And Now the Bad News

Saturday, October 30, 1999

In recent years, promoting democratization has become a cornerstone of United States foreign policy. In his 1994 State of the Union address, President Clinton identified the absence of war among democracies as a principal reason to foster democratization throughout the world. U.S. policymakers and various international economic organizations have also argued that democratization should be encouraged because it yields economic reform and growth.

There is ample reason to expect that, in the long run, political liberalization culminating in the establishment of stable, mature democracies will widen the zone of democratic peace and prosperity. In the short run, however, democratic transitions often promote war and undermine economic reform.


That democracies rarely fight each other is one of the best-known findings in the social sciences. Two explanations have been offered for what has been dubbed “the democratic peace.” First, wars impose costs on a country’s citizens. In a democracy, leaders are likely to abstain from wars because individuals who bear the costs of international conflict will impose stiff electoral retribution on those public officials who decide to engage in war. Further, the checks and balances inherent in democracies are expected to constrain heads of state who are considering the commitment of troops to battle. Second, democracies are characterized by norms regulating internal conflict, and such norms guide their relations with other democracies as well. Democracies come to view each other as inherently pacific, and this, in turn, helps defuse tensions and foster political cooperation among them.

Debates regarding the sources of the democratic peace have yet to be resolved. Nonetheless, there seems to be widespread acknowledgment that mature democracies rarely engage in wars with one another. This, however, does not imply that democratic transitions promote peace.


On the contrary, democratizing states are often quite belligerent. Democratization typically creates a syndrome of weak central authority, unstable domestic coalitions, and highly volatile mass politics. When new social groups are allowed onto the political stage, the range of interests that must be accommodated in a ruling coalition inevitably becomes broader. To bind together coalitions composed of groups with very different interests, political leaders in countries experiencing a democratic transition frequently rely on nationalist appeals. Once the nationalist fervor has been heightened, however, it can easily spin out of control and ultimately lead to war.

The problem is not that mass public opinion in democratizing states demonstrates a clear, persistent preference for the use of military force. In fact, public opinion often starts off highly averse to war. Rather, political leaders exploit their power in the imperfect institutions of partial democracies to create faits accomplis, control political agendas, and shape the content of media information in ways that promote belligerent pressure-group lobbies or pockets of militancy in the populace as a whole.

Virtually every great power has gone to war during the initial phase of its entry into the era of mass politics. Mid-Victorian Britain, poised between the partial democracy of the First Reform Bill of 1832 and the full-fledged democracy of the later Gladstone era, was carried into the Crimean War by a groundswell of belligerent public opinion. Napoleon III’s France, drifting from plebiscitary toward parliamentary rule, fought a series of wars designed to establish its credentials as a liberal, popular, nationalist brand of empire. The ruling elite of Wilhelmine Germany, facing universal suffrage but limited governmental accountability, was pushed toward World War I by its escalating competition with middle-class mass groups for the mantle of German nationalism. Japan’s Taisho “democracy” of the 1920s ushered in an era of mass politics that led the Japanese army to articulate an imperial ideology with broad-based appeal. In each case, the combination of incipient democratization and the material resources of a great power produced nationalism, truculence abroad, and a major war.

The contemporary era provides additional evidence that incipient or partial democratization can be an occasion for the rise of belligerent nationalism and war. Two pairs of states—Serbia and Croatia and Armenia and Azerbaijan—have found themselves at war while experimenting with varying degrees of partial electoral democracy. The electorate of Russia’s poorly institutionalized, partial democracy cast nearly a quarter of its votes for the party of radical nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. As Russia’s political environment becomes increasingly volatile, even more moderate politicians have adopted an increasingly imperial tone in their dealings with the neighboring former Soviet republics.

The available evidence suggests two key factors that influence the likelihood that democratization will promote war. The first factor is the degree to which domestic political power is concentrated in the hands of national officials and the strength of a country’s political institutions. Different countries undergoing democratization have experienced vast differences in the extent to which their central governmental bodies have been weakened. In contemporary Latin America, for example, democratic transitions have been relatively orderly and smooth processes marked by little domestic political instability. In many other cases, however (including those mentioned above), these transitions have been accompanied by considerable institutional instability and the substantial weakening of central governmental authority. Democratization is more likely to promote war if it is accompanied by considerable institutional decay and a much-weakened central government.

The second factor is whether political liberalization culminates in a mature democracy. Transitions that become stuck somewhere between autocracy and democracy lead to especially weak and poorly formed governmental institutions and are especially likely to promote war.


Not only does democratization increase the risk of war, but it also tends to hamper economic performance. During the past decade or so, various international organizations, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have pressed countries to liberalize both their political and their economic systems as a condition for the receipt of aid. Along with many government officials, they have viewed democratization as likely to promote economic reform. By increasing the political accountability of government officials to a country’s populace, democratization is expected to provide these officials with incentives to implement policies that enhance a country’s economic performance.

For a prime example of instability during a transition to democracy, one need look no further than Russia.

In contrast to this view, however, recent research indicates that democratization often impedes economic reform. For example, during transitions from nondemocratic to demo-cratic rule and before the establishment of stable democratic institutions, government officials may be tempted to engage in economically predatory behavior. Faced with the prospect of being driven from office, autocrats are likely to heavily discount the future benefits of promoting macroeconomic performance and to view the transition period as an opportunity to mismanage the economy for their own gain. Once a democratic transition has been completed and stable democratic institutions exist, public officials are likely to have less ability to engage in such mismanagement.

More generally, the tendency for democratizing regimes to be politically fragile and fragmented may limit the ability of policymakers to undertake economic reforms, which are facilitated by a strong and centralized government. This tendency also may compel governments in new democracies to consolidate power and build popular support or face the prospect of democratization’s reversal, including the restoration of autocracy. Distributing economic favors to influential groups in society is one means available to build such support, but these favors are also likely to distort the economy. For example, they often include commercial protection for relatively uncompetetive sectors of the economy and for elite groups that thrived under autocratic rule and pose a threat to a new democracy.

Compounding this tendency is the fact that democratization elicits demands for greater political participation and the reduction of central authority, both of which are difficult to reconcile with economic reform programs that impose substantial costs on society. Moreover, democratizing regimes often fail to develop the social welfare policies needed to buffer these costs. Because economic liberalization may create greater political pressure than democratizing regimes are able to bear, it may be postponed until after democracy is consolidated, thereby degrading a country’s economic development in the interim. Indeed, the experiences of various countries in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere during the post–World War II era provide ample evidence that democratization has often undermined economic reform.


During the past twenty-five years, a wave of democratization has occurred throughout the international system. This wave has been heralded by scholars and policymakers alike, who hope that it will promote peace and prosperity. In the long run, it may. But in the short run, democratic transitions can promote conflict and undermine economic performance. Developing techniques to manage these problems is among the most important challenges facing U.S. policymakers.