Pathways to War in Democratic Transitions

We have argued in Electing to Fight and other writings that an incomplete democratic transition increases the risk of international and civil war in countries that lack the institutional capacity to sustain democratic politics. The combination of increasing mass political participation and weak political institutions creates the motive and the opportunity for both rising and declining elites to play the nationalist card in an attempt to rally popular support against domestic and foreign rivals. Vipin Narang and Rebecca Nelson, in their critique of Electing to Fight, agree that incompletely democratizing countries with weak institutions may be at greater risk of civil war, but they are skeptical that this extends to international war except when opportunistic neighbors invade failing states. Whereas we argue that nationalism is a key causal mechanism linking incomplete democratization to both civil and international war, they conjecture that weak institutions and state failure are probably sufficient to explain why such countries may be at greater risk of armed conflict. In contrast, we have found that weak political institutions generally have little effect on a state’s risk of involvement in external war when considered separately from incomplete democratization. We welcome the opportunity to advance this important debate by highlighting relevant portions of our previous research and summarizing some new findings on international and civil wars. Support for our argument rests on statistical tests and extensive case studies that trace causal processes in detail. We have presented statistical results showing the greater likelihood of war involvement for incompletely democratizing states with weak political institutions between 1816 and 1992, the greater propensity of democratizing states to engage in militarized interstate disputes, and the increased risk of civil war in incompletely democratizing states. We have also published case studies of all of the democratizing great powers since the French Revolution, all the democratizing initiators of interstate war in our statistical study, all the post-Communist states, paired comparisons of postcolonial states, and several wars involving democratizing states in the 1990s. Since we published Electing to Fight in 2005, elections have heightened identity politics and fueled cross-border violence in weakly institutionalized regimes in Georgia, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. To try to advance the debate, we will address the main points on which Narang and Nelson have criticized our evidence and methods, and then we will discuss issues for further research.