Stephen M. Walt

Rushing to the polls

Rushing to the polls

By Jack Snyder

Realists never miss a chance to criticize neoconservatives’ noisy, sometimes violent support for democratization abroad. With a Pew survey showing that Americans rank democracy promotion abroad dead last in importance among fifteen major public issues, the realists would seem to have prevailed on this battlefield of ideas. Though the US still makes clients like Hamid Karzai hold elections, Hillary Clinton winks and is prepared to call just about anything free and fair. Even President Obama proclaims Reinhold Niebuhr one of his favorite authors.

But not so fast. Colin Dueck’s Reluctant Crusaders reminds us that realist interludes in American foreign policy are short-lived. Liberal internationalism, steeped in the mission of making the world safe for democracy, is America’s default setting. Realists, being above all realistic, need to accept this and think about pragmatic steps to advance what will inevitably be a liberal global agenda.

A brilliant new book by Barnard Professor Séverine Autesserre, The Trouble with the Congo (Cambridge, 2010), can help us think this through. Luminaries’ sizzling blurbs on the back cover call it "a magnificent accomplishment," a "disturbing book" that international peacemakers will read with "trepidation." Autesserre blames the failure of peace-building in Congo on the national-level "election fetish" of international aid culture. Instead, she says, security problems are mainly local and need to be solved by corralling spoilers, strengthening local capacity, and setting up working legal institutions at the grass roots level. These moves aren’t a substitute for the strong national institutions that will eventually be needed to make democracy work, she says, but the bottom-up spadework needs to be done first.

My own research with Dawn Brancati, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, points in a similar direction. Quick elections where conditions for democracy are not yet ripe often lead back to war, we find, but elections that come at a later stage in the transition are more likely to be compatible with stability. The key is to get the sequence right.

Brancati has put together a unique database of all the first post-civil-war elections since 1945. Statistical tests she designed show that the earlier a country holds its first post-conflict election, the more likely that the vote will be a revolving door spinning the country back into violence. Elections that happen before rebels are disarmed and before administrative and legal institutions are improved are especially likely to lead back to war. What makes this finding even more disturbing is that, since the end of the Cold War, the election fetish of international donors has cut in half the time from a peace deal to the first election.

The good news is that the international democracy promoters that are helping to cause this problem can also contribute to solving it. Our results show that early elections are much less dangerous when international actors provide peacekeeping, facilitate rebel disarmament, help build institutions of governance and law, and encourage power sharing that limits the cost of losing an election. For two papers detailing these results, "Rushing to the Polls" and "Time to Kill," please go to http://brancati.wustl.edu/Research.htm.

Realists with a pragmatic sensibility have a huge contribution to make to the idealistic liberal agenda, which is an inevitable part of the baggage that America brings to its engagement with the world. In the twenty-first century, realism can no longer mean a crabbed sense of the narrow national interest. Instead, it must increasingly mean figuring out clear-eyed ways, attuned to realities of power and interest, to make the liberal project work.

Jack Snyder is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations in the political science department and the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. His books include to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War (MIT Press, 2005), co-authored with Edward D. Mansfield.