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October 11, 2001 Falling into war is a danger for emerging democracies



by Sylvain Comeau

While taking the first difficult, painful steps toward democracy, do states become more volatile and dangerous? According to Edward Mansfield, the transition toward democracy can actually raise the odds of war.

“When states get stalled in the middle of this transition, they are more likely to get involved in war or initiate war,” the University of Pennsylvania political scientist told a Concordia audience last week.

“Many observers expect that democratization will promote peace, prosperity, and respect for civil liberties. While stable democracies may foster these worthy ends, transitions to democracy can be treacherous processes.”

Mansfield and his colleagues computed in a study that there is an 11-per-cent chance that states in these circumstances will get embroiled in a war.

“So one out of nine times, these conditions lead to war. That may seem low, but in fact, it’s an awfully high batting average, because, thankfully, wars are a rare occurrence.”

Unstable political coalitions

The instability of a state in transition is the key, coupled with a lack of centralized authority and of democratic institutions, like a free press, to ease the transition. Under those conditions, war is more likely than in an autocratic state.

“New political groups are thrust onto the domestic stage, and yield unstable political coalitions in the face of weakened central authority. Nationalist appeals are the lowest common denominator used to cobble together ruling coalitions,” Mansfield said.

“These nationalist appeals can unleash forces which are difficult to control. Wars may be launched by elites who have military or imperial interests, or by countries that view those appeals as provocative, and launch pre-emptive wars.”

They may also be vulnerable to attacks from predatory neighbors who perceive them as weak. “Countries that undergo regime transitions suddenly look like more attractive targets to a neighbour with long standing grievances against them.”

He cited the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 as a prime example. Turkey at the time was ruled by a fragmented, improbable coalition. “Virtually the only points that this coalition of opposites held in common were a firmly nationalist stance on Cyprus, and a desire to stand up to the U.S. on this issue.”

Mansfield says that his study carries some lessons, and cautions for the comfortably democratized Western world.

“For a long time, people have assumed that as long as you start pushing countries toward democracy and give some advice about how to accomplish it, at the end of the day you end up with a country that would look more or less like the U.S. That has not worked, mainly because we have not helped them set up the pre-conditions leading to a stable democracy.

“It just doesn’t do any good to say that we’re going to democratize you, and then applaud from the sidelines while you do all the work. What you get are messes, and messes can be dangerous.”

International community’s role

He says that his study offers some guidelines on how we can help emerging nations move toward democracy, while bypassing the danger zone he identified.

“Policies to foster democratic transitions should be accompanied by efforts to mold strong, centralized institutions that can withstand the intense demands on the state and political elites posed by high-energy mass politics.”

“Before pressuring autocrats to hold fully competitive elections, the international community should first promote the building of strong party organizations, the formation of impartial courts and electoral commissions, the professionalization of independent journalists, and the training of competent bureaucrats,” Mansfield said.

“If mass politics arrives before the institutions needed to regulate it, hollow or failed democracy is likely to result.”

Asked whether his work has any bearing on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., Mansfield said that the conditions he discusses may also increase the likelihood of asymetrical warfare.

“Countries in transition toward democracy may be more likely to engage in terrorism, since they are breeding grounds for strong nationalistic sentiments.”

Edward Mansfield’s lecture was part of the Department of Political Science’s Seminar Series.