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More on Democratization: the National Intelligence Strategy of the US

October 28, 2005

As if on cue the Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, yesterday released the US National Intelligence Strategy of the United States (NIS). The WP has a nice article which summarizes the report as well as notes what is different from past reports. Most of the rhetoric in the report is unremarkable. However, the portion of the report getting the most attention is the appearence of democracy promotion as a main strategic objective of the intelligence community (pg. 4). Apparently, this is the first time this kind of language was included in an intelligence mission statement. Additionally, this is apparently the first time such a mission statement has been released for public consumption (previously it was contained in a classified document prepared by the DCI). The idea of placing intelligence related to democracy front and center on the agenda–essentially dovetailing with the National Security Strategy of 2002 (NSS)–raises some questions, many of which are related to Dan’s post on democratization and war.

The report explicitly connects the concern with democracy promotion and the need for intelligence regarding opportunities-for and threats-to democracies to the NSS of 2002 that explicity elevated democratization and democracy promotion as a central element of US grand strategy. I have commented on democracy promotion in this context here and here. It would seem that in the rush to formulate a grand strategy to defeat extremist actors and rogue states policymakers have adpoted as truth the conclusions of favorable research on democratization and its implications for peace and civility. While I am a fan of democracy (at least, the consolidated version) I share Mansfield and Snyder’s skepticism that the adoption of such a bold policy of democracy promotion will, in fact, make the world less conflictual. Reading the NIS evokes the same feelings of uneasiness I felt when reading the NSS three years ago.

In the NIS, democracy is identified as a disruptive mechanism, preventing terrorists “haven, sanctuary, and political legitimacy” (pg. 6). Now, it does not discuss the logic of why this is the case. It simply asserts it as an established fact and moves on. This is not to say that the assertion is false, but I am unaware of rigorous/persuassive studies on the subject. If we are talking about massive training camps such as existed in Afghanistan under the Taliban then there might something to the notion, but terrorism seemed to thrive in Northern Ireland and continues to be a problem in a number of demcracies such as Spain, Italy, India, Japan, Great Britain, and the United States just to name a few. Not only have these countries experienced domestic terrorist attacks but it seems clear that many of these cells exist and operate mostly domestically, meaning the acts are not perpetrated by actors who slip into the country and then slip out. Additionally, it would seem that there can exist a significant share of the public in democracies that, for various reasons, view terrorist activity to be, at times, legitimate.

The NIS goes on to state that “we have learned to our peril that the lack of freedom in one state endangers the peace and freedom of others and that failed states are a refuge and breeding ground of extremism. Self-sustaining democratic states are essential to world peace and development” (pg. 8). This notion supports the idea that the US must not only prevent the collapse of states and democracies, but also take steps where possible to promote the birth of democracy where conditions seem ripe. Now, the report does not discuss covert action–which was a staple of the CIA during the Cold War–however, it seems hard to believe that the US would allow the fall of a democracy in a politically/strategically sensitive part of the world without at least considering the use of covert action to forestall such a collapse.

At first glance these seem like reasonable notions. However, if we connect them back to the work of Mansfield and Snyder we get a more cautious view. The temptation to actively promote demcratization where the opportunity seems ripe must be tempered by the seeming risks that tend to accompany young democracies. The point is not that we should ignore democratic movements. Rather, we should not get swepped up in promoting “color-coded revolutions” or view them (and democratization in general) as a panacea for defeating terrorism. This is not to say that we should prevent them from occuring, but a healthy dose of caution would not hurt.

While research has advanced our understanding of the effects democracy (may) have on war, terrorism, political violence, etc. the findings are still preliminary and suggestive. By no means do I think we can honestly say that we know all there is to know on this subject. Basing policy on these findings can be dangerous. Hopefully the administration will apply the proper amount of caution when implementing these policies, but given what has happened to date I am skeptical…

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Petti is Associate Director of Insights and Analytics at Alexion . Previously, he served as Lead Data Scientist in the Decision Sciences group at Maritz Motivation and a Global Data Strategist and Subject Matter Expert for Gallup.