The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Democracy and terrorism

June 5, 2006

The 17 men were mainly of South Asian descent and most were in their teens or early 20’s. One of the men was 30 years old and the oldest was 43 years old, police officials said. None of them had any known affiliation with Al Qaeda.

“They represent the broad strata of our society,” Mr. McDonell said. “Some are students, some are employed, some are unemployed.

Thus the New York Times story on the Canadian arrests of suspected terrorists reminds us of something that should have been obvious after the July 2005 London bombings. Democracy is not a panacea for terrorism.

Consider just some of the plethora of cases of indigenous–and quasi-indigenous–terrorism in liberal democracies: the Red Brigade in Italy, the ETA in Spain, the Red Army Faction in Germany, Algerian terrorism in France, American anarchists, and a variety of more recent home-grown American terrorist organizations.

So what of the neoconservative grand strategy of using Iraq as a beachhead to expand democracy throughout the Middle East?

At the most basic level, the notion that democratizing Iraq might lead to a domino effect throughout the region stems from a flawed analogy with the revolutions of 1989. Eastern Europe was part of the Soviet “outer empire.” Communism, at least in the form it took after the Soviet occupations following World War II, was an ideology of imperial control; liberal and social democracy, in contrast, were anti-imperial ideologies. The occupation of Iraq,i f anything, risks creating a situation rather different: liberal democracy becomes the ideology of imperial domination.

But even if we grant some causal power to the demonstration effects offered by a stable and democratic Iraqi regime — and there might be some — what does the mounting evidence concerning democracies and terrorism say about the underlying wager that democratization would reduce the threat of terrorism to the United States and other western powers?

Democracy may not end terrorism, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have ameliorative effects.

As Charles Tilly argues in The Politics of Collective Violence, high-capacity democratic regimes (strong democracies with the capacity to provide public order) expand the zone of permissible peaceful political dissent while more effectively policing violent political contention. Low-capacity democratic regimes are, for their part, likely to see more violent contentious politics (such as terrorist activity) than high-capacity authoritarian regimes, but we should expect them to fare somewhat better than low-capacity autocracies. Democracy doesn’t solve terrorism, but it does provide more channels through which resistance to state policies can be focused into normal political activity or into less violent forms of non-routine politics (protests and so forth). Democratization, in other words, does tend to reduce terrorism, particularly when it is accompanied by a relatively strong set of state institutions.

(In this light, Iraq sees so much terrorism not because it became less authoritarian after the invasion, but because it became less authoritarian and the state lost much of its ability to police and control private violence.)

But to return to the issue at hand, democratization can ameliorate terrorism, but it cannot solve it. The best regimes for combating terrorism, in many respects, are high-capacity authoritarian ones. But even the most ardent supporters of expanding, for example, electronic surveillance of American citizens recognize that, after a certain point, we’re just not willing to give up the kind of liberties that would “end” the problem of terrorism in the homeland.

So the neoconservatives clearly oversold the gains from democratic enlargement, but they weren’t entirely wrong that, in principle, expanding the number of democracies might be a good thing for the “war on terror.” Where the rubber really hits the road, however, is not at the level of general regime tendencies but at that of the specific conditions found in countries and regions. And here the evidence is quite mixed. For every example of democratic participation moderating extremists, we have examples where it seems that democratic participation merely empowers them (e.g., the current trajectory of Hamas).

In the end, democratic enlargement still doesn’t pass the crucial test: it isn’t worth, in the absence of other compelling strategic concerns, the costs of preventative war. Those who rumble about expanding the Bush doctrine to Iran ought to keep that in mind.

Cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns, and Money.

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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.