Monday Musings: Exporting Institutions, Comparison, and the Iraq debate

Not too long ago I was struck by how most debates about Iraq that I come across are about exactly what left-liberal hawks (such as Paul Berman, Norman Geras, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Ignatieff, and Bernard Kouchner) say the war was about: the democratization of Iraq. By this, I don’t mean that critics of the war think that it was fought to democratize the country; in fact, many critics of the war, including myself, are skeptical about this motive, given that it has been fought and its aftermath has been directed by a cohort that was remarkably close to many of the thugs of the wars in Central America and Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. But rather the question of whether the war and, more relevantly, the presence of American and coalition troops in Iraq is worth it pivots around what we think the chances of Iraq becoming a democracy happen to be. If you see democracy in Iraq as a likely outcome, or even more likely with American troops than without, then chances are you oppose the withdrawal of American troops.

What I’ve been struck by in these debates in the last few years is the way we argue about how possible democracy in Iraq happens to be; that is, how we assess the chances. These debates revolve around the causal power of institutions. By “institution,” I mean the standard social science understanding of the term: the formal and informal rules and operating practices which structure the interactions between people in a society, an economy or a polity. The institutions that interest debaters here are those that structure and give rise to democracy. The questions they ask are primarily about whether or not institutions that work in current democracies can be exported to Iraq? I don’t want to answer that question, but I do want to look at how people go about trying to answer it.

The issue of whether democracy can be export is itself now at the core of the debate. For example, Barry Posen, a smart observer of international politics, offers this argument in support of a pull-out:

Iraq is a society divided into three groups with strong identities, and ethnically and religiously fissured societies are not easy to democratize. Minorities fear the tyranny of the majority, and majorities have a hard time avoiding the temptation to tyrannize. To the extent that the Bush administration’s ideal political outcome in Iraq can be discerned, it is a stable, pluralist, democratic, unitary state with strong constitutional protections for minority rights that the minorities are willing to rely upon. This goal is implausible, though, because the U.S. government cannot erase Iraqi history, and it cannot undo the political power of sheer numbers. In Iraqi history, to be disarmed is to be violated. In a democracy riven by strong group loyalties, to be outnumbered is to be vulnerable. Sunnis and Kurds won’t live without their own armies. Shiites won’t share political and military power with Sunnis who have been cunning and ruthless enough to rule as an armed minority in the past.

The remark is not quite in passing but it does make a deep assumption about the relationship between institutions and the conditions in which they operate. Specifically, it suggests that institutions are hard things to export largely because they don’t matter so much for outcomes as the conditions which would bring the institutions about. What really matters is the interests and values of people on the ground, and how money and guns are distributed among them. “The best institutions are written on the hearts of men,” and all.

Few people believe that a set of institutions can be put down anywhere and have the same affects in all the places we find it. And at the same time, most of us believe that institution make us act in ways that we would not have in their absence, which is why we try to reform them in the face of stiff opposition. In the debates we hear and have about Iraq—in the media, at lectures, in bars and at parties—we’d be better served with a better understanding about not only institutions but also how we implicitly evaluate whether an institution can succeed.

Here, we’re speaking of a very peculiar set of institutions: the one that make up a democracy. It’s peculiar because under it, the losers of an election accept the outcomes and go home and don’t take to the hills with geuillas or the barracks where they gather the troops to march into Capitol Square. There is certainly no shortage of instances in which losers of an election stormed the palais, or dissolved the constituent assembly. There’s also no shortage of instances in which winners decided they didn’t want to take the chance of losing the next time and ended the system. As a matter of simple fact,

‘One cannot stop a coup d’état by an article in the constitution’, any article in the constitution, Guillermo O’Donnell once remarked . . .

O’Donnell’s comment was mentioned in a talk that Adam Przeworksi, one of the smarter comparativists in political science, gave year and a half ago, entitled “Institutions Matter?”. The talk was about whether institutions really matter and how we can know and, ultimately, whether a science of comparative politics is possible. (It certainly worth a read, and it is an important question for the general public since so many of our political debates draw lessons from elsewhere: the well-functioning of the French health system, the alleged malfunctioning of British national health care.) The importance of the issue isn’t purely methodological.

[T]he issue has practical, policy, consequences. Particularly now, when the United States government is engaged in wholesale institutional engineering in far away lands, skepticism and prudence are in order. The policy question is about whether one can stick any institutions into some particular conditions and expect that they would function in the same way as they have functioned elsewhere. Note that when the US occupying forces departed from West Germany and Japan they left behind them institutions that took root; that were gradually adjusted to local conditions; and continued to organize the political lives of these countries. When the US occupying forces left Haiti in 1934, they also left as their legacy a democratic constitution, authored by the assistant secretary of the navy, who was none other than Franklin D. Roosevelt. Yet this constitution did not prevent President Vincent from becoming an absolute despot one year later. Why, then, did similar institutions succeed under some but not under other conditions?

We don’t know, at least not yet. It is for this reason that debates that rely on what worked in Germany, or what happened in Bosnia, don’t at all convince the side that the examples are aimed at.

We are generally bad at thinking about how institutions win assent, and they must. Can support for democracy be measured by opinion polls in which people are asked whether they support a democracy? Or does its stability depend on other factors—support for liberalism, tolerance, the rights of women? (In this instance, the latter are conditions in which the institutions of democracy operate.) Simply, institutions reflect to a large degree the relations of power found in a society, and they must do so to be self-sustaining.

These conclusions may be too pessimistic, though I agree with them in the context of the debate on Iraq (about which I sincerely hope I am very wrong and the optimists very right given what’s at stake). Large scale social engineering tasks are generally heroic, with the largest ones associated with the largest disasters. But a richer understanding of institutions in the past few decades have helped us to understand the extent to which some of what we had written off as conditions can be understood as institutions and therefore changeable.

I was thinking of Przeworski’s talk while reading our friend Alex Cooley’s new book Logics of Hierarchy: The Organization of Empires, States and Military Occupations. (I recommend it to those interested in these questions of how reform unfolds.) Alex’s claim is that looking at how political hierarchies are organized, specifically, whether they are territorially or functionally structured, will help tell us much about the way reform projects unfold. (His look at the occupation of Iraq focuses on the organization of the United States reconstruction effort—how the reliance of various private and opportunistic companies for the provision of services to Iraq placed vital components of the project outside any meaningful system of accountability.)

I was thinking of Alex’s book because its lessons, while drawn out of comparison, are not about outcomes per se, but rather about what to look for. And if there is anything to a “science” of comparative politics, it is in finding what to look for in these large social processes and changes where society’s history offers less information than we need. A useful comparative politics helps to structure ways of identifying what about Germany allowed defeat and occupation to lead to democracy, and what about Haiti did not? Comparativists themselves have known this for a long time. A popular version of this sensibility can perhaps help the Iraq debate.