Updated book revisits U.S. democratic nation building in Mideast

The prospects for success in the U.S. effort to introduce democracy to the Middle East remain bleak, a Penn State Harrisburg researcher says.

Steven A. Peterson, director of the college’s School of Public Affairs, and co-author Albert Somit, distinguished professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University, have just updated their 2005 analysis in "The Failure of Democratic Nation Building: Ideology Meets Evolution" and suggest little has changed.

The revised version of the book, with an epilogue updating their findings, was published in paperback this month by Palgrave Macmillan.

“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 to bringing democracy to the Middle East,” Peterson said. “The most recent Freedom House ratings of those two nations, for instance, still rate them as ‘not free,' or, in short, undemocratic. After years of struggle and much American treasure expended, democratic nation building has not been accomplished in either country.”

This should not come as a great surprise, because attempts to export democracy through nation-building by states without a key set of enabling conditions are doomed to failure, according to the two political scientists.

“Democracies require special conditions, such as rather high levels of education, adequate distribution of wealth and religious or ethnic unity in order to emerge and flourish. Democracies are a minority among governments because they are so hard to establish and tend to be fragile because of human behavior,” Peterson said.

“The American democracy is now experiencing increasingly serious economic, political and social strains," Somit said. "That is, or should be, a matter of concern not only for Americans but for all fellow democracies. 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.”

“Al Somit and Steve Peterson have written a book that is provocative, unconventional and all too persuasive," said reviewer J. David Singer, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Michigan. "Even if U.S. policies were more thoughtful and consistent, the efforts to create democratic regimes in the Third World are likely to fail. Given the trajectory of genetic and cultural evolution, most of us are more comfortable with social systems that are stratified and hierarchical. Democracy requires eternal vigilance, which is a lot of trouble.”

Last Updated January 21, 2010