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Democratic nation building must overcome natural human behavior

Penn State

The rapidly rising costs - human and financial -- of our Iraq and Afghanistan adventures make it increasingly imperative that the United States abandon its proclaimed policy of bringing democracy to the nations of the Middle East, whether they want it or not, says a Penn State researcher in a new book.

"With rare exceptions, that policy of 'democratic nation building' has been unsuccessful in the past; it is unsuccessful today and is almost surely certain to be equally unproductive in the foreseeable future," notes Dr. Steven A Peterson, professor of politics at Penn State Harrisburg.

In a new book, "The Failure of Democratic Nation Building: Ideology Meets Evolution," Peterson and Albert Somit of Southern Illinois University argue that humans are social primates with an innate tendency for hierarchical and authoritarian social and political structures, and that democracy requires very special "enabling conditions" before it can be supported by a state, conditions that require decades to evolve.

Viable democracies require the conjunction of very special material and social "enabling conditions." As the relative rarity of democracies and the overwhelming predominance of authoritarian governments throughout human history testify, that conjunction happens infrequently.

"Humans are social primates and evolution has endowed the social primates with an innate tendency to set up hierarchically structured social and political systems," the researchers note. "Humans also have an innate tendency to dominance and submission behaviors. In short, authoritarianism is the 'default' option for many communities."

That is why democracies require special conditions, such as adequate level of economic development, absence of religious conflict, functioning government institutions and adequate levels of education, among others, the researchers note.

As a result, attempts to export democracy through nation-building to states without these enabling conditions, are doomed to failure, according to the book just published by Palgrave MacMillan.

"Democracies are a minority among governments because they are so hard to establish and tend to be fragile because of human behavior," adds Peterson of Penn State. "At the same time, the American democracy is experiencing increasingly serious economic, political, and social strains. That is, or should be, a matter of concern not only for Americans but for all fellow democracies, since, the tribulations of the American republic have a way of setting the agenda for other democratic societies - for better or for worse, and no doubt some of both."

"Perhaps, the resources expended on nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan would be more productively devoted to strengthening democracy at home rather than in trying to establish it elsewhere," Somit notes.


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