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  • ExchangeThe Vain Hope for "Correct" Timing
  • Sheri Berman (bio)

Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder rightly observe that over the last few years the euphoria surrounding democracy's "third wave" has largely diminished as observers have recognized how difficult the path from democratization to consolidation really is. This recognition has prompted the development of a new wave of "preconditionists": As opposed to their predecessors who argued that without the right prerequisites democratization would not occur, today's preconditionists argue that without the right prerequisites consolidation will not occur.

Mansfield and Snyder argue in this issue that "it is dangerous to push states to democratize before the necessary preconditions are in place and that prudent democracy-promotion efforts should pay special attention to fostering those preconditions." Since there is also widespread agreement that stable liberal democracies are more likely to develop in countries that also possess a wide range of what Thomas Carothers prefers to call "facilitating" conditions (high levels of economic development, strong and legitimate states, citizenries that agree on the democratic "rules of the game") and very unlikely to develop in failed states, the real debate seems to be about the likely political trajectories of those countries in between, and what if anything outsiders can do to affect them.

Mansfield and Snyder worry about democratization in such countries because they believe that political development is path-dependent: "Once a country starts on an illiberal trajectory, ideas are unleashed and institutions are established that tend to continue propelling it along that trajectory." They claim that "premature democratization will push a country down this path," and thus that "premature, out-of-sequence [End Page 14] attempts to democratize may make subsequent efforts to democratize more difficult and more violent than they would otherwise be." Because they think that outside intervention at critical junctures "can provide a decisive impetus for good or ill," Mansfield and Snyder warn about the dangers of pushing too hard for democratization in inappropriate cases (and too lightly in appropriate ones).

I see fewer dangers than they do in "premature" democratic experiments and am skeptical about their recommendation of trying to hold off democratic change until conditions are ideal. My reading of the West European experience sees little else but a pattern of false starts, failed liberalizations, and temporary regressions. Yet far from trapping the continent in a suboptimal path, this pattern ultimately resulted in a set of stable, liberal democracies.

I often joke with my students that when I look at today's new democracies, I can only hope that they have an easier time of it than did the West European ones I study. After enduring an incredibly bloody and divisive revolution starting in 1789, France suffered through more than a century and a a half of deep social and political conflict before achieving a stability of sorts with the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958. Otto von Bismarck created a unified Germany in 1871 and then tried to forestall democracy in it with a form of soft authoritarianism. Yet he succeeded only in generating rising political frustration and social conflict that set the country on the path toward the cataclysm of the First World War. From there, of course, still more twists and turns ensued and things got even worse. Only after total military defeat, invasion, occupation, the forced redrawing of borders, and ethnic cleansing on an unprecedented scale did democracy and stability finally come to Germany—and then at first only to its western portion as the East found itself forced by the fortunes of war to spend decades languishing under Soviet domination.1

Similar winding and difficult paths have characterized the political development of Spain, Italy, Austria, and almost all other European countries. Even England, the paradigmatic case of the "right" sequencing, is often misunderstood. England was placed on the path to democracy only by a bloody period of civil war and domestic chaos during the seventeenth century that reshaped the nature and norms of its political institutions and shifted the balance of power in English society—and even then, it took another 150 years for a full democratic transition to occur. If we turn to some of the "auspicious" non-European...