No region in the world is more afflicted by conflict than the Middle East. Without even touching on the nightmare that is ISIS, consider two issues.
The West and Iran have a number of choices in implementing the nuclear agreement. If the analysts are to be believed, everything is strategic. The West sees Iran as a purely strategic actor who will honor the accord only if it is to its military, political, or reputational advantage. There is no illusion that the Teheran regime will behave in a principled manner. The West responds in kind: as is well known, you cannot win acting cooperatively if your adversary acts opportunistically.
Now consider the Arab-Israeli conflict. There, too, both parties act strategically. There is no hope of inducing the Arab regimes to act in accordance with the principles that inform liberal democracies —fairness, respect for human rights, and the like. In this scenario (as in the previous one), Israel, too, is trapped in the corrosive logic of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. (Contrast this with Israel’s cooperative behavior with the West: trade, educational exchanges, tourism.)
These problems have a solution: all states in the region should become liberal democracies. If that happened, in all likelihood they would stop warring.
Or so predicts the democratic-peace theory (DPT). It holds that there is a robust causal link between domestic liberal institutions and international peace. It was proposed first by Kant2, and it has been revived by Michael Doyle3, John Owen4, and others. Kant’s original idea was that democracies (republics, in Kant’s parlance) are less inclined to war because in a democracy the people know they will bear its burdens. In a liberal democracy citizens internalize the costs of war. In a dictatorship, in contrast, the despot sends others to fight while his perks and riches remain largely intact. He externalizes the costs of war. Kant’s thesis, however, is too strong, because democracies frequently go to war. Accordingly, democratic-peace scholars have reformulated DPT: democracies do not go to war with each other. However, they often go to war against illiberal states, and of course, illiberal states fight one another frequently. This is the separate liberal peace thesis, and it better fits he empirical evidence. DPT has provided support for the American (and perhaps European) policy of promoting liberal institutions abroad. The thesis has attracted vigorous criticism5, but it is far from being refuted.
What is the causal connection between free institutions and peace? There are two suggestions in the literature that I cannot pursue here. One is the view that liberal culture inclines to peace; the other, which I tend to favor, is that the institutional constraints faced by liberal elites do the trick. Be that as it may, what is clear is that the correlation between peace and liberal institutions is so robust that it calls for some explanation. DPT’s central idea is that an international system where some states are free and others unfree is inherently unstable (as would be one where all states are unfree). The only stable international state system is one where all states are free. (The theory adds the condition that democratic institutions should be stable.)
Now let’s see how freedom fares in the Middle East. Here are Freedom House’s ratings6 (1 is the freest; 7 is the least free): Egypt 5.5; Iraq 6; Iran 6; Syria 7; Saudi Arabia 7; Jordan 5.5; Lebanon 4.5; Israel 1.5. Israel, then, is the only free society in the region.
DPT predicts a high likelihood of conflict between Israel and its neighbors, and also among those neighbors themselves. If this is sound, then liberal reforms within Arab nations and Iran would dramatically reduce the chances of war in the region. It would also neutralize conflict between Iran and the West. The task of liberalizing these societies should fall mainly on the citizens of those nations. They should throw the bums out. My point is simply that enduring political reform in those countries, apart from being morally desirable, could, if DPT’s claims are sound, lead to lasting peace in the region.
The article first appeared on Bleeding Heart Libertarian.