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  • Building Democracy After ConflictConstitutional Medicine
  • Andrew Reynolds (bio)

Over the past decade, both scholars and those charged with the task of easing social and political conflict have rediscovered the discipline of constitutional design. This has been the case not only in democracies but also—and most significantly for present purposes—in nations struggling to move toward democratization. From South Africa and Bosnia to Fiji, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the art or science of constitution-crafting has been or is now at the heart of efforts to bring peace and free self-government to some of the world's most troubled lands. Countless other states, from Estonia and Sri Lanka to Guatemala, Indonesia, Nigeria, and the Philippines, have experimented with electoral systems, autonomy deals for outlying regions, or the parceling out of ministerial posts and other offices with a view to accommodating various groups which, if not brought more fully into the tent of national life, could bring it down from outside.

More saliently still, questions related to constitutional design often dominate discussions about how to end the world's stubbornest dictatorships and begin repairing the damage that they have caused. Speculation about "what comes next" in places such as Iraq, Congo-Kinshasa, Sudan, Liberia, and Burma inevitably moves toward talk of power-sharing arrangements, how to involve communal minorities in government, and federalist or regional-autonomy provisions.

While constitutional design has made big intellectual strides over the last ten years, it still has much room for improvement, particularly when it comes to diagnosing particular cases and generalizing "lessons learned." Here a comparison with medical science may be helpful. The [End Page 54] physician's craft and that of the constitutional expert display a number of parallels. Just as a doctor seeks to diagnose and chart a treatment course for a sick person, the constitutional expert looks at an ailing society and tries to map a path to long-term health (defined broadly as reasonably robust levels of peace, prosperity, and free self-government). Most social scientists now agree that they are less in the cure and more in the illness-management or symptom-abatement business, but in the case of a truly dysfunctional body politic, even doing those things fairly well can be the source of enormous good.

The idea of seeing the life of a polity in biological terms is an ancient one that can be traced from early Greek antiquity through works by Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Machiavelli, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, T.H. Green, and others. The term "diagnosis" is Greek as well, and comes from the word gnosis, or knowledge. Whether political or medical, diagnosis—the pursuit of useable knowledge—begins with the gathering and sifting of empirical evidence. Fortunately, sources of such evidence are now more plentiful than ever given the burgeoning number of "third-wave" democracies that have appeared across Latin America, Africa, Asia, and parts of Europe since the mid-1970s.

Many constitutional designs have failed because the designers (whether foreigners or natives) ignored the basics of good diagnosis and treatment, beginning with the Hippocratic injunction, "First, do no harm." Consider Angola in the early 1990s. After a 15-year civil war had killed at least 1.5 million people, international mediators brokered a 1991 settlement between the ruling MPLA party of Eduardo dos Santos and UNITA, led by Jonas Savimbi. The settlement went awry, however, by calling for a winner-take-all presidential election that gave the smaller UNITA faction no incentive to embrace the frustrating task of being the "loyal opposition" in the country's legislature. When Dos Santos predictably beat Savimbi 49 to 40 percent in September 1992, fresh fighting became inevitable. Hundreds of thousands more died.

If constitutional designers need to be better at figuring out what ails a society, what template should they follow? A medical diagnosis should ideally draw from both a physical examination and a medical history of the patient, with other procedures used to help confirm findings if the need arises.1 Diagnosis begins with a clinical methodology, which shapes how one properly gathers and interprets findings based on a history and examination. In the constitutional sphere, this would mean focusing on the socioeconomic, political...