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January 07, 2009

Re: Do Democracies Have Better Foreign Policies?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Judah Grunstein takes some issue with an argument I made in two recent posts that democracies have more stable foreign policies than dictatorships. I didn’t use the word “stable.” I wrote that democracies tend to have “stronger, more effective, and more predictable foreign policies than dictatorships.” But, yes, this implies some degree of foreign policy stability or consistency.

Grunstein rightly brings up Venezuela as an example of a democracy engaging in a reckless foreign policy. Venezuela may be an electoral democracy, but it is a severely flawed one with significant authoritarian features. Chavez acts like an authoritarian ruler and doesn’t appear particularly respectful of accountability mechanisms. So, I’d say that Chavez is something of an exceptional case, and one that doesn't neatly fit into the category of "democracies" in the first place.

But it is right to think that democracies will move toward assertive and independent foreign policies, particularly if that’s what their people demand in a time of anti-Americanism. But I think assertive and independent foreign policies can be a good thing, as the cases of Iraq and Turkey suggest. Most democracies, even those animated by anti-American sentiment, are still, in the final analysis, American allies rather than foes. 

But this still leads up to a difficult question that democracy promoters face: Can emerging democracies, in the place of old dictators who happened to be our friends, be relied on to support America’s strategic interests? I would argue yes - but not all the time. Yes, but it will not be a client-patron relationship as before. This is better in the sense that it absolves the U.S. from blame when the countries in question do something their electorate doesn’t approve of. Instead of blaming us, they would be more likely to blame us less and blame their own leaders more, and voting them out of power in free and fair elections.

UPDATE: Judah Grunstein responds:

Among Middle Eastern countries, I'd propose Saudi Arabia, Qatar and even Syria, in its own way, as examples of non-democratic countries that fit Hamid's description. And even if you expand the criteria, as Hamid later does, to include "assertive and independent," I think you can find enough counterexamples to dispute the hypothesis. Meanwhile, there's no shortage of democracies with dismal records on the diplomatic front.

Then Grunstein makes a very interesting point about causation. There's probably a dissertation to be written here:

The problem, I think, is that Hamid has structured the question in terms of an independent variable (regime type) and a dependent variable (some measure of foreign policy efficacy). For me, there are more valuable insights to be found by making an effective foreign policy the independent variable, then working backwards to determine what about the regime type contributed to it. For me, Hamid's hypotheses about why democracies tend towards an emphasis on cooperative foreign policies are more satisfying as empirical observations of particular cases than as generalized causal factors.


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