DISCUSSION PAPER: Why the United States Should Spread Democracy

Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Introduction – After the Cold War ended, promoting the international spread of democracy seemed poised to replace containment as the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy. Scholars, policymakers, and commentators embraced the idea that democratization could become America's next mission. In recent years, however, critics have argued that spreading democracy may be unwise or even harmful.

This paper addresses this debate. It argues that the United States should promote democracy and refutes some of the most important arguments against U.S. efforts to spread democracy. After a brief discussion of definitions of democracy and liberalism, the paper summarizes the reasons why the spread of democracy— especially liberal democracy— benefits the citizens of new democracies, promotes international peace, and serves U.S. interests. Because the case for democratization is rarely made comprehensively, the paper explicates the arguments for why democracy promotes liberty, prevents famines, and fosters economic development. The logic and evidence of a democratic peace are also summarized, as are the ways in which U.S. security and economic interests would be advanced in a world of democracies.

These benefits to U.S. interests include a reduction in threats to the United States, fewer refugees attempting to enter the United States, and better economic partners for American trade and investment. The paper then turns to a rebuttal of four prominent recent arguments against the benefits of spreading democracy:

(1) the claim that the democratic peace is a myth; (2) the argument that the process of democratization increases the risk of war; (3) arguments that democratic elections are harmful in societies that are not fully liberal; and (4) claims that “Asian values” can undergird polities based on “soft authoritarianism” that are superior to liberal democracies. The paper argues that these recent critiques of U.S. efforts to promote democracy have not presented a convincing case that spreading democracy is a bad idea. The international spread of democracy will offer many benefits to new democracies and to the United States. The democratic peace proposition appears robust, even if scholars need to continue to develop multiple explanations for why democracies rarely, if ever, go to war.

The evidence on whether democratization increases the risk of war is mixed, at best, and policies can be crafted to minimize any risks of conflict in these cases. The problem of “illiberal democracy” has been exaggerated; democratic elections usually do more good than harm. The United States should, however, aim to promote liberal values as well as electoral democracy. And the “soft authoritarian” challenge to liberal democracy was not persuasive, even before the Asian economic turmoil of 1997 and 1998 undermined claims for the superiority of “Asian values.”

Introduction – In recent years, however, many writers have criticized the idea that the United States should attempt to spread democracy. The Clinton administration's commitment to spreading democracy seems to have faltered, and critics from across the political spectrum have argued that the United States should scale back or abandon efforts to foster global democratization.4 In a prominent article, Robert Kaplan has argued that holding democratic elections in many countries may actually hinder efforts to maintain ethnic peace, social stability, and economic development.5 Fareed Zakaria has suggested that elections in countries without liberal values create illiberal democracies, which pose grave threats to freedom.6

This paper argues that the United States should make promoting democracy abroad one of its central foreign-policy goals. Democracy is not an unalloyed good and the United States should not blindly attempt to spread democracy to the exclusion of all other goals, but U.S. and global interests would be advanced if the world contained more democracies. It often will be difficult for the United States and other actors to help countries to become democracies, but international efforts frequently can make a difference. The United States can promote democracy. In many cases it should.

I develop the argument for promoting democracy in three parts. The first section of this paper defines democracy and the closely related concept of liberalism. It distinguishes between democratic procedures of government and the political philosophy of liberalism, but also explains how the two are closely linked.

The second section outlines the main arguments for why spreading democracy benefits the inhabitants of newly democratizing states, promotes peace in the international system, and advances U.S. interests. This section presents logic and evidence that demonstrates that the spread of democracy consistently advances many important values, including individual freedom from political oppression, deadly violence, and hunger. It also will show how the spread of democracy promotes international peace and stability, and helps to ensure the security and prosperity of the United States.

The third section summarizes and rebuts some of the most prominent recent arguments against promoting democracy. These arguments include criticisms of the democratic peace hypothesis, the proposition that the process of democratization actually increases the risk of war, claims that in many countries democratic elections are at best irrelevant and at worst harmful, and the argument that the emergence of the “Asian model” of political and economic development demonstrates that liberal democracy is neither appropriate nor necessary in many countries.

I. Defining Democracy and Liberalism

A. Defining Democracy

“Democracy” is notoriously difficult to define. Some writers have simply defined it by what it is not: “Democracy is a system in which no one can choose himself, no one can invest himself with the power to rule and, therefore, no one can abrogate to himself unconditional and unlimited power.”7 Other scholars have offered a variety of definitions. Philippe Schmitter and Terry Karl offer the following definition: “Modern political democracy is a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives.”8 Joseph Schumpeter's influential 1942 definition saw the “democratic method” as “that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people's vote.”9 Samuel Huntington “defines a twentieth-century political system as democratic to the extent that its most powerful collective decision makers are selected through fair, honest, and periodic elections in which candidates freely compete for votes, and in which virtually all the adult population is eligible to vote.”10 The plethora of definitions of democracy has stimulated many scholars to analyze and compare how the term is defined.11

Attempts to define democracy are further complicated by the differences between the democracy of ancient Greece and contemporary democracy. Classical Athenian democracy was based on the ideals of full political participation of all citizens, a strong sense of community, the sovereignty of the people, and equality of all citizens under law.12 Modern democracy, on the other hand, relies on elected representatives and tends to draw a distinction between the public and private spheres, thereby eroding the bonds of community and fostering individualism. Because most writers use the term democracy to apply to modern, representative political systems, I will call such regimes democracies even if they fall short of the ancient Greek ideal of direct participatory democracy.

Most contemporary definitions of democracy have several common elements. First, democracies are countries in which there are institutional mechanisms, usually elections, that allow the people to choose their leaders. Second, prospective leaders must compete for public support. Third, the power of the government is restrained by its accountability to the people. These are the essential characteristics of political democracy.

Some writers add additional criteria to the list of what makes a polity a democracy. Larry Diamond argues that a democracy must have “extensive civil liberties (freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom to form and join organizations).”13 Samuel Huntington recognizes that democracy “implies the existence of those civil and political freedoms to speak, publish, assemble and organize that are necessary to political debate and the conduct of electoral campaigns.”14

These attempts to expand the criteria for democracy reveal that it makes more sense to talk about degrees of democracy instead of neatly dividing states into democracies and nondemocracies. Some states may be more democratic than others; drawing the line between democracy and nondemocracy will usually be a matter of judgment. They also highlight the importance of the distinction between democracy and liberalism.

B. Liberalism and Democracy

Democracy can be defined as a set of political procedures involving participation and competition, but liberalism is a political philosophy that is based on the principle of individual freedom. As one scholar puts it, “liberalism's ends are life and property, and its means are liberty and toleration.”15 Liberalism calls for guarantees of the rights of the individual, including freedom from arbitrary authority, freedom of religion, the right to own and exchange private property, rights to equal opportunity in health care, education, and employment, and the rights to political participation and representation.16 Only the last category of rights is necessarily guaranteed in polities that meet the procedural definition of democracy.

Most democracies are liberal democracies to some degree. The Western industrial countries combine procedural democracy with guarantees of civil liberties. Any state that embraces liberal principles is likely to become a democracy, because political participation, competition, and accountability are perhaps the best guarantees that individual freedoms will be preserved. Thus the terms “liberal” and “democracy” often go hand in hand. It is possible, however, that a country could be an illiberal democracy. For example, states with official racialist or nationalist ideologies might choose their leaders in elections but deny liberty to members of particular minority groups. Serbia and Iran are contemporary illiberal democracies. It is also possible-although unlikely-that a country could be a liberal state without being a democracy.17 The political philosopher Michael Walzer makes this point: “Even in the absence of free elections, it is possible to have a free press, religious freedom, associational pluralism, the right to organize unions, the right to move freely, and so on.”18 In the 19th century Britain embraced liberal principles before it extended the franchise and became a democracy. In theory, a polity governed by a benevolent despot could respect most or all of the individual liberties associated with liberalism. In practice, relatively few contemporary states are liberal without being democratic.

C. America's Goal: Liberal Democracy

Given the variety of definitions of democracy and the distinction between democracy and liberalism, what type of government should the United States attempt to spread? Should it try to spread democracy, defined procedurally, liberalism, or both? Ultimately, U.S. policies should aim to encourage the spread of liberal democracy. Policies to promote democracy should attempt to increase the number of regimes that respect the individual liberties that lie at the heart of liberalism and elect their leaders. The United States therefore should attempt to build support for liberal principles-many of which are enshrined in international human-rights treaties-as well as encouraging states to hold free and fair elections.

Supporting the spread of liberal democracy does not, however, mean that the United States should give the promotion of liberalism priority over the growth of electoral democracy. In most cases, support for electoral democracy can contribute to the spread of liberalism and liberal democracy. Free and fair elections often remove leaders who are the biggest impediments to the spread of democracy. In Burma, for example, the people would almost certainly remove the authoritarian SLORC regime from power if they had a choice at the ballot box. In South Africa, Haiti, and Chile, for example, elections removed antidemocratic rulers and advanced the process of democratization. In most cases, the United States should support elections even in countries that are not fully liberal. Elections will generally initiate a process of change toward democratization. American policy should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good by insisting that countries embrace liberal principles before holding elections. Such a policy could be exploited by authoritarian rulers to justify their continued hold on power and to delay elections that they might lose. In addition, consistent U.S. support for electoral democracy will help to bolster the emerging international norm that leaders should be accountable to their people. Achieving this goal is worth the risk that some distasteful leaders will win elections and use these victories at the ballot box to legitimize their illiberal rule.

The United States also should attempt to build support for liberal principles, both before and after other countries hold elections. Policies that advance liberalism are harder to develop and pursue than those that aim to persuade states to hold free and fair elections, but the United States can promote liberalism as well as electoral democracy, as I argue below.

II. The Benefits of the Spread of Democracy

Most Americans assume that democracy is a good thing and that the spread of democracy will be beneficial. Because the virtues of democracy are taken for granted, they are rarely fully enumerated and considered. Democracy is not an unalloyed good, so it is important not to overstate or misrepresent the benefits of democratization. Nevertheless, the spread of democracy has many important benefits. This section enumerates how the spread of democracy will improve the lives of the citizens of new democracies, contribute to international peace, and directly advance the national interests of the United States.

A. Democracy is Good for the Citizens of New Democracies

The United States should attempt to spread democracy because people generally live better lives under democratic governments. Compared to inhabitants of nondemocracies, citizens of democracies enjoy greater individual liberty, political stability, freedom from governmental violence, enhanced quality of life, and a much lower risk of suffering a famine. Skeptics will immediately ask: Why should the United States attempt to improve the lives of non-Americans? Shouldn't this country focus on its own problems and interests? There are at least three answers to these questions.

First, as human beings, American should and do feel some obligation to improve the well-being of other human beings. The bonds of common humanity do not stop at the borders of the United States.19 To be sure, these bonds and obligations are limited by the competitive nature of the international system. In a world where the use of force remains possible, no government can afford to pursue a foreign policy based on altruism. The human race is not about to embrace a cosmopolitan moral vision in which borders and national identities become irrelevant. But there are many possibilities for action motivated by concern for individuals in other countries. In the United States, continued public concern over human rights in other countries, as well as governmental and nongovernmental efforts to relieve hunger, poverty, and suffering overseas, suggest that Americans accept some bonds of common humanity and feel some obligations to foreigners. The emergence of the so-called “CNN Effect”-the tendency for Americans to be aroused to action by television images of suffering people overseas-is further evidence that cosmopolitan ethical sentiments exist. If Americans care about improving the lives of the citizens of other countries, then the case for promoting democracy grows stronger to the extent that promoting democracy is an effective means to achieve this end.

Second, Americans have a particular interest in promoting the spread of liberty. The United States was founded on the principle of securing liberty for its citizens. Its founding documents and institutions all emphasize that liberty is a core value. Among the many observers and political scientists who make this point is Samuel Huntington, who argues that America's “identity as a nation is inseparable from its commitment to liberal and democratic values.”20 As I argue below, one of the most important benefits of the spread of democracy-and especially of liberal democracy-is an expansion of human liberty. Given its founding principles and very identity, the United States has a large stake in advancing its core value of liberty. As Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott has argued: “The United States is uniquely and self-consciously a country founded on a set of ideas, and ideals, applicable to people everywhere. The Founding Fathers declared that all were created equal-not just those in Britain's 13 American colonies-and that to secure the 'unalienable rights' of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, people had the right to establish governments that derive 'their just powers from the consent of the governed.'”21

Third, improvements in the lives of individuals in other countries matter to Americans because the United States cannot insulate itself from the world. It may be a cliché to say that the world is becoming more interdependent, but it is undeniable that changes in communications technologies, trade flows, and the environment have opened borders and created a more interconnected world. These trends give the United States a greater stake in the fate of other societies, because widespread misery abroad may create political turmoil, economic instability, refugee flows, and environmental damage that will affect Americans. As I argue below in my discussion of how promoting democracy serves U.S. interests, the spread of democracy will directly advance the national interests of the United States. The growing interconnectedness of international relations means that the United States also has an indirect stake in the well-being of those in other countries, because developments overseas can have unpredictable consequences for the United States.

For these three reasons, at least, Americans should care about how the spread of democracy can improve the lives of people in other countries.

1. Democracy Leads to Liberty and Liberty is Good

The first way in which the spread of democracy enhances the lives of those who live in democracies is by promoting individual liberty, including freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and freedom to own private property.22 Respect for the liberty of individuals is an inherent feature of democratic politics. As Samuel Huntington has written, liberty is “the peculiar virtue of democracy.”23 A democratic political process based on electoral competition depends on freedom of expression of political views and freedom to make electoral choices. Moreover, governments that are accountable to the public are less likely to deprive their citizens of human rights. The global spread of democracy is likely to bring greater individual liberty to more and more people. Even imperfect and illiberal democracies tend to offer more liberty than autocracies, and liberal democracies are very likely to promote liberty. Freedom House's 1997 survey of “Freedom in the World” found that 79 out of 118 democracies could be classified as “free” and 39 were “partly free” and, of those, 29 qualified as “high partly free.” In contrast, only 20 of the world's 73 nondemocracies were “partly free” and 53 were “not free.”24

The case for the maximum possible amount of individual freedom can be made on the basis of utilitarian calculations or in terms of natural rights. The utilitarian case for increasing the amount of individual liberty rests on the belief that increased liberty will enable more people to realize their full human potential, which will benefit not only themselves but all of humankind. This view holds that greater liberty will allow the human spirit to flourish, thereby unleashing greater intellectual, artistic, and productive energies that will ultimately benefit all of humankind. The rights-based case for liberty, on the other hand, does not focus on the consequences of increased liberty, but instead argues that all men and women, by virtue of their common humanity, have a right to freedom. This argument is most memorably expressed in the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness …”

The virtues of greater individual liberty are not self-evident. Various political ideologies argue against making liberty the paramount goal of any political system. Some do not deny that individual liberty is an important goal, but call for limiting it so that other goals may be achieved. Others place greater emphasis on obligations to the community. The British Fabian Socialist Sidney Webb, for example, articulated this view clearly: “The perfect and fitting development of each individual is not necessarily the utmost and highest cultivation of his own personality, but the filling, in the best possible way, of his humble function in the great social machine.”25 To debate these issues thoroughly would require a paper far longer than this one.26 The short response to most critiques of liberty is that there appears to be a universal demand for liberty among human beings. Particularly as socioeconomic development elevates societies above subsistence levels, individuals desire more choice and autonomy in their lives. More important, most political systems that have been founded on principles explicitly opposed to liberty have tended to devolve into tyrannies or to suffer economic, political, or social collapse.

2. Liberal Democracies are Less Likely to Use Violence Against Their Own People.

Second, America should spread liberal democracy because the citizens of liberal democracies are less likely to suffer violent death in civil unrest or at the hands of their governments.27 These two findings are supported by many studies, but particularly by the work of R.J. Rummel. Rummel finds that democracies-by which he means liberal democracies-between 1900 and 1987 saw only 0.14% of their populations (on average) die annually in internal violence. The corresponding figure for authoritarian regimes was 0.59% and for totalitarian regimes 1.48%.28 Rummel also finds that citizens of liberal democracies are far less likely to die at the hands of their governments. Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes have been responsible for the overwhelming majority of genocides and mass murders of civilians in the twentieth century. The states that have killed millions of their citizens all have been authoritarian or totalitarian: the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, Nazi Germany, Nationalist China, Imperial Japan, and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Democracies have virtually never massacred their own citizens on a large scale, although they have killed foreign civilians during wartime. The American and British bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan, U.S. atrocities in Vietnam, massacres of Filipinos during the guerrilla war that followed U.S. colonization of the Philippines after 1898, and French killings of Algerians during the Algerian War are some prominent examples.29

There are two reasons for the relative absence of civil violence in democracies: (1) Democratic political systems-especially those of liberal democracies constrain the power of governments, reducing their ability to commit mass murders of their own populations. As Rummel concludes, “Power kills, absolute power kills absolutely … The more freely a political elite can control the power of the state apparatus, the more thoroughly it can repress and murder its subjects.”30 (2) Democratic polities allow opposition to be expressed openly and have regular processes for the peaceful transfer of power. If all participants in the political process remain committed to democratic principles, critics of the government need not stage violent revolutions and governments will not use violence to repress opponents.31

3. Democracy Enhances Long-Run Economic Performance

A third reason for promoting democracy is that democracies tend to enjoy greater prosperity over long periods of time. As democracy spreads, more individuals are likely to enjoy greater economic benefits. Democracy does not necessarily usher in prosperity, although some observers claim that “a close correlation with prosperity” is one of the “overwhelming advantages” of democracy.32 Some democracies, including India and the Philippines, have languished economically, at least until the last few years. Others are among the most prosperous societies on earth. Nevertheless, over the long haul democracies generally prosper. As Mancur Olson points out: “It is no accident that the countries that have reached the highest level of economic performance across generations are all stable democracies.”33

Authoritarian regimes often compile impressive short-run economic records. For several decades, the Soviet Union's annual growth in gross national product (GNP) exceeded that of the United States, leading Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to pronounce “we will bury you.” China has posted double-digit annual GNP increases in recent years. But autocratic countries rarely can sustain these rates of growth for long. As Mancur Olson notes, “experience shows that relatively poor countries can grow extraordinarily rapidly when they have a strong dictator who happens to have unusually good economic policies, such growth lasts only for the ruling span of one or two dictators.”34 The Soviet Union was unable to sustain its rapid growth; its economic failings ultimately caused the country to disintegrate in the throes of political and economic turmoil. Most experts doubt that China will continue its rapid economic expansion. Economist Jagdish Bhagwati argues that “no one can maintain these growth rates in the long term. Sooner or later China will have to rejoin the human race.”35 Some observers predict that the stresses of high rates of economic growth will cause political fragmentation in China.36

Why do democracies perform better than autocracies over the long run? Two reasons are particularly persuasive explanations. First, democracies-especially liberal democracies-are more likely to have market economies, and market economies tend to produce economic growth over the long run. Most of the world's leading economies thus tend to be market economies, including the United States, Japan, the “tiger” economies of Southeast Asia, and the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Two recent studies suggest that there is a direct connection between economic liberalization and economic performance. Freedom House conducted a World Survey of Economic Freedom for 1995-96, which evaluated 80 countries that account for 90% of the world's population and 99% of the world's wealth on the basis of criteria such as the right to own property, operate a business, or belong to a trade union. It found that the countries rated “free” generated 81% of the world's output even though they had only 17% of the world's population.37 A second recent study confirms the connection between economic freedom and economic growth. The Heritage Foundation has constructed an Index of Economic Freedom that looks at 10 key areas: trade policy, taxation, government intervention, monetary policy, capital flows and foreign investment, banking policy, wage and price controls, property rights, regulation, and black market activity. It has found that countries classified as “free” had annual 1980-1993 real per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (expressed in terms of purchasing power parities) growth rates of 2.88%. In “mostly free” countries the rate was
0.97%, in “mostly not free” ones -0.32%, and in “repressed” countries -1.44%.38 Of course, some democracies do not adopt market economies and some autocracies do, but liberal democracies generally are more likely to pursue liberal economic policies.

Second, democracies that embrace liberal principles of government are likely to create a stable foundation for long-term economic growth. Individuals will only make long-term investments when they are confident that their investments will not be expropriated. These and other economic decisions require assurances that private property will be respected and that contracts will be enforced. These conditions are likely to be met when an impartial court system exists and can require individuals to enforce contracts. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has argued that: “The guiding mechanism of a free market economy … is a bill of rights, enforced by an impartial judiciary.”39 These conditions also happen to be those that are necessary to maintain a stable system of free and fair elections and to uphold liberal principles of individual rights. Mancur Olson thus points out that “the conditions that are needed to have the individual rights needed for maximum economic development are exactly the same conditions that are needed to have a lasting democracy. … the same court system, independent judiciary, and respect for law and individual rights that are needed for a lasting democracy are also required for security of property and contract rights.”40 Thus liberal democracy is the basis for long-term economic growth.

A third reason may operate in some circumstances: democratic governments are more likely to have the political legitimacy necessary to embark on difficult and painful economic reforms.41 This factor is particularly likely to be important in former communist countries, but it also appears to have played a role in the decisions India and the Philippines have taken in recent years to pursue difficult economic reforms.42

4. Democracies Never Have Famines

Fourth, the United States should spread democracy because the citizens of democracies do not suffer from famines. The economist Amartya Sen concludes that “one of the remarkable facts in the terrible history of famine is that no substantial famine has ever occurred in a country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press.”43 This striking empirical regularity has been overshadowed by the apparent existence of a “democratic peace” (see below), but it provides a powerful argument for promoting democracy. Although this claim has been most closely identified with Sen, other scholars who have studied famines and hunger reach similar conclusions. Joseph Collins, for example, argues that: “Wherever political rights for all citizens truly flourish, people will see to it that, in due course, they share in control over economic resources vital to their survival. Lasting food security thus requires real and sustained democracy.”44 Most of the countries that have experienced severe famines in recent decades have been among the world's least democratic: the Soviet Union (Ukraine in the early 1930s), China, Ethiopia, Somalia, Cambodia and Sudan. Throughout history, famines have occurred in many different types of countries, but never in a democracy.

Democracies do not experience famines for two reasons. First, in democracies governments are accountable to their populations and their leaders have electoral incentives to prevent mass starvation. The need to be reelected impels politicians to ensure that their people do not starve. As Sen points out, “the plight of famine victims is easy to politicize” and “the effectiveness of democracy in the prevention of famine has tended to depend on the politicization of the plight of famine victims, through the process of public discussion, which generates political solidarity.”45 On the other hand, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes are not accountable to the public; they are less likely to pay a political price for failing to prevent famines. Moreover, authoritarian and totalitarian rulers often have political incentives to use famine as a means of exterminating their domestic opponents.

Second, the existence of a free press and the free flow of information in democracies prevents famine by serving as an early warning system on the effects of natural catastrophes such as floods and droughts that may cause food scarcities. A free press that criticizes government policies also can publicize the true level of food stocks and reveal problems of distribution that might cause famines even when food is plentiful.46 Inadequate information has contributed to several famines. During the 1958-61 famine in China that killed 20-30 million people, the Chinese authorities overestimated the country's grain reserves by 100 million metric tons. This disaster later led Mao Zedong to concede that “Without democracy, you have no understanding of what is happening down below.”47 The 1974 Bangladesh famine also could have been avoided if the government had had better information. The food supply was high, but floods, unemployment, and panic made it harder for those in need to obtain food.48

The two factors that prevent famines in democracies-electoral incentives and the free flow of information-are likely to be present even in democracies that do not have a liberal political culture. These factors exist when leaders face periodic elections and when the press is free to report information that might embarrass the government. A full-fledged liberal democracy with guarantees of civil liberties, a relatively free economic market, and an independent judiciary might be even less likely to suffer famines, but it appears that the rudiments of electoral democracy will suffice to prevent famines.

The ability of democracies to avoid famines cannot be attributed to any tendency of democracies to fare better economically. Poor democracies as well as rich ones have not had famines. India, Botswana, and Zimbabwe have avoided famines, even when they have suffered large crop shortfalls. In fact, the evidence suggests that democracies can avoid famines in the face of large crop failures, whereas nondemocracies plunge into famine after smaller shortfalls. Botswana's food production fell by 17% and Zimbabwe's by 38% between 1979-81 and 1983-84, whereas Sudan and Ethiopia saw a decline in food production of 11-12% during the same period. Sudan and Ethiopia, which were nondemocracies, suffered major famines, whereas the democracies of Botswana and Zimbabwe did not.49 If, as I have argued, democracies enjoy better long-run economic performance than nondemocracies, higher levels of economic development may help democracies to avoid famines. But the absence of famines in new, poor democracies suggests that democratic governance itself is sufficient to prevent famines.

The case of India before and after independence provides further evidence that democratic rule is a key factor in preventing famines. Prior to independence in 1947, India suffered frequent famines. Shortly before India became independent, the Bengal famine of 1943 killed 2-3 million people. Since India became independent and democratic, the country has suffered severe crop failures and food shortages in 1968, 1973, 1979, and 1987, but it has never suffered a famine.50

B. Democracy is Good for the International System

In addition to improving the lives of individual citizens in new democracies, the spread of democracy will benefit the international system by reducing the likelihood of war. Democracies do not wage war on other democracies. This absence-or near absence, depending on the definitions of “war” and “democracy” used-has been called “one of the strongest nontrivial and nontautological generalizations that can be made about international relations.”51 One scholar argues that “the absence of war between democracies comes as close as anything we have to an empirical law in international relations.”52 If the number of democracies in the international system continues to grow, the number of potential conflicts that might escalate to war will diminish. Although wars between democracies and nondemocracies would persist in the short run, in the long run an international system composed of democracies would be a peaceful world. At the very least, adding to the number of democracies would gradually enlarge the democratic “zone of peace.”

1. The Evidence for the Democratic Peace

Many studies have found that there are virtually no historical cases of democracies going to war with one another. In an important two-part article published in 1983, Michael Doyle compares all international wars between 1816 and 1980 and a list of liberal states.53 Doyle concludes that “constitutionally secure liberal states have yet to engage in war with one another.”54 Subsequent statistical studies have found that this absence of war between democracies is statistically significant and is not the result of random chance.55 Other analyses have concluded that the influence of other variables, including geographical proximity and wealth, do not detract from the significance of the finding that democracies rarely, if ever, go to war with one another.56

Most studies of the democratic-peace proposition have argued that democracies only enjoy a state of peace with other democracies; they are just as likely as other states to go to war with nondemocracies.57 There are, however, several scholars who argue that democracies are inherently less likely to go to war than other types of states.58 The evidence for this claim remains in dispute, however, so it would be premature to claim that spreading democracy will do more than to enlarge the democratic zone of peace.

2. Why there is a Democratic Peace: The Causal Logic

Two types of explanations have been offered for the absence of wars between democracies. The first argues that shared norms prevent democracies from fighting one another. The second claims that institutional (or structural) constraints make it difficult or impossible for a democracy to wage war on another democracy.

a. Normative Explanations

The normative explanation of the democratic peace argues that norms that democracies share preclude wars between democracies. One version of this argument contends that liberal states do not fight other liberal states because to do so would be to violate the principles of liberalism. Liberal states only wage war when it advances the liberal ends of increased individual freedom. A liberal state cannot advance liberal ends by fighting another liberal state, because that state already upholds the principles of liberalism. In other words, democracies do not fight because liberal ideology provides no justification for wars between liberal democracies.59 A second version of the normative explanation claims that democracies share a norm of peaceful conflict resolution. This norm applies between and within democratic states. Democracies resolve their domestic conflicts without violence, and they expect that other democracies will resolve inter-democratic international disputes peacefully.60

b. Institutional/Structural Explanations

Institutional/structural explanations for the democratic peace contend that democratic decision-making procedures and institutional constraints prevent democracies from waging war on one another. At the most general level, democratic leaders are constrained by the public, which is sometimes pacific and generally slow to mobilize for war. In most democracies, the legislative and executive branches check the war-making power of each other. These constraints may prevent democracies from launching wars. When two democracies confront one another internationally, they are not likely to rush into war. Their leaders will have more time to resolve disputes peacefully.61 A different sort of institutional argument suggests that democratic processes and freedom of speech make democracies better at avoiding myths and misperceptions that cause wars.62

c. Combining Normative and Structural Explanations

Some studies have attempted to test the relative power of the normative and institutional/structural explanations of the democratic peace.63 It might make more sense, however, to specify how the two work in combination or separately under different conditions. For example, in liberal democracies liberal norms and democratic processes probably work in tandem to synergistically produce the democratic peace.64 Liberal states are unlikely to even contemplate war with one another. They thus will have few crises and wars. In illiberal or semiliberal democracies, norms play a lesser role and crises are more likely, but democratic institutions and processes may still make wars between illiberal democracies rare. Finally, state-level factors like norms and domestic structures may interact with international-systemic factors to prevent wars between democracies. If democracies are better at information-processing, they may be better than nondemocracies at recognizing international situations where war would be foolish. Thus the logic of the democratic peace may explain why democracies sometimes behave according to realist (systemic) predictions.

C. The Spread of Democracy is Good for the United States

The United States will have an interest in promoting democracy because further democratization enhances the lives of citizens of other countries and contributes to a more peaceful international system. To the extent that Americans care about citizens of other countries and international peace, they will see benefits from the continued spread of democracy. Spreading democracy also will directly advance the national interests of the United States, because democracies will not launch wars or terrorist attacks against the United States, will not produce refugees seeking asylum in the United States, and will tend to ally with the United States.

1. Democracies Will Not Go to War with the United States

First, democracies will not go to war against the United States, provided, of course, that the United States remains a democracy. The logic of the democratic peace suggests that the United States will have fewer enemies in a world of more democracies. If democracies virtually never go to war with one another, no democracy will wage war against the United States. Democracies are unlikely to get into crises or militarized disputes with the United States. Promoting democracy may usher in a more peaceful world; it also will enhance the national security of the United States by eliminating potential military threats. The United States would be more secure if Russia, China, and at least some countries in the Arab and Islamic worlds became stable democracies.

2. Democracies Don't Support Terrorism Against the United States

Second, spreading democracy is likely to enhance U.S. national security because democracies will not support terrorist acts against the United States. The world's principal sponsors of international terrorism are harsh, authoritarian regimes, including Syria, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, and Sudan.65

Some skeptics of the democratic-peace proposition point out that democracies sometimes have sponsored covert action or “state terrorism” against other democracies. Examples include U.S. actions in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, and Chile in 1973.66 This argument does not undermine the claim that democracies will not sponsor terrorism against the United States. In each case, the target state had dubious democratic credentials. U.S. actions amounted to interference in internal affairs, but not terrorism as it is commonly understood. And the perpetrator of the alleged “state terrorist” acts in each case was the United States itself, which suggests that the United States has little to fear from other democracies.

3. Democracies Produce Fewer Refugees

Third, the spread of democracy will serve American interests by reducing the number of refugees who flee to the United States. The countries that generate the most refugees are usually the least democratic. The absence of democracy tends to lead to internal conflicts, ethnic strife, political oppression, and rapid population growth-all of which encourage the flight of refugees.67 The spread of democracy can reduce refugee flows to the United States by removing the political sources of decisions to flee.

The results of the 1994 U.S. intervention in Haiti demonstrate how U.S. efforts to promote democratization can reduce refugee flows. The number of refugees attempting to flee Haiti for the United States dropped dramatically after U.S. forces deposed the junta led by General Raoul Cedras and restored the democratically elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, even though Haiti's economic fortunes did not immediately improve.68

In addition to reducing the number of countries that generate refugees, the spread of democracy is likely to increase the number of countries that accept refugees, thereby reducing the number of refugees who will attempt to enter the United States.69

4. Democracies will Ally with the United States

Fourth, the global spread of democracy will advance American interests by creating more potential allies for the United States. Historically, most of America's allies have been democracies. In general, democracies are much more likely to ally with one another than with nondemocracies.70 Even scholars who doubt the statistical evidence for the democratic-peace proposition, agree that “the nature of regimes … is an important variable in the understanding the composition of alliances … democracies have allied with one another.”71 Thus spreading democracy will produce more and better alliance partners for the United States.

5. American Ideals Flourish When Others Adopt Them

Fifth, the spread of democracy internationally is likely to increase Americans' psychological sense of well-being about their own democratic institutions. Part of the impetus behind American attempts to spread democracy has always come from the belief that American democracy will be healthier when other countries adopt similar political systems. To some extent, this belief reflects the conviction that democracies will be friendly toward the United States. But it also reflects the fact that democratic principles are an integral part of America's national identity. The United States thus has a special interest in seeing its ideals spread.72

6. Democracies Make Better Economic Partners

Finally, the United States will benefit from the spread of democracy because democracies will make better economic partners. Democracies are more likely to adopt market economies, so democracies will tend to have more prosperous and open economies. The United States generally will be able to establish mutually beneficial trading relationships with democracies. And democracies provide better climates for American overseas investment, by virtue of their political stability and market economies.

III. Responses to Criticisms of U.S. Efforts to Promote Democracy

A. The Controversy Over the Democratic Peace

Although many political scientists accept the proposition that democracies rarely, if ever, go to war with one another, several critics have challenged claims of a democratic peace. By the late 1990s, proponents and critics of the democratic peace were engaged in a vigorous and sometimes heated debate.73 Participants on both sides claimed that their opponents had been blinded by ideology and refused to view the evidence objectively.74 Because of this intense and ongoing controversy, establishing the case for the democratic peace now requires rebutting some of the most prominent criticisms.

Critics have presented several important challenges to the deductive logic and empirical bases of the democratic peace proposition. They have argued that there is not a convincing theoretical explanation of the apparent absence of war between democracies, that democracies actually have fought one another, that the absence of wars between democracies is not statistically significant, and that factors other than shared democratic institutions or values have caused the democratic peace.

The critics of the democratic peace have presented vigorous arguments that have forced the proposition's proponents to refine and qualify the case for the democratic peace. These criticisms do not, however, refute the principal arguments for the democratic peace. As I argue below, there is still a compelling deductive and empirical case that democracies are extremely unlikely to fight one another. Moreover, the case for spreading democracy does not rest entirely on the democratic-peace proposition. Although those who favor promoting democracy often invoke the democratic peace, the debate over whether the United States should spread democracy is not the same as the debate over the democratic peace. Even if the critics were able to undermine the democratic-peace proposition, their arguments would not negate the case for spreading democracy, because there are other reasons for promoting democracy. More important, the case for promoting democracy as a means of building peace remains sound if the spread of democracy merely reduces the probability of war between democracies, whereas “proving” the democratic peace proposition requires showing that the probability of such wars is at or close to zero.

1. Criticisms of the Deductive Logic of the Democratic Peace

Several criticisms of the democratic peace proposition fault the logic that has been advanced to explain the apparent absence of war between democracies. These arguments do not rest on an assessment of the empirical evidence, but instead rely on analyses and critiques of the internal consistency and persuasiveness of the theoretical explanations of the democratic peace. Critics have offered four major challenges to the logic of the democratic peace: (a) there is no consensus on the causal mechanisms that keep democracies at peace: (b) the possibility that democracies may turn into nondemocracies means that even democracies operate according to realist principles; (c) the structural-institutional explanation of the democratic peace is flawed, not least because its logic also would predict that democracies are less likely to be involved in any wars, not just wars with other democracies; and (d) the normative explanation of the democratic peace is unpersuasive.

a. Absence of Consensus on what Explains the Democratic Peace

The Argument: The first, and most general criticism of the deductive logic of the democratic peace proposition holds that the lack of agreement on what causes democracies to avoid war with one another calls the proposition into question.75 This argument suggests that scholars cannot be confident in an empirical finding when they cannot agree on its causes.

Response: The fact that several theories have been advanced to explain the democratic peace does not mean that we cannot be confident that democracies are unlikely to fight one another. There is no reason to assume that a single theory explains all the cases in which democracies have avoided war with one another. It is possible to be confident in an empirical finding even when many different explanations account for it. For example, it is empirically true that all human beings eventually die. (The discovery of evidence to refute this proposition would have profound biological, philosophical, and theological implications, not to mention its effects on retirement planning and the future of the Social Security system.) But there are many causes of death, each of which rests on a different logic of explanation. People die in wars, accidents, and violent crimes, as well as from AIDS, heart disease, numerous types of cancer, and Alzheimer's Disease, among many other factors. In some cases, the causal logic of the explanation of death is very clear. It is well understood how a bullet through the heart leads to death. In other cases, including many infectious and chronic diseases, the precise biological and physiological processes that cause death are not fully understood. Nevertheless, the variety of causal mechanisms and our incomplete understanding of many of them do not lead us to the conclusion that some human beings will not die.

Accounting for the absence of wars between democracies is somewhat similar to explaining why people die. Several causal mechanisms explain the absence of wars between democracies. In some cases, democracies avoid war because the distribution of power in the international system gives them strong incentives to remain at peace. In at least some of these cases, democratic decision-making processes may make democracies “smarter” and better able to recognize systemic incentives. When states share liberal values, they are unlikely to go to war because fighting one another would undermine liberal values such as respect for individual freedom. As John Owen has argued, democratic institutions may reinforce the incentives for peace provided by shared liberal principles.76 And there are probably additional explanations for why at least some democratic dyads have remained at peace. Proponents of the democratic peace need to refine the logic of each explanation and identify the conditions under which they apply, but the multiplicity of explanations does not mean that the democratic peace is invalid.

b. Democracies may Revert to Autocracy

The Argument: A second criticism of the logic of the democratic peace argues that democracies cannot enjoy a perpetual peace among themselves because there is always a possibility that a democratic state will become nondemocratic. This possibility means that even democracies must be concerned about the potential threat posed by other democracies. John Mearsheimer argues that: “Liberal democracies must therefore worry about relative power among themselves, which is tantamount to saying that each has an incentive to consider aggression against the other to forestall future trouble.”77 In other words, the realist logic of anarchy, which posits that states exist in a Hobbesian world of fear, suspicion and potential war, applies even to relations between democracies.78

Response: There are four reasons for rejecting claims that fears of democratic backsliding compel democracies to treat other democracies as they would treat any nondemocratic state. First, the historical record shows that mature, stable democracies rarely become autocracies.79

Second, democracies are able to recognize and respond to states that are making a transition from democracy to authoritarianism. Democratic states thus can pursue a policy of accommodation toward other democracies, hedge their bets with more cautious policies toward unstable or uncertain democracies, and abandon accommodation when democracies turn into nondemocracies. There is no reason to assume that democracies will become autocracies overnight and then immediately launch attacks on democracies.

Third, like some other realist arguments, the claim that states must give priority to preparing for an unlikely dangerous future development rests on flawed logic. It assumes that states must base their foreign policies almost entirely on w

Updated: November 30, -0001 — 12:00 am
Democracy Under Attack © 2017 - All news articles and images are property of their respected owners. Frontier Theme
%d bloggers like this: