Saturday, March 07, 2009

# Posted 6:04 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

I'm posting in San Francisco right now, after spending the past couple of days at a Stanford conference on democratic transitions and the role that international actors play in supporting them. I presented a paper on the South Korean transition to democracy in 1987, co-authored with a colleague from Seoul.

If you're into the academic literature on democratic transitions, you may have noticed that it rarely even asks whether international actors play a significant role. The exception is the work of a small number of experts on democracy promotion, who tend to overcompensate for this trend by overemphasizing the role of outside forces.

The purpose of the conference at Stanford was to commission around 15 case studies that rigorously compare the role of domestic and international factors in democratic transitions. In my case (South Korea), the Reagan administration made a concerted effort to prevent violence and ensure a safe transition to democracy at the height of the riots that swept across South Korea in 1987.

The best way to characterize the US role in this transition (and many others) may be as a thumb on the scales. South Koreans led both the pro- and anti-democracy forces, but American influence helped the pro-democracy forces win out in the end.

If the balance of power strongly favors anti-democratic forces, there isn't much that the US or other democratic nations can do to change the outcome. But if a pro-democracy movement builds up a strong head of steam, the US and others can influence both the nature and the outcome of the transition.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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