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, Paris, November 2007

Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War, Edward D. S. Mansfield and Jack Snyder

Does the spread of democracy really contribute to international peace?

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Ref.: Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2005

Languages: English

The democracy and the peace

Does the spread of democracy really contribute to international peace? Successive U. S. administrations have justified various policies intended to promote democracy not only by arguing that democracy is intrinsically good but by pointing to a wide range of research concluding that democracies rarely, if ever, go to war with one another. To promote democracy, the United States has provided economic assistance, political support, and technical advice to emerging democracies in Eastern and Central Europe, and it has attempted to remove undemocratic regimes through political pressure, economic sanctions, and military force. In Electing to Fight, Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder challenge the widely accepted basis of these policies by arguing that states in the early phases of transitions to democracy are more likely than other states to become involved in war.

The authors do not disparage the desirability of democracy as a value unto itself or as a means of increasing global peace and stability. They do, however, want to submit the claims popularly made by scholars and commentators regarding this subject to scrutiny. What this very thorough and careful study engages is whether the process of democratization is, in fact, conducive to peace or, on the contrary, conducive to instability, and interstate and intra-state violence. If, for example, the current administration seeks to “bring” democracy to various parts of the world, will such policies, in fact, prove to be de-stabilizing and increase violence even to the point of war? The authors accept the notion that having democracy is “good,” but they want to explore the relationship between the process of democratizing and violence. The authors use not one but essentially three approaches to understanding, testing, and then analyzing the issues. First, based on reading and observation, they discuss the problematic and then generate a hypothesis for testing. Second, they test their hypothesis and arguments via quantitative measures, and develop data and measures to test various hypotheses. Third, using their quantitative findings, they examine concrete historical case studies to see if their findings are consistent with their historical findings. In each case, the writers’ work is nuanced and thoughtful; it avoids the generation of pigeonholes to place data. Rather, both the obvious and the less clear and complex receive appropriate attention in the concluding analysis.

What is the key hypothesis and findings about the relationship between democratization and the various types of conflicts and wars? The central hypothesis of the book states “that countries undergoing incomplete democratization with weak institutions are more likely than other states to initiate war.” The authors also hypothesize that the politics of democratizing are likely to “exhibit some or all of the following characteristics: exclusionary nationalism, pressure-group politics, log-rolling among elite factions, weak brokerage of political bargains by the ruling elite, contradictory and unconvincing signaling in foreign affairs, the use of media dominance to promote nationalist ideology,” and several other variables. The authors do a very thorough job of testing their hypothesis using statistical techniques to study the war behavior of all states in the international system in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As indicated earlier, they submit their findings to narrative case studies. Based on the authors nuanced arguments and well-presented evidence, one may generalize that their findings, by and large, support the initial assumptions. In general, democratization does indeed suffer from a number of the suggested disabilities, and is indeed a process that brings with it domestic instability and violence, and frequently, interstate conflict and war.

The overall findings of the book are mainly based on examining interstate conflict, and one case study of the intra-state violence in the Rwanda genocide. What is less clear in the latter case is the dynamic that leads to the Rwandan or the Darfur genocide, or more generically, when the problems of democratization leads to interstate versus intra-state war, and beyond to genocide. Incomplete democratization clearly brings the prospects of both kinds of violence, yet the book has more explanatory power about interstate violence, and tends to skirt situations where a society turns in on itself to the extent where genocide results. Civil war is addressed, but the special features of civil war, especially genocidal civil war, is somewhat tagged on.


Transitional period has been the topic of my research for years and this book adds a notable contribution to the existing literature on transition toward democratic regime. However, this book’s sole focus is the political processes—the institutions and the breakdowns that make the democratic transition so fraught and unstable. The study makes a well-written and well-supported case for its central hypothesis, and is, in many ways, the most thorough and coherent discussion of this topic to date. I do believe, however, it contains a somewhat fatal flaw in almost totally avoiding a discussion of economics. The writers’ goal was to write about politics; the fact is that the inability of embryonic democracies to avoid interstate conflict and civil wars are not limited solely to the political variables and factors outlined in this book. The findings in this study are sharable, it could have been also noted that the very processes described by the authors and the many failures of transitional regimes lie as much in the economic dynamic as they do in the political and institutional dynamic.

The corruption in many states and the overall deterioration of economic life in “developing” states, for example, seems to have as much bearing on the political outcomes as the political dynamic has on the economic outcomes. Even in civil wars, economic explanations minimally accompany political explanations. In short, this very well-written book on democratization tends to leave out the relationship between the political and the economic dynamics.

The lack of relevant focus on economic variables, however, is a fatal flaw, if one’s intent is to produce reliable data and narrative with the power to explain the tendencies toward war and violence in the face of instability and incomplete democratization. If, as the authors suggest, democracy is a preferred political form and the transition to democracy is often so violent and domestically and internationally destabilizing, then what can normatively be done to improve the prospects of reaching democracy while also reducing wars? Once one accepts the problematic and the hypotheses in this book, and seeks to think normatively and in terms of policy, it becomes absolutely essentially to add economic analysis and the tools of development economics. One might go so far as to argue that what Electing to Fight describes cannot be fully understood nor remedied without understanding the fuller political economy at play in politically transitional states, and the impact on them of the global economy.