2005 May 09 Monday
A Critical Look At Natan Sharanky's Democracy Argument

Gerard Alexander writing for the Claremont Review of Books casts a critical eye on a book by Natan Sharansky and Ron Dermer, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror. Alexander argues that both the main empirical arguments of Sharansky's book are wrong.

The evidence for these claims is mixed at best. Research on the "democratic peace" is easily misunderstood. It shows, for example, that the U.S. has basically never gone to war against a democracy; but this does not suggest that it has waged war against all that many dictatorships. Wars may be more likely between democracies and non-democracies, but these wars aren't especially likely, either. It is true that both the Soviet Union and Palestinian radicals— Sharansky's focus—have highly aggressive agendas. But his claim that non-democratic regimes are "inherently" belligerent is difficult to square with the fact that most dictatorships do not manifest military designs on democratic countries. It is symbolic, in this respect, that America in the 20th century shared its two famously undefended borders with democratic Canada and authoritarian Mexico.

The evidence is even scarcer that non-democratic regimes inevitably generate extremism among their citizens. Some may have, such as Nicaragua and Iran in the 1970s and Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian territories since the 1980s. But in Africa, Latin America, and East Asia, non-democratic regimes have not, as a general rule, generated violent extremism. Most of Western Europe's historic dictatorships incubated more moderation than radicalism, which is why many of them evolved peacefully into today's consolidated democracies. For that matter, well over a dozen substantially Muslim countries in Africa and Central Asia have so far not generated much extremism, despite durable authoritarian rule. Indeed, one of Sharansky's core cases doesn't support his claim: the USSR seems to have incubated apathy, not extremism.

This highlights a fundamental contradiction in the book. Sharansky argues that non-democratic regimes are doomed to see their citizens move increasingly in the direction of freedom. But a few pages away he argues that non-democratic regimes inevitably produce enraged and profoundly illiberal citizens who are easy fodder for radical recruiters. Which is it? If tyrannies produce not only Mohammed Attas but also Natan Sharanskys, then they must have effects far more complex than he suggests. To make matters worse, violent extremism has been bred, and sustained, in democratic Northern Ireland, and jihadis have found ready recruits among Muslims who are lifelong residents and even citizens of democratic Britain, France, and Israel.

If Sharansky's arguments are wrong then the neocon rationale for their attempt to spread democracy is also wrong. The sorry history of US attempts to change other nations with military force argues against the view that democracy is a panacea. Robert Conquest, one of the rare scholars who called the nature of the Soviet Union correctly, argues that the current promotion of democracy by the chattering classes is a form of madness of the crowds. Also, see my partial list of reasons why democratization efforts in the Middle East are naive. The recent Islamic "Golden List' victories in Saudi municipal elections are only the most recent example of why democracy is not a panacea.

Sharansky recently resigned from Ariel Sharon's cabinet due to Sharansky's opposition to the removal of about 7000 Jewish settlement occupants from the Gaza Strip. My cynical view of Sharansky's argument for Palestinian democracy is that he's setting the bar so high on Palestinian behavior precisely so that Israel never has to grant the Palestinians either self rule or firm borders that clearly separate them from Israel.

Update: Steve Sailer, after citing a number of democracies that have fought each other, points out that democracy is more likely a consequence of the same conditions that make a society less likely to want to invade other countries.

I think, though, that the main reason democracies don't fight each other much is because if the objective situation makes war likely, democracy is unlikely too. Notice that Britain simply suspended its constitutional requirement for a General Election in 1940 for the duration of the war to prevent democracy from interfering with the more important business of winning the war.

Similarly, if a country has disputed borders and a restive minority, democracy is unlikely. For example, Croatia was a dictatorship during its war with Serbia over the Serbs who wanted to break away from the Croatian break-away state. It didn't let Serbs, or anybody else, vote. In 1995, however, Croatia won its war and ethnically cleansed the Serbs out of Croatia (with American backing). Once it became a mono-ethnic state with an undisputed border, it rapidly turned into a democracy.

So, democracy is more likely in comfortable countries that don't need to gird their loins for desperate battle, which is why they haven't gotten into wars with each other.

Our problem with the undemocratic countries stems from the qualities that make them undemocratic, not the fact that they are undemocratic.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 May 09 09:28 AM  Reconstruction and Reformation

John S Bolton said at May 9, 2005 11:27 AM:

Those who value openness to diversity, or find it convenient to pretend to do so, are in a gross quandary over how to respond to hostiles from other countries. The most impractical alternative of all, though, is to say that we have to spread democracy and our rule of law everywhere. Merely to enunciate the nature of that hyperaggressive option, is to expose it as an utterly nonviable one. War is a serious matter, not to be undertaken out of fear of being called a racist or xenophobe for enforcing barriers against hostile foreigners. The flippancy of the neocons, in embracing war and imperialism, just to maintain their cosmopolitanistic and tolerant image, is an intellectual and moral monstrosity of the first order.

noone said at May 10, 2005 4:23 AM:

"It shows, for example, that the U.S. has basically never gone to war against a democracy"

I believe Britain was about as democratic in 1812 as the U.S.,which did nothing to stop the War of 1812,did it?

gcochran said at May 10, 2005 11:00 AM:

Seems to me that both the North and South were reasonably democratic, in the Civil War. Wilhelmine Grmany had a significant parliament.

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