2011 March 27 Sunday
Stephen Walt On Failed Liberal Foreign Interventions

Harvard political science prof Stephen Walt takes a look at the social science findings on interventions by liberal states that fail to transform target states in desired ways. Sure, those targets change. But, whoops, not in the ways intended.

Before France, Britain, and the United States stumbled into its current attempt to dislodge Muammar al-Qaddafi from power in Libya -- and let's not kid ourselves, that's what they are trying to do -- did anyone bother to ask what recent social science tells us about the likely results of our intervention?

I doubt it, because recent research suggests that we are likely to be disappointed by the outcome. A 2006 study by Jeffrey Pickering and Mark Peceny found that military intervention by liberal states (i.e., states like Britain, France and the United States) "has only very rarely played a role in democratization since 1945." Similarly, George Downs, and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New York University found that U.S. interventions since World War II led to stable democracies within ten years less than 3 percent of the time, and a separate study by their NYU colleague William Easterly and several associates found that both U.S and Soviet interventions during the Cold War generally led to "significant declines in democracy." Finally, a 2010 article by Goran Piec and Daniel Reiter examines forty-two "foreign imposed regime changes" since 1920 and finds that when interventions "damage state infrastructural power" they also increase the risk of subsequent civil war.

Back in 2004 I did a post about political science research into how US interventions usually fail. Walt's post covers more recent research that comes to similar conclusions. If past experience was our guide we would not try to convert so many countries to democracies. But the faith of our elites in our secular religion remains quite strong. I suspect that faith is going to begin to fade in the next 10 years for a variety of reasons. I'm impatiently awaiting the day when both domestic and foreign policy becomes based on a more rational assessment of human nature.

Robert Conquest, accomplished historian of the Soviet Union, also took a dim view of trying to establish democracy in infertile soil.

One very important social science consideration that is rarely mentioned (with notable exceptions) when it comes to the Middle East: Consanguineous marriage where people marry close relatives, cousins most often. The secretive hbd chick has a post about the high rate of consanguineous marriage in Libya. This high rate does not bode well for democracy in Libya.

Speaking of failed liberal foreign interventions, Megan McArdle argues the American intervention in Iraq created many obstacles for business formation that remain in effect.

Update: Lou Pagnucco points to a podcast interview of Stephen Walt about the US intervention in Libya and comparisons with previous US interventions. Walt would make a good US national security advisor. I wonder what Brent Scowcroft thinks of the current (faltering) intervention.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2011 March 27 02:54 PM  Reconstruction and Reformation

Lou Pagnucco said at March 27, 2011 7:18 PM:

The U.S. should still be happy to be ruled by benevolent, empathetic, self-sacrificing (even if misguided) idealists. No?

Make Believe Media said at March 27, 2011 8:53 PM:

It is possible that the definition of "success" used by the instigators of these interventions are different from the political scientists and the average Joe out there. (That is, their "failure" might have been a requirement.)

jerry said at March 27, 2011 10:35 PM:

We shouldn't be trying to establish democracy in infertile soil. We should be bombing the hell out of Britain, France, and Canada, for starts, until they stop putting people in jail for political dissent. A couple of laser-guided bombs in the headquarters of the Parti Socialiste and the Labour Party ought to do the trick. That's nation building you can believe in!

British guy said at March 28, 2011 9:58 AM:

fair enough jerry, but you need to tactical the home front first.

Lou Pagnucco said at March 30, 2011 8:31 AM:

In the following two short videos, General Wesley Clark clearly states that the PNAC-coup cabal decided to use their control over the U.S. Government/Military to take out these seven countries in five years -

Iraq - Syria - Lebanon - Libya - Somalia - Sudan - Iran



So are these really "failed Liberal foreign interventions" or successful destabilizations of Neocons' enemies?

Lou Pagnucco said at March 30, 2011 8:42 AM:

And, here is a short audio podcast March 29 interview of Stephen Walt -


no i don't said at March 30, 2011 12:36 PM:

Check this out. Isn't this guy just wonderful?


He's just great! Some of the best the U.S. has produced.

hbd chick said at April 3, 2011 3:56 PM:

i happened across some extra info on consanguinity rates in libya that support the high rate that i had posted from the u.n. updated my libya post today to include these new numbers:


hbd chick (^_^)

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