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Weak and Reckless Democracies (II)

Shadi Hamid has written a thoughtful response to my post on weak and reckless democracies:

It is hard to imagine a powerful IRGC – being the apparently maximalist actor it is – ever allowing the Greens to take power, unseating its pro-Ahmedinijad allies in the process. A democratic Iran, if it comes to be, will be an Iran where the IRGC is neutralized or forced to become something it currently isn’t.

That’s possible, but then I have a hard time imagining the Greens taking power without having to make significant compromises with the IRGC, such as accepting their role in the economy and tolerating at least some political influence. There would probably be red lines that the new civilian government would not be allowed to cross, and if those lines were crossed it might mean the establishment of a military government. This might resemble the interventions of the Turkish military whenever a civilian government was perceived to be threatening the Kemalist system. Democratic transitions from authoritarian governments with powerful military institutions do not have to leave powerful military institutions intact, but these transitions have occurred when military leaders have accepted their reduced role. Then there are states where the military tolerates the return of civilian rule, but not at the expense of its own economic and political interests. It seems more likely that Iran will be one of these. All of this is probably moot anyway, since I doubt very much that the Greens will take power in the foreseeable future, but it is useful for thinking about what it is that we mean when we speak about democratization and its effects on international relations.

Hamid and I are in agreement that “democracies, particularly young ones, can and do take needlessly aggressive action in their foreign policy.” I think we can also agree that overreaching by Georgia and Israel is a function of Bush-era aggressiveness and the foreign policy moral hazard effect of unconditional U.S. support that Leon Hadar defined and I cited in my last column. I suppose there is some “cherry-picking” in that I am selecting the most prominent examples of reckless military action by democracies, but part of the selection also involved choosing governments that most observers would agree are democratic.

There are others that could be added to the list that would not be widely recognized as democracies. Venezuela has acted provocatively and dangerously towards Colombia with its support for FARC rebels and its occasional sabre-rattling, but usually the harshest critics of Chavez’s actions deny the democratic origins and nature of his government. At this point, I think everyone would agree that Ethiopia is effectively an authoritarian state, but it retains the trappings of a democracy. We can all probably agree that Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia had far more to do with the ambitions of Zenawi and U.S. support for an “anti-terrorist” military campaign than it does with whatever form of government it has. Similarly, I think that an unelected authoritarian Georgian leader with the same anti-Russian nationalist concerns might have tried the same thing as Saakashvili. A more interesting question is whether any Georgian government dominated by a nationalist desire to reclaim the separatist republics would have acted more prudently. It could be that a hugely distorting factor in all of this is the expectation of U.S. backing, but that backing was another kind of recklessness endorsed by both parties here at home.

As long as the Megali Idea dominated Greek foreign policy for most of the first century of independence, democratic Greek governments actively pursued irredentism and national unification, and eventually plunged Greece into a series of ultimately disastrous wars. Indeed, as Greece became more of a mass democratic state Greece became more assertive in its ambitions to capture historic Greek territory from the Ottomans. It was Greek liberal democrats who were pushing for entry into WWI to secure more territory, while it was the monarch who wished to keep Greece neutral. Greece embarked on its most ambitious and disastrous campaign when it had formally been a parliamentary democracy for almost ninety years and had at least fifty years of experience as a mass democracy. Of course, Greece was encouraged in this foolish course by all the great democratic Allied powers, and Greece landed troops in Smyrna under the guise of enforcing an international treaty, but that does not make Venizelos and the voters who supported him less responsible. It was not for lack of well-established institutions and experience with democratic politics that Greece blundered into Anatolia. I mention the Greek example to make the point that the incentives for democracies with territorial claims against their neighbors are very different from democracies without them, and nationalist territorial and security objectives will have a destabilizing effect regardless of regime type.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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