Freedom to Fight

Political science professor examines why emerging democracies go to war.
April 25, 2006
“No mature democracies have ever fought a war against each other,” writes Edward Mansfield, the Hum Rosen Professor of Political Science. “Consequently, conventional wisdom holds that promoting the spread of democracy will promote world peace and security.” It’s a belief dearly held by the American foreign-policy establishment and a maxim supporting President Bush’s strategy in Iraq. Unfortunately, argue Mansfield and co-author Jack Snyder in Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War, the world is not so simple. In fact, they observe, the transition to democracy can give rise to violent conflict with neighbors, especially in states that do not have the strong political institutions needed to turn the wheels of democracy.

States that attempt the changeover from authoritarian regimes to democracy without a strong judicial system, a professional news media, organized political parties and other institutions of accountability are unlikely to complete the transition. “When these institutions are deformed or weak,” states Mansfield, “politicians are better able to resort to nationalist appeals, tarring their opponents as enemies of the nation, in order to prevail in electoral competition. The use of such appeals generally heightens the prospect that democratization will stimulate the use of force.” It’s a pattern that dates back at least to the French Revolution, the political scientists say, and they marshal quantitative data and case studies to support their claim. The adage about mature democratic states not warring against each other might be true, but the way to “democratic peace,” Mansfield and Snyder show, is a perilous path.