February 12, 2006

Two Cheers for Neo-Realism

I have been reading Carles Boix's much-talked-about article The Roots of Democracy in Policy Review. Boix lays out a case for a "neo-realist" foreign policy position -- kind of a "yes, but..." to the idea of democratic transformation as a foreign-policy strategy.  I have both quibbles with and further supporting evidence to his argument, but on the whole I think a logical Anglospherist foreign policy could fall within the broad parameters of neo-realism as Boix defines it.  He is good on the cultural roots of democracy. Passages such as the following could have come from any of the gang on Seedlings, and indeed will be familiar ground to any regular reader of this blog:

Although coming in sundry forms and with different degrees of intensity, this political and economic landscape of stagnation dominated the whole world until the modern period. Its transformation and the progressive democratization of previously illiberal societies took place through two different paths. The first one developed in the long haul, caused by economic modernization. The second path was short and abrupt, triggered by war and occupation.

Democratization resulted, on the one hand, from modern development. Commercial capitalism, then followed by an industrial take-off, led to the spread of wealth, the erosion of the relative value of immobile assets and natural resources, and more economic equality. These new conditions then made the transition to liberal democracy possible. This economic and political transformation proceeded in waves. It first happened in an almost self-generating fashion in a few places located in the North Atlantic area — Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands, the Rhine area of Germany, Switzerland, and the Northern states of the United States — where no monarch was able to suffocate pre-existing medieval and pluralistic institutions in the name of modern absolutism. The parliamentary institutions of those nonabsolutist states protected the interests of merchants and investors and hence allowed the latter to take advantage of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As capital accumulated in the already developed core, it gradually spilled over to the near periphery — particularly when the latter had either stable political institutions or foreign military pacts (generally with the United States) that credibly protected capital against the threat of expropriation. This is the story behind the boom of Southern Europe and, to some extent, of East Asia in the postwar period. Once those countries grew in the 1960s and 1970s, they went through very peaceful transitions to democracy in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

In those countries that had neither an equal agrarian economy, like Norway or some Swiss cantons, nor equalization through economic development, democratization rarely came peacefully from within. Even enlightened tyrants do not pass economic and institutional reforms to equalize conditions, since doing so would jeopardize their grip on power. It is true that authoritarian states sometimes push for economic reforms to industrialize their countries, as Meiji Japan did in the late nineteenth century. But their reforms, mostly implemented in response to foreign military competition, rely on the heavy intervention of the state and the creation of big industrial conglomerates tightly linked to the governing elite, hence avoiding a distribution of assets conducive to democracy.

Without society-centered economic development, the destruction of the old authoritarian elite (and of the institutions that blocked growth) comes about only as a result of war, defeat, and foreign occupation. This is the case of Central and Eastern Europe and of East Asia. It took World War ii and the Allies’ victory to destroy the ancien régime’s social coalitions and political institutions hindering democracy and economic development. The story of political instability and authoritarian governments that burdened Germany and Italy in the first half of the twentieth century ended only with American occupation. Similarly, the United States democratized Japan and imposed key agrarian reforms in Korea and Taiwan that would then sow the seeds for growth and liberal institutions. Although its consequences were otherwise catastrophic, the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe made tabula rasa of the past quasi-feudal structures of that area. Once the ussr collapsed, Eastern Europeans could easily transit to democracy in a way they were unable to before World War II.

Boix also recognises that democracy has successfully been imposed by military force a number of times, particularly when the military power also imposes some of the pther preconditions of democracy.  As he points out, India fits none of the usual prerequisites for democracy, but they have made the institutions the British forced on them work for fifty years now.

In fact, the Anglosphere's experiences offer evidence to support both the point that democracy is a complex phenomenon and stems from a very specific and not easily replicable set of conditions and circumstances (British and American history, for example) and the point that, nevertheless, Anglosphere democratic institutions have taken root reasonably well in a wide variety of nations with quite different civilizational backgrounds (most importantly, in India). It also offers the cautionary examples of places like Zimbabwe, where the forms of democracy are maintained, although just barely, but the essence is being strained to the vanishing point.

I will probably post more on this topic in the near future.  The whole idea of
neo-realism is appealing.  Anglospherist analysis makes me uncomfortable with the idea that democracy is a simple toolkit that can just be dropped in on peoples (I have said that over and over again) but it clearly can be introduced into seemingly unlikely societies. I just can't buy hard-core realist theory, and I think it's frequently been a failure over the last 30 years where it has been tried.

So, for the moment, two cheers for neo-realism. Democracy is not a fashion or style that can just be parachuted into a society and expected to flower. On the other hand, there are by now quite a few examples of societies in which democratic seeds have been nurtured and tended, and have flowered on previously barren soil. (East Asia, for instance, was once thought to be inherently hostile to democracy -- yet Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and at least sporadically several other areas have managed to establish functioning multiparty democracies.) If neo-realism helps us focus on exactly what must be done to make democracy take root (and Boix makes several intelligent suggestions) it could be more useful than either being blind cheerleaders for democracy-by-parachute, or always settling for the "he's a bastard, but at least he's our bastard" school of foreign policy.

Posted by James C. Bennett at February 12, 2006 06:14 PM

Carles Boix sounds like a Catalan ;)
Seriously, I'll click on the link to read it. Although I don't subscribe to the neorealist school, I would agree that democracy isn't a toolbox that allows people to build a house. Democracy is more than constitutions and taking turns holding power. Democracy is about habits: learning how to use Robert's rules (or the equivalent for each language) establishing association of likeminded people, etc.
It's also cultural so to encourage democracy in a society that doesn't have the experience is to find those elements such as consulatation, consesus building, historical experience that are conducive and won't provoke resistence by the people.


Posted by: xavier at February 12, 2006 08:39 PM


This neo-realist concept ties in well with a concept Charles Krauthammer wrote about last summer in The National Interest called Democratic Realism, or what I like to call Targeted Democratization. In short, apply the tools of democratizing a region (neo-liberal economic reforms, reforming the judicial system, growing a civil society) in the aftermath of unavoidable conflict. As I like to put it, using globalist means (Krauthammer calls them "Democratic Globalists". I don't like calling them "neo-conservatives")towards realist ends (stability in a region).

Posted by: Colin at February 13, 2006 02:12 PM

Put together, Boix and Krauthammer seem to be moving toward a middle ground, that probably always had existed, but was not visibly articulated.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at February 13, 2006 02:44 PM

There are 3 areas where democracy has failed:

)Africa - I believe this is because unitary societies do not exist, almost everybody's loyalty is to their tribe before the nation, even when the tribe is Afrikaaner. Similar situations exist in former Yugoslavia (though for reasons to long to go into I think the wars were NATO sponsored), Cyprus, Ulster & for a long time the southern states of the US. In such situations a winner takes all democracy may be the problem rather than the solution.

2) Latin America - you can say latin temperament but at least part of this must be that the US found it a lot easier to deal with dictators than with the complications of unruly democracies. In Europe the US found democracy to be an ally against Stalin but this was not universally true.

3) The Moslem world - this may also be because moslems are enjoined by religion to treat non-Moslem individuals & to a lesser extent ideas as part of the out group. Or it may be coincidence. Or it may be the effect of Saudi money sponsoring wahabbist "schools". Or because the US found sheiks were easier to negotiate oil deals with.

Posted by: Neil Craig at February 17, 2006 09:24 AM

The imposition of democracy is a fascist act.

Posted by: misallot at March 14, 2006 04:16 AM