In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Are New Democracies War-Prone?
  • Michael McFaul (bio)
Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War. By Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder. MIT Press, 2005. 300 pp.

Electing to Fight seeks to explain an alleged paradox: Democracies do not fight each other, but "the beginning stages of transitions to democracy often give rise to war rather than peace. Since the end of the Cold War, this causal connection between democratization and war has been especially striking" (p. 2). Why are democratizing states so belligerent? Mansfield and Snyder offer a parsimonious answer—unleashed nationalism: "In democratizing states, nationalism is an ideology with tremendous appeal for elites whose privileges are threatened. It can be used to convince newly empowered constituencies that the cleavage between the privileged and the masses is unimportant compared to the cleavages that divide nations, ethic groups, or races" (p. 2).

The intuition guiding this study—that shifts within states lead to conflicts between them—is powerful and familiar. Scholars of revolution have made a similar claim about how internal change within a state triggers aggressive external behavior; modernization theorists have long argued that states experiencing rapid economic growth often expand beyond their borders; and observers have noted that state collapse invites conflict, as neighbors prey upon a target of opportunity.

The twist in Electing to Fight is its argument that one particular kind of internal change—democratization—is especially likely to lead to interstate conflict. Through an impressive compilation of cross-national regressions and a handful of case studies, Mansfield and Snyder claim to show that democratization is the most dangerous form of regime [End Page 160] change, and that countries in transition to democracy are much more dangerous than stable autocracies, stable democracies, or countries transitioning to autocracy. The policy implications of the analysis are clear: Promoting democracy can trigger war.

Before discussing the actual theory presented in the book, it is important to clarify what it does not claim. First, it concedes that countries making successful transitions to democracy rarely go to war: "[T]here is only scattered evidence that transitions culminating in a coherent democracy influence war" (p. 101). Second, it acknowledges that democratizing states rarely initiate war; the authors report that only "ten case studies . . . comprise all of the democratizing states in our data set that initiated interstate wars." Yet Table 4.1 (p. 81) reports that the book covers a time period (1816 to 1992) in which there were 90 incomplete democratic transitions in 64 countries and 50 complete transitions in 35 countries. Given this observation, one must wonder about the book's subtitle. Electing to Fight is not about "why emerging democracies go to war," but rather about why failed democratic transitions under very special circumstances lead to war some of the time.

The results would be even more meager if the analysis focused on the latest wave of democratization. In the "third wave" of democratization, from 1973 to 2004, there were 179 instances of democratization, defined as countries moving from either Not Free to Free (25 cases) or Not Free to Partly Free (154 cases), as determined by Freedom House rankings. (This set of cases includes countries that experienced democratization more than once, after regressing from democracy earlier during this period.) Between 1973 and 2004, there were only 30 instances of a democratizing state experiencing political violence—civil war or interstate war—within five years after democratization. (The data set for political violence I use here comes from the Center for Systemic Peace, In other words, during the third wave conflict occurred after democratization only 16 percent of the time, and most of these conflicts were internal rather than interstate wars. During the third wave, emerging democracies have rarely gone to war.

But then Mansfield and Snyder never claim the contrary. Instead, their argument is that democratizing states are more likely to go to war than either stable democratic or authoritarian regimes (p. 29). Even this narrower claim seems counterintuitive to the casual student of twentieth-century history. In recalling the millions slaughtered in the twentieth century, we think of ruthless dictators such as Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and...