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.


aaron #8: "I don’t understand the preoccupation with democracy. I think the real concern is liberty. Do our actions infuence other to become more liberal and prosperous is the real question. Democracy is just a system that helps prevent liberties from eroding."

aaron, I don't think we can make such a sharp distinction between our preoccupation with democracy and our concern for liberty or freedom. For instance, the quote from George Bush mentioned by the author is taken from a speech Bush gave in 2003. You'll find the link below.

Bush uses the word free (and freedom) 51 times and the word democracy (and democratic)...50 times.

It's all too easy to quote only one sentence dealing with democracy ("The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution") and take this as a representative statement of America's foreign policy. One could also say that US wants to free people in other countries.

Let me hasten to say that I was firmly opposed to war with Iraq. My point is the simple one that 1) it is reductive to say that America's foreign policy is guided only by considerations of democracy, 2) America's foreign policy is equally inspired by considerations of freedom, 3) that if one considers US intervention as a failure, then, one should not limit this failure to democracy, but also to the implementation or restoration of freedom. In other words, this post could also have been titled "Freedom dominoes"...

That said, I do not trust a single word pronounced by Bush (or other politicians for that matter). I believe that US foreign policy is in fact guided by motivations other than democracy or freedom. So that I am not at all surprised by the fact that US intervention abroad does not nurture democracy or democratic spillovers, just because this is not the genuine objective sought by US's foreign policy.



World War II democratized - by intervention - the parts of Europe that America could reach. The parts of Europe that the Sovieet Union reached remained undemocratic for sixty years.


this post is naive- why on earth would we want democracies abroad?- what we want is puppet regimes- it's all about the control of resources and 'opening of markets' to foreign exploitation- the real role model was Nasser in Egypt- once the 'threat' of democratizing Egypt and nationalizing the oil supply came into fruition, he was crushed by US intervention


First of all, I would be very cautious before I defined *any* nation as "democratic." Nations such as China, Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Nigeria may all hold elections, but I question what influence, if any, that a bordering democratic nation would have.

Secondly, I suspect that the results relate more to each nation's relative sphere of influence than anything else.

Powerful nations will always influence the weaker nations within their spheres of influence, but the only "Domino Effect" that America's emergence as the only world superpower created towards other powerful nations, was one of lip service. If you don't believe me, just ask "Former President" Putin" if *he* thinks a domino effect exists.

Steve U.

Sorry to break the stride of intelligent thought out comments but I always wondered why America thought there was a significant domino effect for democracy when, as far as my memory of history class goes, we never saw the Communist domino theory our government espoused for so long.


I can think of several reasons for not becoming overtly involved in the politics of other countries, aside from the modest effect it may have:

1. I don't want anyone involved in our internal politics.

2. It costs the lives of our young military peeps.

3. It costs money.

4. It serves little purpose aside from making us feel good, if that.

5. For each friend we make we probably make an equal number of enemies.

6. We frequently back the wrong person.Is it reasonable to back an abusive dictator thinking that a dictator is better than a communist.

However, if we're faced with competing interests in a specific area, and one of our competitors are providing behind the scenes aid, I'm OK with us doing likewise.

I read your paper and learned a bit from it. I don't know about Tiebout, diffusion, economic zones, emulation as transmitters of democracy but I sure do know about movies, television, radio, styles, music as democratic ambassadors.

I thought the map-section of the paper was very interesting.

Perhaps another paper to consider writing is the democratic penetration variances of a capitalistic vs. socialistic model.

I read the abstract of Bill Easterly and this stimulated an unanswerable question: how would things have turned out had we not intervened? It would be a good academic exercise to have a liberal think tank debate this with a conservative one.



The domino theory was first invented by the United States during the Cold War, when they said that if one country fell into Communism, the rest of the surrounding countries will soon continue.

Even though countries catch 11% of their geographic neighbors, the countries can decide if they want to convert to Democracy or not. If the country has been using Communism for over a period of time, and the country is doing good as a world superpower, then it will have no incentive to change towards becoming a Democracy.

The only true incentive that will actually make the country change its type of government if doing good, is if a more powerful country, like the United States, decides to go to war with the country. The country will probably be better off if they change their type of government than if they fight a war against the United States.

I don't think surrounding countries will make one country change its type of government from Communism to a Democracy.


Julie VanDusky

Institutional choice is a complex question, especially when it comes to the determining whether a sta ewill become not only a democracy, but also a sustainable democracy.

I think a state could become a democracy due to a foreign intervention if it had been a democracy in its recent past. Otherwise, it will be hard to make it a democracy. You would have to break down the existing power relationships and would have to change how key political and economic interact. People don't just give up power easily, and they certaintly don't want to change the rules that kept them in power. You can implant the institutions, but that doesn't mean people still won't continue to follow the rules that existed befors. Also, Putnam's "Making Democracy Work" demonstrates that citizens' involvement in the democratic process also matters. If citizens are not used to being part of a system where they coordinate to inform the government of what they want and also punish the government for failing, then democracy cannot work.

As for the domino affect, I think it's spurious. I think many of the same socio-economic and historical factors lead to democracy. Since states that are near each other tend to have similar socio-economic factors and histories, this is why we see more dicatorships near each other and more democracies near each other.


John David Galt

The main point leftists apparently don't get is that democracy is neither a moral principle nor a (valid) end in itself. Where democracy is desirable, it is desirable because it tends to create and preserve freedom for individuals.

And there are, in fact, many places in the world where if you give people the vote, they will vote themselves a tyranny because that's what they grew up with and are comfortable with.

Many of those places are in the Middle East and Asia.

The only reason that India and Pakistan are somewhat free countries is that a century of British occupation gave those people the experience of freedom, and instruction on how to build institutions that will preserve it. As unfair as colonialism is, I believe it did those places a lasting favor, just as it did America.

I only wish we could afford to do the same to the rest of the unfree parts of the world starting now.

If this be heresy, make the most of it.



I don't understand the preoccupation with democracy. I think the real concern is liberty. Do our actions infuence other to become more liberal and prosperous is the real question. Democracy is just a system that helps prevent liberties from eroding.

Jan JJ

For a related study from PRIO in Norway, see

Gleditsch, Nils Petter; Lene Siljeholm Christiansen & Håvard Hegre 2007. 'Democratic Jihad? Military Intervention and Democracy', presented at Post-Conflict Transitions Conference, World Bank, Washington, DC, 30 April–1 May.

Abstract: Democracies rarely if ever fight one another, but they participate in wars as frequently as autocracies. They tend to win the wars in which they participate. Democracies frequently build large alliances in wartime, but not only with other democracies. From time to time democra-cies intervene militarily in on-going conflicts. The democratic peace may contribute to a nor-mative justification for such interventions, for the purpose of promoting democracy and eventually for the promotion of peace. This is reinforced by an emerging norm of humanitarian intervention. Democracies may have a motivation to intervene in non-democracies, even in the absence of on-going conflict, for the purpose of regime change. The Iraq War may be interpreted in this perspective. A strong version of this type of foreign policy may be interpreted as a democratic crusade. The paper examines the normative and theoretical foundations of democratic interventionism. An empirical investigation of interventions in the period 1960–96 indicates that democracies intervene quite frequently, but rarely against other democracies. In the short term, democratic intervention appears to be successfully promoting democratization, but the target states tend to end up among the unstable semi-democracies. The most widely publicized recent interventions are targeted on poor or resource-dependent countries in non-democratic neighborhoods. Previous research has found these characteristics to reduce the prospects for stable democracy. Thus, forced democratization is unpredictable with regard to achieving long-term democracy and potentially harmful with regard to securing peace. However, short-term military successes may stimulate more interventions until the negative consequences become more visible.


Mike B

I thought that many of the Cold War interventions were less about promoting democracy and more about stopping Communism. One problem with Democratic states is that they might adopt policies hostile towards American interests like socialism and Islamic radicalism, a point clearly forgotten by the current administration with its actions in Iraq.

Per Kurowski

The problem is that most, instead of looking to help create the conditions for a sustainable democracy to prosper, are mostly trying to impose their own democracy on others.

In Iraq the sine qua nom condition for having a sustainable democracy is an oil revenue sharing system that hinders the concentration of oil wealth in the hands of governments and bureaucrats. The Iraq Study Group Report, 2006, even mentioned to “redistribute a portion of oil revenues directly to the population on a per capita basis”… but who has heard a word on that truly democracy empowering proposal since?


Thinking about Applying to NW? ,