We Need to Stop Pushing for Democracy After Conflict

In countries emerging from conflict, rapid democratisation is not always the solution it is widely hailed to be.

It has become common since the end of the Cold War for the international community to take efforts to push post-conflict societies into democracies, and for communities themselves to push for democracy as well. The argument in favour of democracy is that it allows for some degree of self-governance, thus increasing the legitimacy of the state apparatus, and protecting the rights of citizens within the state. People who have lived under autocracies are likely to call for democracy for this reason — such as the calls during the Arab Uprising in 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria and so on.

Democracy as a means to bring peace

From the perspective of the international community — foreign policy observers, the United Nations, and other actors who express an interest in the internal affairs of foreign states — pushing for democratisation is attractive because it increases the likelihood of peace in the international system. This is based on the ideas expounded by ‘democratic peace theory’ popularised by Immanuel Kant in his essay ‘Perpetual Peace’, originally published in 1796. Kant argues that liberal democracies do not go to war with one another. This could be because citizens bear the costs of war, so if they are involved in decision-making through democratic means, they are less likely to support costly wars.

The discourse of actors in the international community suggests that they also support democratisation due to a fundamental liberal belief in the right to self-determination and self-governance, and this is seen to be achieved through democracy. However, as with many issues in politics and international affairs, such a linear view of the benefits of democratising post-conflict states appears to be premature.

Even without contesting the methodological basis of ‘democratic peace theory’, Mansfield and Snyder (1995) present empirical evidence that states that are in the process of democratising are more war-prone than either stable autocracies or stable democracies. This could be because populations are mobilised, there is a weakening of the state apparatus, or because competition — both political and economic — is encouraged. Given this, much literature has been devoted to the question of the trade-off between democratisation and order in highly-divided post-conflict societies. The study of this has significant policy implications for peace-building missions.

Democracy at the expense of liberalism

Fareed Zakaria, in The Rise of Illiberal Democracy (1997), argues that the emphasis on democratisation abroad is misplaced, coming at the expense of an emphasis on liberalisation. He argues that the Western model of ‘liberal democracy’ is coming apart in the rest of the world, leading to the rise of ‘illiberal democracy’. This is seen when states have some level of democracy — for example, governments are elected through open elections — but they use their power to repress minorities or citizens’ rights.

Instead, he argues that peace-builders should focus on spreading ‘constitutional liberalism’, which guarantees the rights of everyone in society in accordance with the rule of law. This is important, because the trend in the debate on democracy versus order is to take for granted that achieving democracy is desirable. Moreover, Zakaria presents a number of empirical cases suggesting that liberalism is likely to lead to democracy, whereas democracy will not necessarily lead to liberalism.


5 pathologies of liberalisation

However, even liberalisation in highly-divided societies emerging from conflict has its dangers, as it encourages competition and contest, rather than cohesion, in societies that are already divided, mobilised and conflict-prone.

Roland Paris (2004) points to what he calls the five “pathologies of liberalisation”, which render liberalisation in post-conflict societies dangerous:

  • “Bad civil society”: Promoting competition in a society that lacks the norms and mechanisms for navigating competition can be harmful, and may result in conflict.
  • “Opportunistic ethnic entrepreneurs”: These are people within society that can recognise the increased trend toward competition and harness it to mobilise ethnic masses and engender ethnic conflict. In The Dark Side of Democracy, Michael Mann expands on this risk, describing “ethnic cleansing” as a “modern” phenomenon, that is facilitated by the competition encouraged by democratising efforts.
  • Elections: Elections can serve as focal points for “destructive social competition”.
  • Economic liberalisation: Economic liberalisation encourages market competition, which can engender conflict. This is related to his first pathology, in its implicit distinction between “good” and “destructive” societal competition. A post-authoritarian society unaccustomed to regulated competition may erupt in conflict when competition is encouraged.
  • “Local saboteurs”: Opportunistic individuals and groups who act to undermine democracy.

Though these ‘pathologies’ are possible in all societies, Paris argues that they are particularly pertinent in post-conflict societies, due to “intense societal conflict”, “weak conflict dampeners”, and “ineffective political institutions”.

Institutionalisation before liberalisation

Observing these dangers of liberalisation in highly-divided, post-conflict societies, scholars have debated the ways in which these risks can be mitigated, so as to maintain order. Paris advocates for a strategy of “institutionalisation before liberalisation”, which argues that building effective institutions to regulate social competition and to create norms of effective competition within society are crucial prior to efforts of liberalisation. Indeed, Runciman, in a 2014 discussion with Francis Fukuyama on the successes and failures of liberal democracy, attributed the failure of democracy to take hold in the aftermath of the 2011 Egyptian revolution to the lack of effective democratic institutions in the country.

The fundamental argument of ‘institutionalisation before liberalisation’ is that market democracies are inherently tumultuous and conflict-inducing, and so “peace-builders should delay liberalisation and limit political and economic freedoms in the short run, in order to create conditions for a smoother and less hazardous transition to market democracy — and durable peace — in the long run”. The elements of this approach include waiting until conditions are ripe for elections, controlling hate speech, rewarding moderate behaviour and punishing extremist behaviour, and adopting conflict-reducing economic policies. According to Paris, this approach would both ensure order in the short term, and ensure and more stable democracy in the long term.

The fallacy of delaying democracy

However, the argument by Paris that his proposed approach would simply ‘delay’ democracy is too optimistic: the elements he proposes are also likely to prolong conflict in the short term, and institute mechanisms that favour certain groups within society over others in the long term, thus directly undermining democracy.

The language on rewarding ‘moderates’ and punishing ‘extremists’ constructs actors along a Manichean duality of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, rather than viewing actors within political society as having valid and legitimate claims to grievances and expression. Indeed, that language of ‘extremism’ has often been used in conflict and post-conflict societies to punish dissidents that the government saw as a threat. The Assad regime in Syria attempted to justify the bombings of eastern Ghouta in Damascus in February 2018 by claiming that it was fighting ‘terrorism’. The Turkish government justified crackdowns on the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) by labelling them as ‘terrorists’, and justified crackdowns on supporters of exiled Abdullah Gulen by labelling them ‘traitors’.

This argument is not to say that such language can never be used; rather, in post-conflict societies with significant cleavages, equipping a non-democratic government with the power to favour certain groups in the political sphere over others is not achieving ‘democracy’ in the sense of ‘rule by consent of the governed’; rather it is attaching normative judgement to who is and who is not fit to be chosen by ‘the governed’.

Autocratic leaders don’t want democracy

As well as that, the ‘institutionalisation before liberalisation’ approach rests on several false premises. The first premise is that autocrats are incentivised to build effective institutions for competition, that may jeopardise their own power. Autocrats in post-conflict societies are unlikely to reward the behaviour of political opponents who are likely to pose a threat to them. Rather, if they do build institutions for effective political and economic competition, they are more likely to ‘reward’ the opponents that pose the least threat, and to give reasons for punishing others, such as painting them as ‘extremists’. This goes hand in hand with the proposition by Paris to ‘control hate speech’. While he is right that a limitlessly free media in the heated aftermath of conflict may mobilise further violence, a restricted media also allows the government to paint dissidents and opponents in the way that best serves them strategically, under the guise of limiting ‘hate speech’.

The symbolic importance of elections

Secondly, the argument that delaying elections until the society is ‘ready’ will reduce conflict and help to achieve order discounts the appeal of elections to local populations. In agreement with Carothers (2007), this argument seems to rest on the overemphasis of the international community’s role in pushing for elections, and in underestimating the widespread appeal that elections have gained around the world.

Quick elections in the aftermath of conflict offer a visible, tangible sign that the needs of the population are being met, and that their say in their own governance is important. This is particularly so in highly divided societies, for whom there is bound to be a higher level of disagreement on who ought to govern the post-conflict society. Elections would serve as a practical and real signal to societies that they can mediate their differences through non-violent political means, rather than through combat.

Conversely, delaying elections in post-conflict societies, especially those that are highly divided, is likely to send the signal that the needs of fighters and different cleavages within society are being dampened rather than met, and is likely to disadvantage some groups at the expense of others. This does not incentivise combatants to cease their engagement in violent conflict. The longer elections are put off, the higher the likelihood that societies will feel that their needs are not being met, to become frustrated, and to revert to conflict.


Towards a more realistic gradualist approach

Rather, Carothers argues for an approach of “gradualism” rather than “sequentialism”. Rather than building institutions first, and then liberalising and democratising societies, Carothers argues that the dual aims of order and democracy are more likely to be achieved in the short term if the efforts to democratise post-conflict societies are immediate, but gradual.

Even if all the needs of groups in a given society are yet to be met, engagement in elections gives them a non-violent vehicle through which to express their grievances, as well as a clear signal that there are gradual steps being taken towards democracy, and thus towards their ability to self-govern. Carothers argues that the development of the rule of law, and the second stage of state-building which involves building a stable and effective state bureaucracy, are in fundamental tension with autocratic rule.

Whereas Paris bases his theory on the assumption that democracy is inherently tumultuous in its encouragement of competition, Carothers bases his theory of democratic gradualism on his belief in “democratic possibility”. Indeed, taking a gradual approach to democratisation and liberalisation, rather than a sequentialist one, accounts for the fact that competition is already existent in post-conflict society. Democratisation does not encourage further competition; its aim should be to provide the peaceful mechanisms and institutions through which competition can be mediated effectively. However, to prevent societies from engaging in political and economic competition is not a way to achieve order; it is more likely a way to generate further grievances and to prevent the post-conflict societies from a non-violent mechanism through which to express their grievances.

Republican peace-building: a better way to achieve liberalisation?

Barnett (2006) moves away from the emphasis on liberalisation in post-conflict societies, advocating instead a method of “republican peace-building”, which he argues is also a more effective way to achieve liberal democracy in the long run. Barnett agrees with Paris that post-conflict states lack the necessary institutional framework or civic culture to successfully handle the pressures associated with increased political and market competition. To mitigate these risks, he proposes a theory of republican peace-building, which emphasises deliberation, constitutionalism and representation to help states recovering from war foster stability and legitimacy.

This theory aims to overcome the issue of the lack of state legitimacy in post-conflict societies by instating republican mechanisms that allow for the foundations of liberal democracy to be sown. Deliberation involves having open political discussions, that take into account the needs of political opponents. Barnett argues from a realist perspective that humans have a tendency to be selfish, and so making political decisions in private is likely to lead to self-serving policies. By contrast, shifting them into the open is likely to engender a shift towards a consideration of the ‘public good’, thus leading to policies that are more likely to serve a wider population of the society.

Jarstad and Sisk (2008) argue that this poses a “vertical dilemma” of a trade-off between efficacy and legitimacy. They argue that though open discussions may increase the legitimacy of the state, they run the risk of compromising its efficacy seeing as certain negotiations need to be held in secret. However, this dilemma can be avoided by shifting away from the binary view of having all the discussions in the open or all the discussions in private. Political discussions that are seen as posing a particular risk by being held openly can be held in private, or semi-private conditions, whereas discussions seen to be less risky can take place in an open manner. This adheres to Carothers’ gradualist argument: having some discussions in the open is seen as a gradual step towards democracy, for states that had previously lacked such mechanisms.

Constitutionalism concerns the distribution of power among different political actors. Barnett argues for the importance of the process of devising the constitution taking time, to ensure that different parties are represented, and that the constitution will be effective. He argues that it must allow sufficient time for “broad participation, civic education and popular consultation”. However, this invokes the “temporal dilemma” highlighted by Jarstad and Sisk which concerns trade-offs between the short-term and the long-term in democratisation and peace-building.

Though allowing sufficient time for the creation of an effective constitution will better protect democratising efforts and order in the long-term, there is a question of how differences are to be mediated in the short-term. This can be mitigated through the use of an ‘interim constitution’. The interim constitution would serve the dual purpose of sending a signal to groups within society that gradual steps are being taken towards democratisation, and that they are being taken seriously, as well as the purpose of mediating difference between political opponents in the short-term, for the duration it takes to develop a longer-term constitution.

As well as that, though the process of creating a full-fledged constitution would no doubt take time, peace-builders can take a gradual approach to creating the constitution, by creating and instituting set sections at a time, rather than waiting to institute it all at once. The principle of representation encourages the incorporation of diverse views, and plays into the processes of both deliberation and constitutionalism.


Rushing towards ‘democratisation’ or ‘stability’ defeats the aim of pursuing either

Democracy, or liberalisation, and order should both be taken into account when devising peace-building policies for highly divided societies emerging from conflict. However, the shotgun approach of denying one in favour of the other, or delaying one in favour of the other, has more risks than may at first appear, and these risks outweigh the potential positives. Across the differing views of scholars on how best to democratise in the aftermath of conflict without jeopardising order, there is the crucial question of ‘order for whom?’.

This is particularly pertinent in highly divided societies. Policies that enforce order are likely to instate a particular group’s version of order at the expense of the others. To delay democratisation in order to maintain order, is not just jeopardising democracy in the long term, it is also risking order in the short term, by denying groups the nonviolent means through which to express their grievances. If the societies emerging from conflict want democracy, a peace-building approach that achieves this while maintaining order ought to be immediate but gradual, and to follow republican principles that account for the different groups within society and offer a wide scope of representation.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worth talking about. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical. Clarity and truth working against tribalism.

Yomna El-Serafy

Written by

Politics graduate, Cambridge University. Working on education solutions for developing countries.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worth talking about. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical. Clarity and truth working against tribalism.