Debating Democracy and Terror

News | December 12, 2011

On December 7, 2011, the EastWest Institute (EWI), in partnership with the World Policy Institute (WPI), hosted the second annual Ian Cuthbertson Memorial Lecture. Counterterrorism experts Scott Helfstein and Naureen Fink discussed the positive and negative impacts of democratic transitions on the fight against terrorism.

The lecture, held at EWI's New York Center and moderated by EWI's Andrew Nagorski, was named in honor of the distinguished British diplomat and counterterrorism consultant Ian Cuthbertson, who served in senior roles at both EWI and WPI.

The ongoing turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which many observers at least initially hailed as moves toward democratization, has raised many questions about the potential consequences for international security. Among these concerns is the effect it will have on counterterrorism operations throughout the region, especially in light of the pre-existing relationships between countries undergoing political upheavals and the Western governments most actively targeting terrorist operations. At a fundamental level, there is a sharp divide between many analysts on the question of the relationship between regime type and the prevalence and effectiveness of terrorism. Some argue that the institutions comprising a liberal democracy weaken the potential for terrorist activity and allow for more effective counterterrorism operations, while others maintain that autocratic regimes are more effective at thwarting and minimizing security threats.

Helfstein, who spoke first, is director of research for the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. An advisor to public and private sector organizations, Helfstein has extensively studied the effects of democratic and autocratic transitions from 1970 to 1990. Naureen Chowdhury Fink, who followed Helfstein, is a senior analyst at the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation. Having worked closely with the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) on developing their initiatives in South Asia, Fink offered her expertise on Bangladesh as a case study to understand the impact of regime type on counterterrorism.

The Arab Spring raises the question of whether the security relationships established between Western and MENA autocracies are more effective at combating terrorist activity than new democracies, liberal or not, which come with uncertainty. During the discussion, a consensus quickly arose that reality calls for far more nuance than a simple “yes” or “no” answer.

In the wake of the revolutions, functioning security networks have been thrown out the door and have yet to be replaced. Helfstein noted that the United States has “created a foreign policy in the past based on the notion that democracy actually hinders terrorism, but there are good reasons to question that assumption.” He went on to cite a quantitative analysis of the impact of regime type transitions on terrorism that at least partially discredits the notion that democracy inhibits terrorism.

Speaking about his research on regime transition from 1970–1990, Helfstein pointed out that regimes that transitioned from democracies to autocracies had substantially fewer terrorist acts in the two year period following the transition when compared to the two year period preceding the transition. And in fact, nations that became democracies in that period underwent just the opposite experience: a substantial increase in terrorist attacks in the following two years. Regardless of the optimism generated by images of democratic participation in formerly autocratic regimes, it is clear that the future holds serious challenges for these states.

Fink, a specialist in South Asia, offered her extensive experience as an analyst of counterterrorism in Bangladesh as a case study for the topic. “Democracy has created an inhospitable environment for militancy and terrorism in Bangladesh,” she noted, adding that the majority Muslim nation’s democratic institutions have acted as a “pressure valve” for managing discontent. Bengali democracy, which has been in place since 1972, serves to establish expectations of transparency and accountability from public officials who, should they fail to meet these expectations, can be replaced at the ballot box.

That said, Fink noted that the “violent political culture” found in Bangladesh has threatened the stability of fundamental democratic practices such as the peaceful transition of power, even among members of the same political party.  A major lesson for the Arab Spring is that the abuse of power within democratic institutions can allow alternate narratives of religious extremism and militancy to become more compelling to the populace.

In light of this discussion, the conventional wisdom holding democratic transition as an absolute good proves to be a questionable one. Helfstein said that transitions are usually “jarring events” that “not only impact the political institutions but they impact the social structure of society.” The societal shock produced by regime change can often lead to unpredictable consequences.

Both speakers emphasized the role of culture and social norms. The outcome of a democratic (or autocratic) transition is significantly linked with ingrained social mores that can prove highly resistant to the influence of imposed institutions. The coming months are sure to shed more light on how the current political transitions in the Arab world are influencing the prospects for effective counterterrorism.

Click here to listen to a podcast of the event.

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