In medicine, doctors weigh the success rate of a procedure before they undertake an operation. Unfortunately, foreign policy isn’t made in the same scientific spirit. Propelled by the excitement of the moment and lots of wishful thinking, policymakers order military deployments without consulting past experience.

A case in point is President Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He hoped that our military occupation would turn that country into a democracy, but there is no sign he considered the success rate for this kind of action. Over the past century, the United States has sent military forces to many troubled areas in an effort to establish democracy. Great Britain has done the same, several dozen times. Before invading Iraq, the president should have studied how these efforts have turned out, to know his chances of success.

He would have learned that a president who went around the world invading countries in order to make them democratic would fail most of the time. The record shows that of the 51 times the United States and Great Britain attempted nation-building by force over the past 150 years, they left behind an enduring democracy in only 14 cases, or 27 percent of the time. (For details of this study see the newly-released book by the Independent Institute, “Opposing the Crusader State: Alternatives to Global Interventionism.”)

This disappointing pattern can be seen in America’s first effort at nation-building, in Cuba after the Spanish-American War of 1898. Following the war, the United States administered Cuba for four years, turning power over to an elected Cuban president in 1902. A few years later, a violent revolution forced him from office, and U.S. troops came back in 1906. After more reforms and new elections, the U.S. again turned power over to the Cubans in 1909. More instability ensued, including another violent revolt. The marines came back yet a third time in 1917; restored order; set up another constitutional regime; and withdrew in 1922. After that, Cuba saw a succession of unstable and autocratic regimes, and now suffers the totalitarian dictatorship of Fidel Castro.

In Iraq, the batting average for nation-building is zero. The British occupied it from 1917 to 1932, and again from 1941 to 1947. Despite their efforts to cultivate democracy, civil strife, warlordism, and dictatorship emerged both times after the troops left.

Other failed democracy-building efforts in the Middle East include Lebanon, where the U.S. twice sent troops, in 1958 and again in 1982, and Somalia in 1992.

Some have said that these failures were caused by too brief an involvement, that democratic powers need a long occupation to impose democracy. Alas, the record gives no support for this theory. Many lengthy involvements have ended in failure. The U.S. occupied Haiti for 19 years, from 1915 to 1934, and left civil turbulence from which emerged the notorious dictatorship of “Papa Doc” Duvalier. In Nicaragua, the U.S. supervised the political system for 24 years, from 1909 to 1933, and U.S. troops held three fair and free elections. A year after U.S. troops left in 1933, dictator Anastasio Somoza took over the country.

Britain’s experience with long involvements is equally discouraging. Examples of prolonged colonial administration followed by democratic failure include Burma (63 years), Egypt (40 years), Sudan (57 years), Cyprus (46 years), Ghana (71 years), Kenya (69 years), Uganda (68 years), and Zimbabwe (92 years).

Roots of Failure

What accounts for so much failure at nation-building? At bottom, the answer is that policymakers have overlooked the first, necessary requirement for democracy, which is a low level of political violence. They have focused secondary aspects—drafting constitutions, holding elections, building schools, and promoting women’s rights—without realizing that none of this matters if participants are disposed to kill each other to get what they want.

A study of the evolution of democracy in places like England, Holland, or France shows that democracy was not consciously constructed and deliberately adopted. It came about by default as political leaders gradually grew nonviolent. Opposition groups ceased resorting to revolution to overthrow incumbents, and incumbents stopped putting critics and opponents in jail. As force dropped out of the picture, participants moved to the obvious nonviolent alternatives for settling disputes: counting heads (elections), and acceding to the decisions of courts, councils, and legislatures. That’s what we call democracy.

In other words, democracy isn’t a system you teach people or impose on them. It is what happens automatically when participants aren’t violent.

This point explains the few cases where military intervention did leave behind a democracy: the country already had a nonviolent political culture. Germany after World War II is a good example. Proponents of nation-building often point to it as a model, but the fact is that the U.S. military occupation did not create democracy. It was the post-war German leaders who did it.

For over a century before World War II, Germany had a basically nonviolent politics. Political leaders had long ceased trying to murder each other; freedom of expression was generally observed; and elections had been being held for generations. In the 1930s, the peaceful political elite was temporarily displaced by Hitler’s gang of thugs, who dominated the country through violent mob action and assassination. When these criminal politicians were removed by the Allied victory, the traditional elites came forward again. They wrote constitutions; staffed the government; and carried on nonviolent politics—that is, democratic politics—as before.

The lesson is clear: if you invade and occupy a country where elites have already evolved to nonviolent politics, then democracy will continue after you leave. On the other hand, if you invade a politically violent society, you have to expect more violence—civil strife, terrorism, and repressive dictatorship—after you leave.

And, yes—in case there is anyone who hasn’t noticed—Iraq is a politically violent society.