While democratization will bring many public goods to a society, it may also bring with it a public ill: conflict.
When moving from an authoritarian government to a democratic one, new political actors are allowed to operate in new political arenas. They may not accept loss as legitimate, and so may launch a violent campaign to reverse the result of a democratic vote. Yet, the question as framed raises two further questions: what do we mean by the state being “weak” and would a strong autocracy ever willingly democratize? By answering these, we can begin a fuller investigation into the risks of democratization. It is worth noting here that we will only be concerned by peaceful democratization programs initiated by the state. A violent overthrow of an authoritarian government is already a conflict, and is thus outside the scope of the question.
We first need to clarify what we mean by a “strong” or “weak” state. In traditional realist international relations literature, strength is measured primarily through military power: the stronger a state’s military, the stronger the state (Mearshimer, 2001). For those of a liberal persuasion, the strength of a state is inherently tied to its justification for existing (Simmons, 2001). For democrats, a state’s strength is dependent upon its popular legitimacy; an illegitimate government is definitionally weak (Henry, 1775). None of these definitions, though, get to the heart of state strength. What they lack is an explicit acknowledgement that a state’s strength lies in its ability to extract natural, human, industrial, and financial resources (Holsti, 1996). For our definition, a state is strong when it commands the loyalty of the population, is able to extract needed resources from its territory and people, and is able to maintain a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.
Using this definition, we next need to ask if a strong autocracy would even embark on a democratization program. To answer, we simply need to look at when democratization reforms occur in autocratic societies. They do not happen when the state commands the loyalty of its people, or when it is able to meet its resource needs, or when it is still considered to have a monopoly on violence. Instead, reforms happen when the regime fails in one or all of these respects. The question for autocrats is how to maintain power while implementing enough reforms to once again fulfill the definition of a strong state (Huntington, 1968). “The king’s dilemma” often results in halfway reforms of “opening” and not full on democratization, as was seen in the USSR and China. What is important to note is that there is no dilemma if the state is already strong. So we can say that no, a strong autocracy will not engage in a democratization program.
This leads us to conclude that peaceful democratization will only occur if the autocratic state is already weak. As such, we can reform the original prompt into: Democratization will create a risk of conflict and violence. To answer this revised prompt, we need to look at what democratization does to an autocratic state. . .
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