The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Democracy promotion and transitional wars

October 27, 2005

The latest issue of Foreign Affairs contains a review by John Owen IV of Ed Mansfield’s and Jack Snyder’s Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War. Mansfield and Synder contend, among other things, that a transition from authoritarian to democratic regimes can make states more war prone than it would otherwise have been. As Owen argues, this has profound implications for Iraq:

The Bush administration’s desire to break with its predecessors and alter the authoritarian status quo in the Middle East was admirable. But the White House got its science wrong, or at least not completely right: the democratic peace theory does not dictate that the United States can or should remake Iraq into a democracy. In Electing to fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War, the veteran political scientists Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder make two critical points. Not only is turning authoritarian countries into democracies extremely difficult, much more so than the administration seems to have anticipated. The Middle East could also become a much more dangerous place if Washington and the rest of the world settle for a merely semidemocratic regime in Baghdad. Such an Iraq, Mansfield and Snyder imply, would be uncommonly likely to start wars — a bull in the Middle Eastern china shop. Unfortunately, such an Iraq may also be just what we are likely to end up with.

Mansfield’s and Snyder’s argument is fairly controversial; however, if they’re right, and Owen’s application of their argument is correct, then the failures of the occupation have even worse consequences than many observers fear.

(Another, somewhat parallel, way to think about the transition can be found in Charles Tilly’s The Politics of Collective Violence. In his discussion of zones of contentious politics – and of collective violence – Tilly differentiates between, on the one hand, state capacity (the ‘strength of a state’ vis-à-vis civil society) and, on the other, its level of democratization. Iraq’s transition from a strong authoritarian regime to an extremely weak, quasi-democratic regime is a typical recipe for high levels of collective violence.)

Owen also has some interesting things to say about the relationship between democratic-peace theory and realism. I don’t entirely agree with his assessment. Owen’s view of what makes an argument “realist” strikes me as a bit jaundiced. He is, nevertheless, an extremely smart guy and an excellent scholar. What he has to say is always worth considering.

And, unlike the other piece in the November/December issue that I want to blog about, Owen’s book review isn’t behind the Foreign Affairs subscription wall.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.