Do we know what it takes to implant democracy in a foreign land? For over a century now, the United States has been sending troops into troubled countries and trying to establish free and stable governments. While the results have not always been disappointing, the track record overall is not good.

The results of our first effort, the 1898 intervention in Cuba, are typical. Following the Spanish-American War, the U.S. administered Cuba for four years, turning power over to an elected Cuban president in 1902. A violent revolution forced him from office, and U.S. troops came back in 1906. After more reforms and new elections, we again turned power over to the Cubans in 1909. More instability ensued, including another violent revolt. American Marines came back yet a third time in 1917, restored order, set up another constitutional regime, and withdrew in 1922. Cuba has since seen a succession of unstable and autocratic regimes, most recently the totalitarian dictatorship of Fidel Castro.

Recent nation-building efforts—in Haiti, in Afghanistan, in Iraq—seem to indicate that our understanding has not progressed since the days of the Cuban intervention. The problem isn’t that we have the wrong theory about nation-building. Policymakers simply don’t have any theory. The practice has been to assume that wherever U.S. troops end up as a result of this or that foreign-policy initiative, a democracy can be made to flourish. Our approach is that of hikers who set out assuming that any place they choose to stop will make a suitable campsite. Surely the time has come to question this expectation. There are bound to be countries where democracy cannot be made to succeed, at least not within any reasonable timeframe. We might save ourselves frustration, and guide policy more intelligently, if we identify those places.

While nation-builders have casually assumed that democracy can be established anywhere, scholars have gone to the opposite extreme. For them, democracy is a delicate flower that requires a host of social and institutional prerequisites from literacy, education, property ownership, and income equality to an impartial judiciary and a professional civil service. This comprehensive list greatly overshoots the mark, defining a practically perfect society not likely to exist anywhere. To understand real-world democracy, we need to put aside the wish list of academics and focus on the bare minimum needed for democracy to exist.

What is that minimum? A restraint in the use of violence in domestic political affairs. In a functioning democracy, we tend to take this condition for granted. We assume that opposition leaders do not routinely try to shoot their way into power. We assume that presidents do not routinely jail and murder their opponents. In many foreign lands, however, people resort to violence in political disputes. They are willing to kill—and to risk being killed—to counter a perceived wrong or to implement what they believe to be right—or just to get themselves in power. In these high-violence societies, democracy cannot thrive.

This is not to say that democracies need perfect domestic peace. They can survive instances of isolated violence. There is an enormous difference, which observers usually ignore, between an assassination carried out by a lone killer and one planned by political leaders and condoned by a large segment of the public. The former has no more political significance than a fatal automobile accident. The latter sets the stage for a civil war or a dictatorial crackdown. It is not the assassination, riot, or terrorism that identifies a high-violence society. It is the fact that these acts of violence are deliberately used as tools by some leaders in their struggle against others. Leaders who employ them are not repudiated; their followers excuse their bloody deeds as necessary, understandable tactics.

The idea that there are national differences in the disposition to resort to political violence takes some getting used to, for it is politically incorrect to suggest that one group of people might be significantly different from another. We are not, however, speaking of a biological or genetic difference. The inclination to resort to violence is a cultural orientation transmitted from one generation to another and, as the historical record clearly shows, it can be unlearned.

There’s a second reason we resist the notion that some cultures are more politically violent than others: we assume that motives are the complete explanation for violence. At least since John Locke, we have been taught to interpret violence as the understandable response to an “intolerable” situation. The American Revolution is a classic example. The cause of this violence is supposed to have been the justified anger of the colonists at the “long train of abuses and usurpations” of King George. Using the same logic, we say that people are revolting in this or that foreign land because they have a strong reason to: they are hungry, they are a disparaged minority, or they are fanatics who want to impose their religion or ideology.

Of course, motives, ideals, and ideologies do play a role in political violence. No one takes up the sword for no reason. But in every country, there always are possible motives for violence. There are always grievances, injustices, and abuses, and there are always extreme worldviews and ideologies. What we overlook is that in some cultures, participants readily give these grievances violent form, while in more peaceful cultures the same grievances do not produce a violent reaction.

For example, a common complaint of those who start civil wars is that they have been the victims of an unfair electoral process, that they were cheated out of their rightful victory. At first glance, this seems an adequate motive for a revolt. A closer look reveals, however, that elections in democracies frequently involve serious irregularities that the losers believe robbed them of victory. Yet they do not turn to violence. The election of George W. Bush in 2000 is an example. In addition to the claims of ballot irregularities in Florida, this election violated a core principle of democracy: the candidate who obtained the most popular votes nationwide was denied victory (by the Electoral College arrangement). Many Democratic leaders were—and still are—angry about that election, but they did not turn to force to retaliate.

The point is profoundly paradoxical. In an established democracy, participants do not take up arms to protest even a transgression of democratic principles, such as a case—real or imagined—of electoral fraud. The hallmark of these societies is a relatively low disposition to resort to political violence for any reason. In a high-violence society, even apparently trivial ones, seem to provoke a violent reaction.

There is yet another issue that gets in the way of our ability to recognize a high-violence society: our inclination to take sides in foreign political disputes. There have been times in certain countries when one political group is a gang of thugs and almost everyone else is peaceful and decent. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to perceive all politics everywhere in these terms. We see a dictator using force to repress and persecute his opponents. Naturally we condemn him, but then, as part of the psychological mechanism of taking sides, we further assume that his opponents are blameless. Sometimes this really may be the case. But in many Third World situations, this impulse to look for “good guys” leads us to overlook the fact that many or most of the other participants are rather thuggish by democratic standards.

Iraq affords a good illustration of this process of distortion. Saddam Hussein was certainly a nasty dictator. There was no phase of violence he did not engage in, from murdering rivals and massacring minority groups to invading neighboring countries. In the process of taking sides against him, however, many observers were led to suppose that he alone was responsible for the violence in Iraq. This meant that all the other participants—Shi’ites, Kurds, and so on—were seen as blameless and peaceful. From this perspective, removing Saddam could result in a stable, peaceful regime. Unfortunately, the assumption was and is wrong. Iraq is a high-violence society. There are many participants disposed to act in thuggish ways, and their violence makes a democracy virtually untenable.

It is understandable that we should condemn the brutality of a foreign dictator. But our disapproval should not lead us to assume that the ruler is the only one in that society disposed to use force.

How does a high-violence society get to be that way? While a natural question to ask, it betrays a misunderstanding. It suggests that a violent politics is a variable condition, like an illness that can be contracted, gotten over, and then contracted again. As we look into the political history of different cultures, we do not see this up and down pattern. Instead, we find that all countries seem to begin as high-violence societies, and then they evolve away from this pattern. Many years ago, countries like England, France, Italy, and Norway were all characterized by an extremely violent politics. For example, the regime of Henry VIII in England was as violent and as vicious as any modern dictatorship. Henry murdered not just inconvenient wives, but scores of noblemen—even children—as well as loyal aides and advisors. Henry wasn’t the only one who lived by the sword in those days. He faced revolts in Lincolnshire, Scotland, Ireland, and Yorkshire. The Yorkshire revolt was put down with the aid of a promise of amnesty, which Henry subsequently betrayed, ordering his henchmen to perform “dreadful execution” on “the inhabitants of every town, village, and hamlet that have offended.” Today we call this genocide; in the old days, it was politics as usual.

Hence, a high violence-society does not get that way from any particular cause or condition. It is better understood as a country mired in the past, a country that has failed to make the transition away from a highly violent politics. When it comes to political violence, Iraq in the early 21st century is almost exactly what England was in the mid-15th century. The question we need to ask, then, is not what went wrong with Iraq, it is what went right with England—and the other areas that evolved away from the violent politics of an earlier time.

This is not a simple question. Political violence is a topic that has been all but ignored by historians and political scientists, and as a result we have very little knowledge about how and why a society evolves away from a violent politics. The best we can do at this point is to sketch out some preliminary observations.

First, the evolution away from violence appears to take a long time. It may seem from our modern perspective that political violence is wrongheaded and inefficient, and therefore it ought to be rather easy to tell people to stop it. Unfortunately, the impulse to violence is embedded in and reinforced by a broad cultural mindset, one that encompasses a host of attitudes, including intolerance, naiveté, hubris, paranoia, and emotionalism. It may not take centuries, as it did in England, to overcome this profoundly immature outlook, but it cannot be talked away in a week, a year, or even a decade.

Second, because the evolution away from violence is mainly a cultural change, it is little affected by institutional measures. The adoption of a certain kind of constitution, for example, will not make much difference. In the 19th century, countries all over Latin America copied the American Constitution on the theory that this paper document was the cause of U.S. political stability. These attempts to imitate American institutions failed to check the furious pace of revolution. England proves the converse of the point: it evolved to a peaceful politics without the benefit of any written constitution.

Third, it seems likely that growing wealth plays an underlying role in assisting the evolution away from force. As people become wealthier, they live better, and their lives are more pleasant. Hence, they begin to place a greater value on their lives and, by extension, on the lives of others. This is not, in the main, a mechanical, rational process. A man who becomes rich and comfortable does not suddenly abandon his violence-prone outlook. Instead, the effect of prosperity percolates through the culture, gradually changing the underlying perspectives related to violence.

Fourth, another factor that probably promotes the movement away from violence is communication. Communication enables observers to see the folly and waste of violence in conflicts that do not directly involve them. Again, this effect is not a direct or mechanical one. It’s not enough for people to notice that a war is foolish. This perception must gradually enter thought processes and culture, weakening the attractions of war, lowering the status of professions related to war, and so on.

Fifth, the movement away from violence probably begins with the elites, since elites are the first to experience prosperity and its life-enhancing effects. Elites are also the first to benefit from communication (universities, books), and thus are likely to be the first to question the traditional emphasis on violence. The lower classes, for whom life is harder and therefore less valued, probably remain more disposed toward violence in the early stages of the society’s evolution toward a peaceful politics.

A society that has made some progress toward a nonviolent politics can retrogress, for a time, when the lower classes become politically active. In 18th-century France, for example, politics within the established elites was relatively nonviolent. Political murder had been abandoned for over a century. The popular classes, however, were still strongly oriented toward violence. They carried out bloody riots and, finally, the Revolution of 1789 and endorsed and sustained the bloody leaders who came to the fore at that time.

Sixth, it is possible for a small criminal subgroup to gain control of a government in a society that has made a nearly complete transition to low-violence politics. Once in control, this subgroup may establish an extremely violent dictatorship—which gives a misleading picture of society’s overall attachment to force. This is the “gang of thugs” possibility mentioned earlier.

The takeover by these violent leaders is facilitated by two circumstances: 1) a naïve, vigorous ideology that justifies extreme measures including violence, and 2) a body of lower-class followers who accept, or at least excuse, political violence. An example of this pattern was Hitler’s takeover in Germany in 1933. By the 1920s, Germany had made most of the transition away from being a high-violence society. Political murder among elites was many centuries in the past, there had been freedom of the press for decades, and a number of open elections. The American reporter William L. Shirer observed, “Most Germans one met—politicians, writers, editors, artists, professors, students, businessmen, labor leaders—struck you as being democratic, liberal, even pacifist.” Hitler was a deviant from this elite culture, a leader who combined demagogy and violence in a lethal brew. The pattern was similar in Italy where, again, a thug—Mussolini—used a simplistic ideology and violent lower-class followers to gain control of a basically peaceful country. Japan followed a similar route. There, a group of younger army officers, crazed by a primitive nationalistic ideology, turned to extreme violence, pushing a liberal society into a militaristic dictatorship.

In all three countries, all that was needed to have a democracy was the removal of the violent leadership cadre and discrediting of its violent ideology. The drafting of a constitution and implementing of reforms—though they may have been beneficial in themselves—were not necessary to allow a peaceful, democratic politics to re-emerge. The populace was already relatively peaceful.

These observations suggest that if one is going to invade a country and overthrow a dictatorship in the hope of seeing democracy there in short order, one should be sure it is not a high-violence society. One needs to gauge the extent to which participants outside the dictatorship group are peaceful. If democracy already was to some extent functioning prior to the dictatorship—as seen by competitive elections and relative freedom of expression—that is a sign that most participants in the country are rather peaceful and that democracy can succeed once the dictator is removed.

On the other hand, if the country has nothing but violent traditions—dictatorship, repression, political murder, and revolt—then it is naïve to expect that democracy could be quickly established.

In these high-violence societies, an occupying country may pay lip service to the goal of establishing democracy, but that is, in the short term, a hopeless goal. In practice it will end up pursuing a policy of stability, which involves these elements: 1) violent repression of the most visible violent opposition forces; 2) truces with gangs and warlords willing to keep a lower profile; and 3) the creation of a puppet government that eventually becomes, or gives way to, a dictatorship. After many decades of autocratic rule, the society may achieve the transition away from violence, thus making it possible for a democracy to emerge.

A good example of this pattern is the Philippines, which the United States occupied following the 1898 Spanish-American War. For the first 14 years, the U.S. administration was busy suppressing revolts (in which reportedly 200,000 locals were slain). Following independence in 1946, democratic politics was emerging with competitive elections and some freedom of expression. But violence was not far away, first in the form of the Hukbalahap Rebellion, defeated in 1953, and later in riots and revolts that led to the autocracy of the Marcos regime. This relatively mild dictatorship was chased from office by public demonstrations in 1986. That date may perhaps be said to mark the country’s coming of age as a full democracy.
It would not be correct to say, then, that a high-violence society like Iraq cannot become a democracy. It probably will become one in the long run. One doubts, however, that those who urged the invasion of Iraq in order to establish democracy there had any inkling that the process is likely to take the better part of a century.

James L. Payne has taught political science at Yale, Wesleyan, Johns Hopkins, and Texas A&M. His most recent book is A History of Force. A longer version of this article will appear in the spring issue of The Independent Review.