Costly Democracy: Peacebuilding and Democratization after War

  • Published

Costly Democracy: Peacebuilding and Democratization after War, Christoph Zürcher, Carrie Manning, Kristie D. Evenson, Rachel Hayman, Sarah Riese, and Nora Roehner. Stanford University Press, 2013, 208 pp.

In Costly Democracy: Peacebuilding and Democratization after War, six researchers examine the journey from violence to stability to democracy for postconflict societies around the world. The study benefits from such a collaborative effort, which allows the book to deftly navigate between statistical analysis and quantitative rigor. Drawing on nine case studies that involved varying degrees of intervention--Macedonia, Namibia, Mozambique, East Timor, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan--the authors challenge one of the fundamental assumptions behind all peacebuilding efforts: long-term interests of domestic power brokers align with the goals of peacebuilders themselves. Instead, as Costly Democracy ably demonstrates, postconflict societies are often the result of an "interactive bargaining process" between the international community and domestic elites in conflict-ridden societies. This bargaining process determines the flavor of whatever society emerges from the chaos of war and is driven by distinctly worldly and practical concerns--specific political goals, incentives, threats, the perception of security, and the respective leverage of each side.

From the first page, the reader is struck by both the sheer simplicity of the topic and its far-reaching implications. As the authors contend, the relationship between domestic elites and peacebuilders is often overlooked or taken for granted in traditional democratization literature. Instead, the academic focus clusters on topics that include the nature of the conflict, the size and footprint of the international mission, the amount of aid, and the regional context. The six experts behind Costly Democracy use their case studies to challenge each of these topics in turn. Although the authors admit to a small sample size, by analyzing just nine examples it becomes clear that none of the traditional variables said to impact democratization can be consistently applied to every case.

When it comes to the intensity, duration, and legacy of a conflict, the authors find no consistent pattern as far as democratization. Costly Democracy revolves around the tension between stability and democracy, two issues that are often intertwined in peacebuilding efforts but are totally distinct thresholds for a war-torn country to reach. In the end, the authors conclude their chapter on the legacy of war with the oft-cited axiom that "stability is a necessary but insufficient condition for democratization." While the nature of a conflict can certainly influence prospects for a lasting peace, in the end this factor has little correlation with the future emergence of democracy.

Next, the authors scrutinize the effect that a large mission footprint has on democratic prospects. In this portion of the book, the issue of "adoption costs" becomes critically important. This phrase encapsulates the sacrifices domestic elites must make to adopt democracy. In certain cases where democracy would clearly be beneficial--for example, a group that needs international support as they pursue independence--adoption costs are said to be low. In many other cases, however, adoption costs are considered high for the domestic elites that drive the process. This could be for several reasons, including the threat of renewed violence or incompatibility between democracy and primary political goals. When it comes to mission footprint, Costly Democracy contends that when adoption costs are low a small footprint effort can lead to democratization. The inverse and sobering conclusion is that "high adoption costs cannot be offset by intrusive interventions." With mission footprint, the size and scope of a mission is less important than the actual costs associated with adopting democracy for domestic elites.

The next two factors traditionally used to explain postconflict democratization--regional context and the amount of aid--are similarly challenged. The regional context, according to Costly Democracy, may have a negative effect on democratization but will very rarely have any sort of tangible positive impact. Even a neighborhood filled with functioning democracies cannot guarantee a democratic outcome in a war-torn country. On the other hand, many issues that drive conflict are transnational in scope, which makes achieving stability, let alone democracy, a challenge for countries cursed geographically. The amount of aid, meanwhile, does not seem to impact democratization in a vacuum; instead, its influence lies in how it affects the relationship between domestic players and peacebuilders.

At heart, it is the exploration of this relationship that is the key strength of Costly Democracy. The idea of an interactive bargaining process returns a vital human element to discussions of how postconflict societies develop. Factors like the duration of the conflict and the mission footprint are important--but only as far as they impact the fears, goals, and emotions of key domestic and international players. The interests of these two groups will sometimes align but can also diverge as the conflict evolves and changes. Readers who only casually follow current events can quickly point to several examples that reinforce this point: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's sectarianism in Iraq or President Hamid Karzai's political maneuvering in Afghanistan immediately spring to mind. While peacebuilders can exert leverage in some areas--conditional aid, for example, tied to the pursuit of democracy--this leverage is fragile. As the duration of a peacebuilding mission lengthens, the international community has an increasing stake in a successful outcome, which can force peacebuilders to value stability over democracy.

Costly Democracy is a valuable starting point for analyzing the relationship between domestic players and peacebuilders and should inject a dose of humility into the interventionist community. While Costly Democracy calls for the international community to lower its expectations, it also recognizes that, despite the many obstacles to democracy, even the pursuit of stable societies can "make a dramatic difference in the lives of millions of people." In the end, the residents of a postconflict society will always be closer to both the positive and negative effects of democratization and will have to live with the consequences for decades after peacebuilders depart. The authors of Costly Democracy offer a profound reminder that even when systemic and historical forces are at work, individuals driven by their interests, their fears, their ambitions, and their emotions remain at the center of how a society shapes itself.

1Lt Iain Addleton, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."