Foreign Policy Contradictions and Undetermined Democratic Transitions

A few days ago I was perusing the BBC News site and came across an article by Tara Mckelvey that interested me. Suggestively titled “Is President Obama cosying up to dictators?” this piece is concerned with assessing how the Obama administration compares to its predecessors on democracy promotion. The author cites evidence that Obama administration has changed tactics to a more subtle approach rather than the overt posturing and direct funding of democratic activists that marked the G. W. Bush administrations. Despite this, Mckelvey notes that the total amount of funding for democracy promotion under Obama is actually higher than it was under G. W. Bush, however despite these democracy promotion efforts the U.S. remains close with several authoritarians in the Middle East. The author also claims that although overall democracy in the world is increasing, why it is so remains unclear:

“Still transitions are hard. And no-one really knows why they happen or what makes an authoritarian nation turn into a democracy. Meanwhile the US has been a bundle of contradictions.”

It is important that the public know about U.S. foreign policies such as democracy promotion through funding of democratic reformers and the work that IFES does. Mckelvey provides useful information in the article in this respect. However, the above excerpt reveals a two serious problems when viewed from the perspective of a political scientist.

First, Mckelvey is missing a key point about U. S. foreign policy that is essential to understanding the apparent contradiction between democracy promotion and aiding authoritarians. Well it is often broadcast to the American public and even to other actors in the international system that the U.S. is primarily interested in promoting human rights, the rule of law, and participatory democratic institutions throughout the world, the actual foreign policy agenda of the Obama administration reflects a different end goal: stability. It is well known to political scientists that rational actors in the international system desire stability for political, economic, and geostrategic reasons; political scientist Samuel Huntington has analyzed this extensively in his 1968 book Political Order in Changing Societies. While human rights and democracy are admirable goals, they cannot substitute stability goals for an administration that inherited two complicated wars/statebuilding projects, is challenged by rampant instability in the Middle East among allies and potentially hostile state alike, and faces political challenges at home. In terms of military commitments, the price of oil and other tied commodities, and the increased potential of state-sponsored terrorism, the U.S. currently cannot afford to forcefully promote democracy in the MENA region at the expense of insuring stability.

Second, Mckelvey rightly points out the overall increase in democracies worldwide since 1989. The figure below shows aggregated democracy scores by region and for the entire world (dark blue line). It is clear that democracy has indeed been increasing globally, with transitions in Eastern Europe (fall of communism), Sub-Saharan Africa (decolonization) and Latin America (transition from military dictatorships) driving global average increasingly higher. However, the author’s statement that the causes of democratic transitions are basically undetermined is not exactly true. Transitions are indeed “hard” but they are not unexplored in the scientific literature.

Average aggregate POLITY institutionalized democracy scores 1960-2012. Higher values indicate stronger democratic institutions.
Average aggregate POLITY institutionalized democracy scores 1960-2012. Higher values indicate stronger democratic institutions.

From the 1980s onward, political scientists have studied regime transitions in abstract and in specific cases (O’Donnel and Schmitter 1986, Linz and Stepan 1990, Przeworski 1991, Yashar 1997, Colomer 2000, Brownlee 2007). The comparative democratization literature and the persistent authoritarianism literature have contributed several relevant explanations as to why transitions occur and why they succeed or fail including rational decisionmaking among elites, the effect of mass social movements, political culture, economic conditions, institutional design, and international pressure. Detailed explanations of these factors are beyond the scope of this blog post, but suffice it to say we (political scientists) do have suggestions why transitions occur and why authoritarian regimes may turn into democracies. We also have many empirically-based claims on why transitions are particularly hard in persistently authoritarian places like the MENA region (see green line in above figure).

It is important to note, however, that Mckelvey and other journalists are likely not to blame for the misunderstanding that the causes and correlates of democratic transitions are unexplored. Instead, if there is blame to spread in this scenario, it rests mostly with political scientists themselves.

Few political scientists actively advertise the knowledge that we accrue in areas like transitions to democracy. Most scholarly work is simply that: written by scholars for other scholars. Empirical work on democratization seldom makes it past the small audience of other comparativists and international relations scholars. Some political scientists will try to engage policymakers, even fewer will try to engage the public. Often we assume that empirical work will be lost on non-political science audiences (which admittedly may be true) and so appeals to wider audiences come across as goal-oriented suggestions or partisan accounts rather than scientific explanations and predictions.

I am not suggesting that scholars write for a wider audience when presenting results of their research in papers and (most) books, as this is not always appropriate.  I do think that political scientists should start using newspaper and magazine contributions, blogs, and social media to reach journalists and the wider public. A great example of a political scientist doing this is Jay Ulfelder, who does forecasting on political development and instability. Another example is The Monkey Cage blog which features several political science contributors and is now located at the Washington Post, a good way to expand readership beyond other political scientists. Hopefully in the future journalists and others will at least be aware that topics like transitions to democracy have been studied at length by political scientists, so that features and editorials can better address such topics.