Democratic Dominoes: A Guest Post
Peter Leeson, the BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism at George Mason University and author of the forthcoming book “The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates,” blogged here earlier this week about U.F.O.’s and Bigfoot. This is his second of three posts.
Since the dawn of the cold war, a “democratic domino theory” has helped motivate important U.S. foreign policy decisions. Dwight D. Eisenhower summarized this theory, which he called “the falling domino principle,” in 1954:
You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.
Eisenhower was talking about communist dominoes. Since him, however, other U.S. policymakers have invoked the same basic logic — only with democratic instead of communist dominoes — and thus virtuous effects where a “first domino” falls.
Most recently, some policymakers have pointed to the possibility of a democratic domino effect in the Middle East as a reason for America’s continued presence in Iraq. According to George W. Bush, for instance, “The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.”
In a recent paper, co-author Andrea Dean and I investigate whether democratic dominoes like the ones American foreign policy posits actually exist and, if they do, how “hard” they fall.
Does democracy really spread between countries? If so, how much? We find that democratic dominoes do in fact exist, but they fall significantly “lighter” than foreign policy applications of this principle pretend.
Countries only “catch” about 11 percent of their geographic neighbors’ average changes in democracy; the modesty of this spread rate is consistent over time. Our analysis extends back to 1850, but 150-plus years ago, like today, changes in countries’ democracies were only mildly contagious.
Our study isn’t focused on the impact of U.S. intervention on democracy abroad. But if our estimates are in the ballpark, they have potentially sobering implications for attempts to democratize the world through intervention. Even if U.S. intervention succeeds in improving democracy in a key country it occupies, the democracy-enhancing “spillovers” of the intervention are likely to be minimal.
Democratic dominoes don’t have the “oomph” to democratize entire regions. Most of an intervention’s benefits for democracy, where there are any at all, are likely to remain local.
Bill Easterly and two of his colleagues have a provocative working paper that looks specifically at foreign intervention’s influence on democracy abroad. What they find is even more damning for domino-inspired interventions.
According to their work, which examines interventions in the cold war period, U.S. interventions decreased democracy by 33 percent in countries where America intervened (so did Soviet interventions). Christopher Coyne’s important book examines the reasons for this failure and provides evidence that foreign intervention’s democracy-reducing outcome isn’t limited to the cold war context.
If U.S. interventions fail to enhance democracy in the countries where they take place, pro-democracy spillovers obviously cannot spread throughout the greater regions these countries are part of. If the evidence from past attempts is any indicator, the prospect of using falling dominoes to democratize the globe looks pretty dim.