What is the success (or put it another way, the failure) rate of US-led efforts to export democracy and reconstruction projects in foreign countries? In his new book, After War, Christopher Coyne compares reconstruction projects from West Germany and Japan (after World War II) to more current examples in Haiti, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Coyne's analysis shows that, in general, the odds of failure in these operations have been all too high (without taking account of the obvious differences in political motivations across these projects). Of course, this comes as no surprise to even a casual political observer these days. But what is startling, as Coyne's analysis reveals, is how grim the numbers look. The US success rate is at a mere 28% after five years (roughly the length of the current operation in Iraq). The picture improves only slightly to 39 percent after 15 years (presumably long after direct US involvement in the country's affairs has ended). Tyler Cowen cites these numbers in a discussion of the book on the blog, Marginal Revolution. And writing for the Atlantic, Matthew Yglesias points out that these outcomes should give us pause before we undertake armed democratization projects against countries that are labeled "dubiously democratic" by the U.S. state department.
So how does one alter expectations on the ground to make the
reconstruction "game" a cooperative one and at an early stage in operations? Coyne invokes an economic
argument to make the point that successful social change requires finding and
establishing a set of incentives that would make citizens prefer a liberal
democratic order over available alternatives. He remarks "occupying regimes can
increase their chances of success if they create a new set of opportunities
that were not there prior to the occupation. These opportunities might include
the ability to vote, open a business, worship in the church of one's choice, or
utilize the legal system, among other possibilities." Professor Coyne will be giving a public lecture on this book at the Cato Institute on November 26th.