Lessons in Forced Democracy

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, September 17, 2007

Four years ago, during a speech in Manila, President Bush drew an analogy between the history of the Philippines and the history he was rewriting in Iraq.

"Democracy always has skeptics," Bush said. "Some say the culture of the Middle East will not sustain the institutions of democracy. The same doubts were proved wrong nearly six decades ago, when the Republic of the Philippines became the first democratic nation in Asia."

Since 2003, Bush has rarely mentioned the Philippines. But as the nation debates Gen. David H. Petraeus's recent report on the state of the Iraq war, a new study by political scientists Andrew Enterline and J. Michael Greig shows that the president ought to revisit his analogy.

Bush got some of his historical facts wrong, but his analogy turns out to be unintentionally accurate -- the Philippines is an excellent example of the risks, stakes and odds of imposing democracy on another country. By contrast, the oft-cited success stories of Japan and Germany turn out to be outliers.

Enterline and Greig's as yet unpublished study is a detailed examination of 41 cases over about 200 years where one nation has tried to impose democracy on another. As Washington debates the success of the recent U.S. "surge" in Iraq, the study offers a sobering glimpse of the big picture -- not the odds that the Iraqi insurgency will go up or down, but the odds that a stable democracy will emerge in the country.

A third of all democracies imposed by one nation on another fail within the first 10 years of their establishment, Enterline and Greig found. Strong democracies, such as the ones set up in Germany and Japan, that last beyond 20 to 30 years seem to survive indefinitely.

But 75 percent of weak democracies, where elections are held but the civic institutions that shore up a democracy are weak or missing, die within the first 30 years. According to the definitions used by the political scientists, the democracy in Iraq, like others established by European colonial powers in Africa and Asia, is extremely weak.

"Their trajectory of failure deepens so that 90 percent have failed by their 60th year, and most have failed well before that," said Greig, who teaches with Enterline at the University of North Texas.

Contrary to what Bush suggested in Manila, American involvement in the Philippines began at the turn of the 20th century. It was only after running the Philippines as a colony for decades, losing it to Japan during World War II and then wresting it back, that the United States established a weak democracy -- and it proved short-lived. Strongman Ferdinand Marcos was in power for two of the six decades Bush hailed, and the country suffered severe repression. An indigenous democracy movement sprouted in the late 1980s but remains precarious.

"President Bush mentioned the Philippines early on, but he stopped because the implication was it could take 50 years to get a very weak democracy," Enterline said. But "that might be a better analogue than West Germany and Japan."

Those two success stories had all four of the ingredients that Enterline and Greig found make for successful impositions of democracy: large occupation forces early on to stamp out nascent insurgencies; a clear message that occupation forces were willing to spend years to make democracy work; an ethnically homogenous population, where politics was less likely to splinter along sectarian lines; and finally, the good fortune to have neighbors that also were democratically minded, or at least neighbors who could be kept from interfering.

Iraq, unfortunately, has none of the four ingredients.

"Trying to create a democracy in an ethnically diverse society is very dicey and historically very difficult, so to expect the opposite in Iraq runs counter to what has happened historically," Enterline said. "The initial plan was democracy in Iraq would radiate outward and democratize the Middle East, but if you place a democracy in the middle of authoritarian regimes, what we found is the democracy oftentimes fails and becomes like its neighbors."

Enterline and Greig said there is one large exception to their finding: India, with its myriad internal divisions, but which still has become a strong democracy. Civic culture and a strong desire for representative government undoubtedly play a role in whether stable democracies emerge, Greig said -- meaning that Iraq might yet defy the odds.

But should the U.S. effort to impose democracy on Iraq fail, Enterline and Greig's historical data show that the chance of reestablishing democracy there will be even dimmer than it was before the war. Imposed democracies that fail seem to undermine subsequent attempts at democracy.

"We have to get it right now, or it would be much more difficult to do in the future," Greig said. When an imposed democracy fails, "citizens learn that democratic institutions are not effective in dealing with the problems in their societies, so the society becomes less likely to push for democracy in the future."

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