Rushing to the polls

By Jack Snyder

Realists never miss a chance to criticize neoconservatives' noisy, sometimes violent support for democratization abroad. With a Pew survey showing that Americans rank democracy promotion abroad dead last in importance among fifteen major public issues, the realists would seem to have prevailed on this battlefield of ideas. Though the US still makes clients like Hamid Karzai hold elections, Hillary Clinton winks and is prepared to call just about anything free and fair. Even President Obama proclaims Reinhold Niebuhr one of his favorite authors.

But not so fast. Colin Dueck's Reluctant Crusaders reminds us that realist interludes in American foreign policy are short-lived. Liberal internationalism, steeped in the mission of making the world safe for democracy, is America's default setting. Realists, being above all realistic, need to accept this and think about pragmatic steps to advance what will inevitably be a liberal global agenda.

A brilliant new book by Barnard Professor Séverine Autesserre, The Trouble with the Congo (Cambridge, 2010), can help us think this through. Luminaries' sizzling blurbs on the back cover call it "a magnificent accomplishment," a "disturbing book" that international peacemakers will read with "trepidation." Autesserre blames the failure of peace-building in Congo on the national-level "election fetish" of international aid culture. Instead, she says, security problems are mainly local and need to be solved by corralling spoilers, strengthening local capacity, and setting up working legal institutions at the grass roots level. These moves aren't a substitute for the strong national institutions that will eventually be needed to make democracy work, she says, but the bottom-up spadework needs to be done first.

My own research with Dawn Brancati, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, points in a similar direction. Quick elections where conditions for democracy are not yet ripe often lead back to war, we find, but elections that come at a later stage in the transition are more likely to be compatible with stability. The key is to get the sequence right.

Brancati has put together a unique database of all the first post-civil-war elections since 1945. Statistical tests she designed show that the earlier a country holds its first post-conflict election, the more likely that the vote will be a revolving door spinning the country back into violence. Elections that happen before rebels are disarmed and before administrative and legal institutions are improved are especially likely to lead back to war. What makes this finding even more disturbing is that, since the end of the Cold War, the election fetish of international donors has cut in half the time from a peace deal to the first election.

The good news is that the international democracy promoters that are helping to cause this problem can also contribute to solving it. Our results show that early elections are much less dangerous when international actors provide peacekeeping, facilitate rebel disarmament, help build institutions of governance and law, and encourage power sharing that limits the cost of losing an election. For two papers detailing these results, "Rushing to the Polls" and "Time to Kill," please go to http://brancati.wustl.edu/Research.htm.

Realists with a pragmatic sensibility have a huge contribution to make to the idealistic liberal agenda, which is an inevitable part of the baggage that America brings to its engagement with the world. In the twenty-first century, realism can no longer mean a crabbed sense of the narrow national interest. Instead, it must increasingly mean figuring out clear-eyed ways, attuned to realities of power and interest, to make the liberal project work.

Jack Snyder is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations in the political science department and the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. His books include to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War (MIT Press, 2005), co-authored with Edward D. Mansfield.


Stephen M. Walt

A strategy of staggering genius in Sudan?

By Jack Snyder

Thanks to Steve Walt for kindly inviting me to guest blog while he is at the beach and I am frying eggs on the sidewalks of Manhattan. Steve's blog title bills him as a "realist in an ideological age," so let's take a realist's look at an issue that has lately been worrying humanitarians: the coming war in Southern Sudan.

In 2005 the Khartoum regime choked down an internationally mandated peace settlement to solve its problem of a two-front civil war in Darfur and in the South. The time-buying deal, which promised the South it could keep half of the country's oil revenue, included a January 2011 balloon payment in the form of a referendum on national independence for the South. Like other holders of subprime obligations when the bill comes due, it now looks like Sudan's President Bashir may walk away from the deal. Violence by the regime's security forces is spiking. The North and the various Southern factions are amassing arms. If you liked the violent outcome of East Timor's independence referendum, you'll love where Sudan's vote is heading.

Since the United States and the U.N. brokered this deal, it's apparently now our job to fix it. On an ABC talk show last Sunday, Joe Biden said the Obama administration is working "full time" to insure that the referendum will happen and will be free and fair. U.S. engagement "must be viewed as credible to keep that country, that region, from deteriorating," Biden said. "The last thing we need is another failed state in the region."

But the administration's special envoy to Sudan, Major General Scott Gration, has been quoted as saying that the United States has "no leverage" over Bashir's regime. A New York Times op-ed by Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and Africa human rights veteran John Prendergast begs to differ. They say that a mix of carrots and sticks from the United States can induce Bashir to accept a clean referendum, unlike his own stolen re-election last spring. The sticks: blocking debt relief from the IMF, supporting the ICC indictment of Bashir for genocide in Darfur, tightening the existing arms embargo on Sudan, and "providing further support for the South." The "carrot": if Bashir complies, getting the U.N. Security Council to issue a one-year renewable stay on the ICC case.

Since Walt is still on the beach, we'll need to figure out for ourselves what a realist with a conscience would think of this proposal. Score half a point for thinking about the political consequences of an ICC indictment and trying to use it to get leverage for peace. But deduct two points for proposing the limp carrot of a one-year deferral of an arrest that won't happen anyway. Similarly flaccid is IMF leverage on a state with oil revenue and friends in Beijing.

What about the threat of "providing further support for the South?" Ring the alarm bells to warn against this one. What if independence-hungry Southerners become convinced that the U.S. Air Force is on their side, so they don't need to compromise with Bashir's regime? A small army of political scientists including Alan Kuperman, Tim Crawford, and Arman Grigoryan has been documenting the chronic problem of "moral hazard" that ensued when the United States has made deterrent threats in support of hard-pressed ethnic minorities in places like Kosovo, and then these separatist groups dug in their heels and refused to cut a deal.

In Kosovo we backed up our threats with real airpower. Historically more common, says the realist political scientist Colin Dueck in Reluctant Crusaders, is that the U.S. practices "limited liability internationalism," where the talk is big but the United States balks at high-cost follow-through. Writing what looks like a blank check for deterrent support to an embattled ethnic group is cruel when the check is going to bounce, as it almost surely will in the case of Southern Sudan, because now it is the United States that has the problem of the multi-front war.

The humanitarian realist take-home lesson, as always: keep commitments in line with resources, and don't promise more than you will deliver.

Stay tuned for more on a realist approach to bargaining over ICC indictments.

Jack Snyder is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations in the political science department and the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. His books include Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War, co-authored with Edward D. Mansfield.