition process proper got underway. It is not what's happening today. The success - or otherwise - of Iraq's new regime will depend in large part on its neighbors, and US policy towards Iran and Syria has been schizophrenic and counterproductive. One minute, the administration is making grandiose, if vaguely stated threats, against Syria and Iran; the next minute, it's quietly praising them for their cooperative attitude. Diplomatic policy seems more driven by faction-wars within the administration than by any overall strategic plan. And that's really, really, stupid. In this context, it sends out mixed signals, and doesn't provide these states with any stake in the post-war dispensation.