Can democracy be exported?

About the author

Daniele Archibugi is a director at the Italian National Research Council (CNR), and professor of innovation, governance and public policy at Birkbeck College.

The two main wars which have opened the third millennium, those in Afghanistan and Iraq, have been justified by the United States and its allies with a mixture of arguments. The first, and perhaps foremost, argument has been self-defence: to eradicate "terrorist" roots in Afghanistan and to destroy alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In addition to this traditional motivation, another has been added: to force a regime change and export democracy. However, is democracy a good that can be exported like bananas? In what conditions is it feasible and legitimate to export democracy?

Exporting democracy is an American dream, and one that was provided to the people of Europe. Italians can recall the glorious days of summer 1944 and spring 1945, when the major cities of their country were liberated by Allied troops. We use the term "liberated" because this was the feeling of the vast majority as hostilities ended and years of Nazi and Fascist brutality came to a close. At the time, however, the Allies referred to Italy as an "occupied" country, since it was an active ally of Nazi Germany until 8 September 1943. (This perspective is inverted in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the civilian populations tend to perceive the US as an occupation force, while Washington thinks of itself as a liberator.)


On the ground in Italy, the Allies - especially the Americans - struck no fear in the populace. On the contrary, thanks to the Italian resistance spreading the idea that the Americans were allies rather than enemies, they were immediately accepted as friends and brothers who handed out cigarettes, sang and danced. Above all, they spoke of liberty and democracy.

Daniele Archibugi is director of the Italian National Research Council (CNR), affiliated to the Institute on Population and Social Policy (IRPPS), and professor of innovation, governance and public policy at Birkbeck College, University of London. His website is here

Also by Daniele Archibugi in openDemocracy:

“What do to with the United Nations?” (8 September 2005) – with Raffaele Marchetti

An earlier version of this text was presented as a keynote speech at the “Dehegemonization: The US and Transnational Democracy” conference at George Mason University’s Center for Global Studies, Washington, on 5 April 2006

In Italy and the other two major Axis countries, Germany and Japan (where resistance movements were very small), the Allied occupiers were not attacked. There was an immediate change in the air - perhaps because of the awareness that the occupation troops would stay only briefly and would plant the seeds for a political system that would benefit the entire population.

The idea of liberated countries - democratic regimes - was much stronger among the Americans than among the British. Trade unions, information networks, judicial apparatuses and production systems all received substantial US aid after the second world war. Since then, extending democracy has been a declared American foreign policy goal, at times pursued through armed intervention. Exporting democracy has become part of America's genetic code. In the average American's mind, the US is not only the freest country in the world, but also the best at bringing democracy to others. That idea persists despite the country's support for right-wing dictatorial governments (as in Latin America during the heyday of Henry Kissinger) or its conspiracies against elected governments (as in Iran [1953], Guatemala [1954], Indonesia [1955], Brazil [1960s], Chile [1973] and Nicaragua [1980s]).

So, with what means and with what efficacy has democracy been successfully exported? According to data collected by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the US has usually failed in its principle objectives when it has tried to export democracy by military means. In the first half of the 20th century, these failures have concerned neighbouring and, apparently, easily controlled countries: Panama (1903-36), Nicaragua (1909-33), Haiti (1915-34), the Dominican Republic (1916-24) and Cuba (1898-1902, 1906-09 and 1917-22). Analogous failures came about in Korea, Vietnam and in Cambodia in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Not even in Haiti, after the end of the cold war, has success been achieved. After 1945, the Americans could only count tiny Grenada (1983) and Panama historical precedents. (1989) as having been incorporated into both the economic and social structures of the US (see box). Thus, the current lack of success, in both Afghanistan and in Iraq, builds on numerous precedents.

Experiences and lessons

Military intervention has not always been explicitly adopted to build democratic institutions. In Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia, for example, the objective of democratisation was a secondary concern, after the containment of communism. However, the American obsession with exporting democracy via its army has brought about more failures than successes. From these experiences, three main lessons can be drawn.

  • The internal context The level of support enjoyed by an existing regime is a crucial factor. Not all authoritarian regimes are equally opposed by their populations. (Even Hitler and Mussolini had strong public support.) Today, there are populist and theocratic regimes, like Iran's, which have broad popular support and have been ratified through free and fair elections. Wanting to impose democracy - literally, the power of the people - against the will of the same people is simply nonsense.

It's not even enough for a regime to have a strong internal opposition; it is also necessary to have a strong indigenous desire to institute a democratic regime, and competent representative elites. It's much easier to reintroduce democracy than to introduce it for the first time: in countries like Italy and Germany, the existence of democratic institutions before the arrival of the dictators constituted a model. Clandestine parties and groups, both within and outside the countries, survived and assumed the task of transitioning the country back to democracy.

  • Aggression is counterproductive The efficacy of regime change after the second world war was helped by the fact that the fascist regimes started the war. Their military defeat discredited the old regimes internally, and made the public realise that it was necessary to try, or return to, another type of political organisation. The same conditions existed in Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, but at the time the coalition forces decided not to undertake a regime change in Baghdad. When, instead, the subsequent war was begun by democracies in 2003, Iraqis viewed themselves as the victims of an attack and were hostile towards the political regime put forward by the invaders. (There are, obviously, exceptions to this, like in Grenada and Panama, but these come from small countries, with unpopular authoritarian governments.)
  • Acceptance of the transitional administration If the transitional administration of the occupation force is not socially integrated at the local level, the regime change is perceived to be externally imposed. The transitional administration and its intentions are, obviously, heavily scrutinised by the civilian population, scrutiny no less severe than what colonised peoples reserved for their colonisers. The cultural, ethnic, religious and linguistic affinities between the provisional administration and the occupied countries become crucial.

Due to concerns about being colonised, the local populations are generally hostile when they confront a transitional administration, which can become permanent and overbearing. In Afghanistan and in Iraq, the provisional administrations are officially multilateral-but, in effect, they are dominated by the US, a country with little or no affinity with the local populations and which provokes deep hostility.

Wars and democracies

Exporting democracy militarily, therefore, is a complicated and uncertain operation. However, efficacy is not the only way to evaluate a political project. There is also hope that those who want to export democracy do so for its intrinsic value, its legitimacy. Assuming, hypothetically, that exporting democracy through military intervention is effective, would this justify its imposition? There are good reasons for doubt.

If a population is dissatisfied with its legitimate political regime, it can rebel. In the moment in which the relationship between a government and its public is broken - up to the point where open conflict develops - one believes it is also possible for external forces to intervene. (Because the conflict has already flared up, the foreign forces will not be responsible for having broken the peace.)

When diverse groups compete for power, it becomes permissible for democratic states to provide real support to political parties which advocate the introduction of a democratic system. However, in the absence of an explicit rebellion which shows popular interest in a regime change, an intervention becomes ethically unsound. In addition, and most importantly, revoking a government's legitimacy cannot come from the government of another state. It can only come from international institutions.

One can argue that an intervention could be all the more necessary when a population is thoroughly oppressed. Saddam Hussein had preemptively wiped out all possible opposition. In such a case, therefore, the motivation to intervene has a humanitarian basis and is not necessarily related to the introduction of democracy. The objectives of intervention should be much more modest and primarily oriented toward inhibiting mass slaughter, rather than toward imposing a specific institutional form.

In the moment in which one opts to use military force to promote democracy, there arises a contradiction between the means and the ends. The violent means of war don't exclusively involve despots, but they inevitably end up also having an impact on the citizens, whom we assume would benefit from a democratic regime. Despite "surgical" bombardments, "smart bombs" and other technological developments, war is still a dirty affair, with consequences that impact entire populations indiscriminately. Thus, one finds oneself in a situation reminiscent of something George Orwell might write: one uses war to promote peace, and one applies violence to secure democracy.

Furthermore, the effects that a military intervention will have in a democratic state should be considered. When at war, every state is compelled to sacrifice some of its freedom. Citizens are sent into battle, civil liberties are decreased, and the capabilities of the armed forces and intelligence agencies are increased at the expense of transparency and civilian control.

Democracies at war inevitably develop a chronic disease. The US and the United Kingdom, involved in a number of conflicts since the end of the second world war, have preserved their domestic democratic systems well until now. However, this time, not even these two states could avoid seeing their democratic institutions burnt on the altar of national interest. Due to what they view as the necessities of war, they have justified and committed acts of torture, the murder of unarmed civilians and detentions without legal basis - behaviour to which the public never would consent in peacetime. Exporting democracy also means compromising it domestically.

Ends and instruments

Must we conclude, then, that nothing can be done to export democracy within reasonable restraints? Democratic states can legitimately be harbingers for the expansion of democracy, as exemplified by the fact that - whenever they've had the opportunity - the world's peoples have explicitly expressed the desire to participate in their own government. The error embedded in the desire to export democracy concerns the means, not the ends. If the ends are legitimate, what, then, are the instruments that democratic states should utilise?

The first, and most obvious, instrument concerns economic, social, political and cultural incentives. The predominance of the west today is so broad that, if the expansion of democracy is really its priority, the west could employ greater resources. However, we are far from moving in this direction. In 2003, the US dedicated more than 4% of its gross domestic product (GDP) to defence spending, while the countries of the European Union dedicated more than 2%. In contrast, only 0.1% of GDP of the US and 0.3% of that of the EU are devoted to developmental aid. Not even this relatively tiny sum is entirely spent on aid to democratic governments.

However, the carrot is not only economic aid. Equally important is offering countries with the potential to hold democratic elections the ability to join the club of democratic states under the same conditions as other democratic states. Democracy is a common course, and if one state is legitimately concerned with the events occurring in another state, it should consequently offer to enter into an institutional union with that state. Hence, if the US is so concerned with the fate of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, it should also be ready to accept them as its fifty-first and fifty-second states.

Sticks and carrots

This is obviously an exaggeration, but it is what the European Union is doing. We often forget that the EU has the greatest success in promoting and consolidating democracy. Countries of southern and eastern Europe have found in the European institutions not only tangible economic incentives (including access to the world's largest market), but also the opportunity to share political and institutional decisions. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the EU is the international organisation with the most demanding criteria for admission. However, once a country is admitted, it immediately enjoys the same rights as the other members: participation in Europe's institutions and in defining its political community, including foreign policy.

Europe must reprimand itself for not having used EU membership as an incentive when the former Yugoslavia dissolved. Perhaps the massacres that occurred in its republics could have been avoided if the EU had said, "Stop butchering yourselves and we'll guarantee the entire political community access to the European Union." Thus, it would have been possible to make the struggle to define their borders less important, especially if the EU had assumed the task of guaranteeing human rights. In Yugoslavia's case, however, the EU was not able to offer the carrot, and it could not use the stick. It was an EU failure, but the only one.

Outside of the west, the effectiveness of the carrot is reduced. Some dictatorial regimes can resist the incentives and continue to oppress their citizens. Still, the carrot has an enormous advantage over the stick. It doesn't cause damage for which democracy would have to take responsibility. There are no collateral victims in the attempt to convince other countries to become democratic by using economic incentives and simple persuasion.

It is not the first time that populations proud of their political organisations thought that they had to export their values. Athens in the era of Pericles, France in the Jacobin period and Russia under the Bolsheviks all thought it their right and their duty to liberate whole peoples. However, in this debate, there are those who maintain, more moderately, that the best way to export the fruits of democracy would have been by setting a good example domestically. In the most critical period of the French Revolution, an unexpected advocate of this was the Marquis de Sade, who, in a page of exceptional clarity in his play La Philosophie dans le Boudoir (Philosophy in the Bedroom) in 1795, warned the French:

"Invincible within, and by your administration and your laws a model to every race, there will not be a single government which will not strive to imitate you, not one which will not be honored by your alliance; but if, for the vainglory of establishing your principles outside your country, you neglect to care for your own felicity at home, despotism, which is no more than asleep, will awake, you will be rent by intestinal disorder, you will have exhausted your monies and your soldiers, and all that, all that to return to kiss the manacles the tyrants, who will have subjugated you during your absence, will impose upon you; all you desire may be wrought without leaving your home: let other people observe you happy, and they will rush to happiness by the same road you have traced for them."

Who will volunteer to send these words of wisdom to the White House?