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Democracy by America

by Daniel W. Drezner

Only at TNR Online
Post date: 03.12.03

It didn't take long for skeptics to dismiss George W. Bush's pledge to democratize a postwar Iraq. Antiwar activists saw the pledge as a transparent excuse for warmongering. And democracy advocates harshly, and justifiably--criticized the State Department for scotching plans for a postwar federal government in favor of a centralized regime.

But perhaps the most troubling criticism came from historians and area experts, who trained their sights on the neoconservative argument that Iraq can be the start of a larger wave of democratization across the Middle East. MIT historian John W. Dower has blasted the notion that an American occupation of Iraq would produce the same results as the 1945-1952 occupation of Japan. He argues that Japan's unconditional surrender and competent bureaucracy created uniquely favorable conditions for occupation, and that Japan's relatively homogeneous population helped it avoid "the religious, ethnic, regional and tribal animosities that are likely to erupt in a post-war Iraq." Edward Said, the doyen of Middle Eastern studies, has lectured neocons that no U.S. plan for democratization "sufficiently address[es] the country's seething internal factionalism and ethno-religious dynamic, particularly after 30 debilitating years under the Baath Party, U.N. sanctions, and two major wars."

It's not surprising that these experts would be so critical. Historians and area specialists traffic in the particular rather than the general; they have professional incentives to promote that line of discourse. On top of that, it is intellectually fashionable these days to believe that local conditions always triumph over grand theory. But the local conditions argument overlooks a crucial detail: Over the past century, international factors have been more important than domestic factors in determining the success of democratic transition and consolidation. And the international factors surrounding Iraq are more favorable than one might think.

Current perceptions of how regimes democratize have largely been shaped by what Samuel Huntington has labeled the "third wave" of democratization, during which states--in Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Pacific Rim--democratized through the internal overthrow of autocratic regimes.

But these perceptions aren't completely reliable. For one thing, they overlook the fact that external military force contributed to third-wave developments in Haiti, Panama, and the Balkans. More importantly, though, they ignore the main force behind Huntington's "second wave" of democratization (1943-1962): U.S. military occupation. Allied occupation contributed to a successful democratic transition not only in Japan, but in France, Italy, Austria, and West Germany; it pushed Greece, the Philippines, and South Korea toward democratization as well. As Notre Dame political scientist Guillermo O'Donnell, writing with European University Institute scholar Philippe Schmitter, concluded in 1986, "[T]he most frequent context within which a transition from authoritarian rule has begun in recent decades has been military defeat in an international conflict. Moreover, the factor which most probabilistically assured a democratic outcome was occupation by a foreign power which was itself a political democracy [emphasis added]."

Skeptics will cite Afghanistan and point out that military occupation alone hardly guarantees a full democratic transition. That analysis may be right as far as it goes, but it fails to address the question of why democratization tends to occur in waves. The answer is that there's another mechanism through which external forces matter: proximity to neighboring market democracies. Political scientists Jeffrey Kopstein and David Reilly, of the University of Toronto and Niagra University, point out in their examination of the economic and political freedoms in the post-communist world that the former communist countries currently enjoying the greatest freedoms were geographically closest to the Soviet Union's noncommunist perimeter. The authors conclude, "This suggests the spatially dependent nature of the diffusion of norms, resources, and institutions that are necessary to the construction of political democracies and market economies in the postcommunist [sic] era." In other words, the closer you are to liberal democracies, the easier it is for you to become a liberal democracy.

This would seem to be of little relevance in the Middle East, a region not exactly overrun by Jeffersonian democrats. But while it's true that Iraq borders Syria and Saudi Arabia--two of the more repressive regimes on the planet--it's also true that a healthy fraction of Iraq's neighbors have built or are building democratic institutions. To Iraq's north lies Turkey, a stable, liberal, and secular Muslim democracy whose government is furiously trying to adopt Western human rights norms as part of its bid for European Union membership. Iraq's eastern border is with Iran, a country that may not be liberal, but has been a practicing electoral democracy for two decades. More importantly, the majority of Iran's population wants further democratization and liberalization and has emphasized this point through routine mass protests. To Iraq's west lies Jordan, which the 2000 edition of the authoritative Freedom House country rankings named the most liberal Arab state (admittedly a dubious honor).

And, of course, there's the example of Northern Iraq, a predominantly Kurdish region in which two different parties--the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)--administer separate parcels of territory. By the standards of the Middle East, these areas are freely and fairly governed. As Human Rights Watch reported in September 2002, "Both the KDP and PUK administrations promulgated laws and adopted decisions aimed at the protection of fundamental civil and political rights, including freedom of expression and of association."

The area specialists aren't necessarily wrong; democratizing Iraq won't be easy. But the conditions aren't nearly as barren as these experts suggest, and the potential upside is enormous. If a democratic transition were to succeed in Iraq, then Syria, suddenly surrounded by established democracies (Israel and Turkey) and emerging democracies (Iraq and Jordan), might start to feel nervous as well. Combine democratization in the Fertile Crescent with the continued liberalization of Morocco, Bahrain, and Qatar, and suddenly the neocon vision of a fourth wave of democratization spreading across the Middle East begins to look plausible.

Links to relevant documentation and further information can be found here.


Daniel W. Drezner is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Sanctions Paradox (Cambridge 1999). He writes regularly at


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