The “Low-Hanging Fruit” Theory of Democracy Promotion
Jamelle and Daniel Larison are, I think, absolutely right about the dangers of democracy promotion. Beyond the garden-variety problems posed by newly democratic governments, another thing to consider is that the so-called “third wave” of democratization already picked off countries with the most favorable preconditions for representative government. Here’s a good excerpt from Electing to Fight on the “low-hanging fruit” theory of democracy promotion (emphasis mine):
There is little reason to believe that the longstanding link between democratization and nationalist war is becoming obsolete. On the contrary, future transitions may be even more difficult and dangerous. The “third wave” of democratization in the 1980s and 1990s consolidated democratic regimes mainly in the richer countries of Eastern Europe, Latin America, Southern Africa, and East Asia. A fourth wave would involve more challenging cases: countries that are poorer, more ethnically divided, ideologically more resistant to democracy, with more entrenched authoritarian elites and with a much frailer base of governmental institutions and citizen-skills. Botched democratizations in such settings could give rise to grave threats to international peace and security. Wars of democratization are therefore likely to remain a central problem of international relations in the coming year.
Most people intuitively understand that it’s easier for democracy to take root in Latvia or Poland than in countries like Afghanistan or Azerbaijan. Granted, you can take this analysis too far – I seem to remember people arguing that Spain and Portugal were inherently less suitable for democracy than their Northern European counterparts – but it’s undeniably true that richer countries with prior exposure to Western political traditions do a better job of adopting representative government. You’d also be hard-pressed to find regions less hospitable to Western democracy than the Middle East and Central Asia, which happen to include the countries we’re most interested in democratizing.