APSA 2016 Great Powers and Democracy

Event date: 
Friday, September 2, 2016 - 22:00

Great Powers and Democracy: Congruities and Tensions Between Power Politics and Liberalism

One-day APSA 2016 Mini-Conference to Explore the Possibility of an IO special issue on this theme. 

Co-conveners (guest-editors): Susan Hyde and Nikolay Marinov.

Division Chairs: David Edelstein, Georgetown University and Jessica Weeks, University of Wisconsin


Boix: "The proportion of liberal democracies peaks under international orders governed by democratic hegemons, such as the post–Cold War period, and bottoms out when authoritarian great powers such as the Holy Alliance control the world system."

The field of international relations has had a difficult time confronting one of the most dramatic developments of recent time, the spread of liberal democracy. A key organizing principle in international relations theory remains that of power and self-interest, according to which international affairs are never far removed from anarchy. Believing that a superpower, be it the United States or other, would or should press for democracy is inherently suspect, and possibly leads to naive and dangerous policy. 

In this special issue, we want to move beyond simple arguments such as the skeptical assertion that democracy-promotion is window-dressing for great power interests or the idealistic belief that international politics has changed, and examine the reasons why and the conditions under which powerful states engage in democracy promotion.

We seek submissions that raise productive tensions along three key dimensions:

Q1 Regime type: How it calls for or justifies interventions? 


Q2 Is (Liberal) Hegemony or Contention conducive to democracy promotion? What type of contentious resources or strategic objectives put democracy promotion and power politics on a collision course: oil, bases, fear of instability? 


Q3 How much credibility do great powers have when attempting to promote democracy? When is the right to intervene disputed internationally or domestically? Do international organizations, NGOs or other channels of intervention make interventions in democracy more effective?


On the first question, we want to look closely at the roots and justification for the idea that some states would consider and even prioritize democracy promotion. It is often argued that liberal states do so, and that some such as the US have a special mission in that respect. But it is not clear that illiberal powers always work against democracy and the historical exceptionalism of the US may be overrated. We look for pieces that look at the issue from the point of view of historical analysis, political theory. We also invite empirical pieces.

On the second question, we want to look at the thesis that it is the preponderance of liberal power in the world that really encourages democracy. This thesis operates on global and regional levels, and sees local hegemonic orders as requiring or needing democracy - when the most powerful state is democratic. We want to challenge this, as well, and see whether contentious orders do not encourage democracy - by raising the stakes, and motivating local groups to push harder.  We also want to start unpacking the assertion that “democracy promotion wins when geo-political interests are low.”  We feel that geo-political interests are too crudely defined and risk coming as post-factum rationalization of observed outcomes, rather than as a set of falsifiable predictive set of arguments. 

The third question goes after the legitimacy and effectiveness of democracy promotion. If great powers are not seen as consistent champions of democratic rights and freedoms, their attempts to encourage democracy may backfire. It may be that smaller liberal powers are less tainted and more capable in that respect. Especially interesting in this respect is recent work that examines public opinion in the countries subject to intervention, where the war for hearts and minds is often won or lost. Who is allowed to intervene? Are organizations palpably better - or are they seen as a fig leaf for the big states dominating them? Settling some of those issues, or making some progress on them, will help convince skeptics and idealists on the merits of their viewpoints, while pushing policy debates further. A submission may simultaneously engage more than one of these themes or go into issues we have not spelled out.


Mini-Conference Program

Sessions are open for visitors. 

The structure we envision for the mini-conference follows below.  We have emailed APSA asking them to amend the online listing for the mini-conference to reflect the more detailed structure.  

We are asking each presenter to prepare a 15 minute presentation.  We have asked a discussant to offer brief remarks right after each paper presentation. 

Program below, and on the APSA Website.


Saturday, Sep 3d, 8 am - 9.30 am

Panel I “Regime Types” (1.5 hours)

1 John Owen (Virginia)

"Hegemony, Evolution, and the Future of Democracy"

Is the diffusion of liberal democracy across much of the world in recent years due to a democratic evolutionary advantage, or to the hegemony of one or more democracies? The Kantian literature implies the former: democracies do not fight one another, win more wars, reach more efficient bargains with one another, are more reliable partners, etc. But other studies link the spread and durability of democracy across states to the presence of a democratic hegemon. Resolution of the tension between the Kantian and the hegemonic theses is important to our understanding of the failure of democracy in the Middle East and democracy’s uncertain future in East Asia. An evolutionary framework can accommodate both theses by recognizing both (1) that regime types can diffuse across states via elite competition and learning, and (2) that hegemonic states shape their environments, or engage in niche construction, intentionally and unintentionally, that select for or against particular regime types. I show these two evolutionary mechanisms at work in the Western Hemisphere in the 1930s and 1940s. From 1933 through 1943 many elites in Latin America learned from Europe that fascism was the fittest regime, and many tried to copy various fascist institutions. The FDR administration, worried about fascism’s effects on U.S. power and the U.S. regime itself, responded by trying to empower anti-fascists (most of whom were not democrats) in the region via trade, investment, aid, international institutions, and direct intervention. By 1944 it was clear that the United States and its allies would win the war, and Latin American elites were learning that democracy was the fittest regime; FDR and Truman responded by promoting democracy. Most Latin American states evolved into democracies (for a time), but partly because U.S. leaders shaped the environment such that it selected for democracy. I conclude with implications for the future of democracy in East Asia as Market-Leninist China continues to rise and shape its environment.

- comments by K. Weyland


2 Seva Gunitsky (Toronto)

“Do Old Habits Die Hard? Power Transitions and Norm Cascades in Global Politics”

Formerly widespread and acceptable global norms like slave-trading and territorial conquest have largely disappeared from modern politics, even as new and emerging practices like democracy promotion and election monitoring continue to shape the global normative landscape. This paper examines the effects of hegemonic transformations on the rise and fall of global political norms. I argue that rapid changes in the relative power of leading states - and especially shifts in power between democratic and non-democratic hegemons - play a crucial role in structuring the creation and decline of key global practices like sovereignty, intervention, and economic statecraft. Departing from traditional explanations of norm change, I argue for a systemic theory of norm evolution that focuses on changes in global structure as a source of both material and ideational shifts that have profoundly influenced the birth and death of global norms.

-  comments by R. Krebs

3 Susan Hyde (Yale) and Elizabeth Saunders (GWU)

“Reconsidering Regime Type in International Relations: A Review Essay”

For the last few decades, one of the primary concerns of international relations scholarship has been the role of domestic political institutions in shaping states’ behavior in the international arena, with an emphasis on the distinctiveness and advantages of democracies. In recent years, however, the study of regime type has been reinvigorated by several new areas of research. A number of scholars have opened up the “black box” of authoritarian regimes; others have focused on more nuanced aspects of democratic institutions to make novel predictions about the effect of regime type. Another set of studies has more directly questioned, largely on empirical grounds, whether democracies really are distinctive in some aspects of their international behavior. Although all of these studies have renewed and advanced the debate about the role of regime type in international relations, thus far these strands of research have mostly operated in isolation.  This paper will tie some of these strands of research together in a review essay, which will advance the argument that these new approaches to regime type are, implicitly or explicitly, exploring the concept of audiences in international relations. Audiences can vary in size, as selectorate theory suggests, but the new approaches also suggest that they vary in terms of regime-society connection.  Audiences thus vary in many ways that cut across regime types: in democracies, the relevant audience may sometimes be the public, but at other times, a subset of elites. In authoritarian regimes, elites are often the key audience, but increasingly, popular protest is recognized as a critical constraint.   This variation also opens up space for regimes to conceal or shift their nature, behaving democratically in some respect while limiting audiences in other ways.  The paper explores the theoretical and empirical challenges that the new approaches to regime type suggest for future research on the domestic politics of international relations.

- comments by N. Marinov


Saturday, Sep 3d, 10 am - 11.30 am

Panel II “Hegemony or Contention” (1.5 hours)

4 Nikolay Marinov and Johannes Bubeck (Mannheim)

"Process or Party? Realpolitik and the Demand for Electoral Integrity" 

The project seeks to understand the conditions under which states choose to support the process of free and fair elections beyond their borders. We know that when powerful states support democratic processes, this helps representative institutions become established. We do not know the conditions under which promoting democracy is an optimal strategy for the interveners. This project argues that external interventions in elections take two principal forms: supporting specific candidates or supporting democratic processes. Election-eve statements in favor of a candidate, promises of aid, and even threats of invasion if the wrong party wins, illustrate the first, pro-candidate, type of intervention. Sending election observers, conditioning the flow of benefits to the country on clean elections, are examples of the second, pro-democracy, kind of intervention. Unlike the conventional wisdom – which only sees democracy-promotion, democracy-erosion, or no interest in the elections of others – the point of departure here is that pro-candidate and process interventions are different, independent dimensions of international policy. We also argue that the strategies of other states matter for the choice of policy. Ultimately, the goal of this project is to develop fully hypo- theses about “elections as proxy wars” among regional and global powers, and to test them in an innovative dataset. 

- comments by H. Hegre

5 Kevin Narizny  (Lehigh)

“The Political Economy of Democracy Promotion”

Why do states engage in democracy promotion?  Most scholars focus on either security interests or cultural values;  few have examined economic motives in any depth.  Moreover, those few that do so, such as William Robinson, see the economic motive as a recent phenomenon, associated with the expansion of multinational corporations and neoliberal conditionalities in the 1970s and 1980s.  I offer a different approach, one that sees broad continuity between the liberal imperialism of the British Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries and the democracy promotion of the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries.  Specifically, I argue that countries with a particularly liberal kind of state-society relationship engage in liberal imperialism or democracy promotion as a second-best policy to promote their constituents' economic interests abroad.  The first-best policy would be to bribe and coerce foreign autocrats to favor the interests of individual firms from the metropole;  this is what authoritarian regimes and statist democracies do.  However, particularly liberal states are constrained in the extent to which they can work hand-in-hand with individual firms, because to do so creates a domestic backlash against collusion and favoritism. Their second-best alternative is to try to create an even playing field for all of their firms abroad, and that entails the implantation of institutions that either leave a democratic legacy or entail democratization itself.  I test this argument through a comparison of British and French policy toward their former colonies in Africa.  Both Britain and France are democracies, but only Britain has the particularly liberal state-society relationship specified by the theory;  thus, it should be a more enthusiastic democracy promoter than France.


6 Sarah Bush (Temple) and Lauren Prather (UCSD)

“Election observation and local perception of election credibility in Tunisia”

Prior research on international election observation has focused on why countries invite election observers, the effects of election observation on fraud and governance in observed countries, and the effects of election observation on observed countries’ international reputations. While these are important endeavors, we explore a related, but understudied, dynamic: how international observers affect public perceptions of elections’ credibility. Beliefs in an election’s credibility can impact a range of behaviors from citizens’ levels of democratic engagement and voter turnout to citizens’ propensities to engage in protests and other irregular behavior. Given such consequences, it is necessary to understand the conditions under which international actors can increase or decrease elections’ credibility. Our study uses a novel survey experiment conducted in Tunisia to provide voters in a recent election with information about the presence of observers from the United States, European Union, Arab League, African Union, and Tunisia. Surprisingly, we find that observers from the Arab League have the largest credibility-enhancing effect. After the informational treatments, we ask a series of questions to understand whether and why these treatments affect perceptions of the elections credibility. We argue that election observers will enhance election credibility when they are perceived as both capable and unbiased.

- comments by D. Donno


Saturday, Sep 3d, 1 pm - 3 pm

Panel III “Credibility and Results” (2 hrs)


7 Daniel McCormack (Penn)

“Threats and Promises: Why Democracy Promotion Sometimes Leads to Civil Conflict”

The experience of several Arab countries during the 2011 “Arab Spring” offers strikingly different lessons for democracy promotion. While Tunisia appears to have successfully liberalized, Syria remains mired in civil conflict. This paper argues that scholars have neglected the strategic incentives of autocrats in their evaluation of democracy promotion abroad. Successful democratization requires the mobilization of groups within a country -- which can be facilitated by external actors -- but autocrats can respond to this mobilization either with concessions, leading to democratization, or repression, leading to civil conflict. I analyze a theoretical model in which democratization can occur either as a unilateral concession by an autocrat or as the result of a stochastic conflict. Peaceful democratization is more likely when external states are able to both promise support to nascent opposition groups and can successfully threaten autocrats. Conversely, I show that civil conflict is an equilibrium outcome of democracy promotion when external states can promise support to opposition groups but are unable to successfully threaten autocrats. I demonstrate support for the model through statistical analysis and a cross-sectional case study of Arab countries during the 2010s. The findings shed light on the ability of great powers to promote democracy as a function of their existing ties to autocratic regimes. This paper also cautions that democracy promotion may exist uneasily with a commitment to peacekeeping, and provides conditions for an ex ante evaluation of democracy promotion’s likelihood of success.

- comments by H. Hegre

8 Arturas Rozenas (NYU)

“Strategic Election Monitoring: How Mixed Objectives Can Undermine Effectiveness of Monitoring Institutions”

Election monitoring agencies often aim to achieve two political objectives–to deter election fraud and to prevent post-election violence, both of which are important for a self-sustaining democracy. I argue that under a wide array of conditions, these two political objectives are not well-aligned. I develop a formal model where strategic election monitors stochastically observe election fraud and decide whether to issue a critical report that can induce a violent reaction from the opposition, and thereby deter election fraud. When election monitors are only concerned about deterring electoral fraud, they can be very effective at both deterring fraud and preventing post-election violence. However, when monitors have an explicit intention to prevent post-election violence, they may lose the ability to both deter fraud and prevent violence.

- comments by D. Donno

9 Kerim Can Kavakli (Sabanci), Patrick M. Kuhn (Durham)

“Not All Opposition Is the Same: Fraud, Islamic Opposition, and Electoral Evaluation”

We argue that whether organizations evaluating elections criticize or condone elec- toral fraud is strongly influenced by the ideology of its victims. An organization is more likely to overlook fraud committed against groups that are deemed dangerous by its sponsor. Based on this insight, we hypothesize that in the post-Cold War era Western organizations with close political ties are more tolerant of fraud against Is- lamist opposition parties, because Islamists are perceived to threaten political stability and Western political interests. In support of our hypothesis, we find that the U.S. State Department, which is directly connected to the U.S. government, is most likely to endorse a fraudulent election if it includes Islamic opposition parties. In contrast, observers with weaker ties to donor governments display smaller or no anti-Islamic bias. Our findings show that research on democracy promotion benefits from identifying the strength of ties between outsiders and challengers as well as the incumbents.

- comments by K. Weyland


10 Arman Grigoryan (Lehigh)

“A Direct Test of the Kantian Logic of Democracy Promotion: How the West Reacted to the Mass Movements in Ukraine and Armenia”

The claim that spreading democracy is a major policy priority for the USA and its Western allies is often taken to be self-evident.  It is also assumed that Kantian preferences drive the policy. There are certainly good reasons for such confidence, including the indisputable evidence of Western support for the forces of democracy in a large number of cases, the strong ideological commitment to liberalism among the Western elites, and even the fact that critics often target the strategic wisdom of such a policy without disputing its authenticity. I argue that the claim is problematic, nevertheless, and that the high degree of confidence in it is the consequence of two methodological transgressions – selection on the dependent variable and insufficient attention to the problem of equifinality.  In other words, most empirical statements about democracy promotion fail to address the evidence of the West’s indifferent or hostile attitude toward certain democratic movements and regimes in the past, and they fail to rule out non-Kantian preferences for supporting democratic forces. I subject the Kantian argument to a direct test with these methodological alarm bells in mind by comparing the West’s enthusiastic support for the Ukrainian uprising in 2013 to its attitude toward the Armenian mass movement of 2008, which bordered on the hostile. I demonstrate that these postures were inconsistent with the Kantian logic. 

 - comments by R. Krebs

Saturday, Sep 3d, 1 pm - 3 pm

Research Cafe IV “Great Powers and Democracy: Congruities and Tensions” (1.5 hrs)

Cafe Participants: Susan Hyde (Yale), Daniela Donno (Pitt), Ron Krebs (Minnesota), Havard Hegre (PRIO/Uppsala), Kurt Weyland (Texas Austin),  Jon Pevehouse (Wisconsin, "fly-in-the-wall")



List of all Conference Participants

Daniel McCormarck (Penn), Seva Gunitsky (Toronto), Sarah Bush (Temple), Susan Hyde (Yale), Kerim Can Kavakli (Sabanci), Patrick M. Kuhn (Durham), Lauren Parther (UCSD), Arturas Rozenas (NYU), Nikolay Marinov (Mannheim), Johannes Bubeck (Mannheim), Daniela Donno (Pitt), Ron Krebs (Minnesota), Havard Hegre (PRIO/Uppsala), Kurt Weyland (Texas Austin), Tony Smith (Tufts), Kevin Narizny (Lehigh), Arman Grigoryan (Lehigh), John Owen (Virginia), Elizabeth Saunders (GWU)

Pictures from the mini-conference follow.