There’s little room to dispute democracy’s emergence as the universal political system of choice: most of the world’s nations are organized, to varying degrees, as democracies. There is far more conjecture, though, about the underlying processes driving the global spread of democracy.
One major theory says that bigger, more powerful nations coerce less democratic nations into adopting their institutional structures through both direct means such as military force and indirect means such as economic sanctions. Another says that weaker nations simply copy the political systems of the most economically successful nations.
Professor Paul Ingram and doctoral student Magnus Thor Torfason propose a new theory: the best predictor of whether a country will become more democratic is its network — specifically, networks that result from memberships in intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), such as the UN, Interpol, or the African Union, whose member nations convene around a common purpose.
The first part of Ingram and Torfason’s hypothesis is that the stronger the network connection between nations, the greater the influence those states have on each other. “Joint membership in IGOs forms a network, reflecting a basic level of connectedness, which is a function of how often two nations are in the same organizations,” Ingram explains. “The United States and Canada are highly connected, and that level of connection reflects their capacity for influencing each other. Two or more countries that share membership in a number of the same IGOs should hold much more sway over one another compared with countries not in those IGOs or countries in fewer of those organizations.”
The second part of their network theory contends that the influence will only go one way, so that strong democracies influence and strengthen autocracies and each other, but autocracies don’t pull down their democratic associates. “It’s not that organizations or people influence each other in all directions,” Ingram says. “Normative influence requires a norm — that is, an idea legitimized and broadly accepted as the norm. And influence only flows through a legitimized idea. Most of the world views and accepts democracy as the legitimate form of government.” (As if to underscore democracy’s normative pull, the researchers found that countries that use the word “democracy” or “democratic” in their names are among the least democratic, suggesting that the word is used as window dressing in an attempt to gain legitimacy in the absence of genuine democratic institutions.)
Using principles from organizational theory, Ingram and Torfason tested their hypothesis that IGOs have played a pivotal role in the diffusion of global democracy over the last 200 years by asking, in effect, what the world’s political systems would look like without the network influence of IGOs.
The researchers used data from the Polity IV project, a long-term ongoing survey that measures democracy and autocracy around the world by assessing key indicators and institutions such as whether a nation has contested elections and separation of powers. The researchers assigned each of these nations a measure of connectedness in the IGO network using a historical record of 500 IGOs over the same 200-year period, including both well-known organizations like the UN and the World Bank and smaller IGOs that have regional or cultural missions, such as La Francophonie, a network of French-speaking nations — and even IGOs as esoteric as the Joint Nordic Organization for Lappish Culture and Reindeer Husbandry. They combined the IGO network data with the Polity IV democracy measures in network model that explained changes in global democracy from 1815 to 2000.
Their overarching conclusion is that, without the influence of the IGO network, the world would be substantially less democratic, by about four points on a 20-point scale. Four points is about the difference between the maximally democratic United States and nations such as Bangladesh and East Timor, which are less democratic with less robust institutions.
The researchers considered a long inventory of variables including military strength, location, and GDP to determine if other explanations could account for the diffusive effects they observed. For example, they analyzed IGO-joining behavior, determining that less democratic nations weren’t simply joining the same IGOs that their more democratic affiliates already belonged to as part of a copycat effort. The researchers found some evidence that copycatting action has played a part in diffusing democracy but no evidence that coercive policies on the part of stronger nations have historically been effective in pushing weaker countries towards democracy.
So which IGOs are the most influential when it comes to spreading democracy? Ingram thinks they all matter. “The UN is the biggest, so it creates the most connections. But connections to smaller IGOs, including regional and cultural ones, like the Organization for Lappish Culture or La Francophonie exert strong normative influence, and matter just as much.” The bottom line for policymakers is clear: to promote and strengthen democracy, affiliate with states with strong democratic institutions and practices, and encourage other countries to do the same.
Ingram and Torfason’s analysis also allowed them to make general predictions about the trajectories of nondemocratic countries. “According to our model, Iran, for example, should not be democratizing, because it’s not an active participant in any of those democratizing networks,” Ingram says. “When Iran connects, it connects with other countries that are not democratic. It may engage in international relations, but that mere fact will not pull it toward democracy if its partners aren’t democratic states.”
This suggests to Ingram that isolation removes the normative influence of diplomacy and institutional relations. “I might not have thought so before looking at our findings, but one big implication is that we should engage with nations even when we don’t like their practices.”
Democracy is probably in no danger of slipping from its position as the global ideal, but there are some warning signals. “These normative practices are diffusing democracy, but in the post–Cold War period, since the late 1980s, we see some erosion on that front, and we see some coercive and copycat effects rise a bit,” Ingram cautions. “Taking a laissez-faire approach leaves open the possibility that autocratic forces could make room to intercede. If the United States believes in certain economic and political practices, then our findings argue for proselytizing, particularly through the IGO network.”
Why is Ingram, an organizational theorist, interested in illuminating the mechanisms that transmit democracy? “Understanding the diffusion of democracy is important enough on its own,” Ingram explains, “but understanding that organizations — IGOs — are the principal drivers of the democratization process can inform our understanding of how globalization is diffused, presumably because globalization works in the same way.”
“If we don’t know what is happening with global organizations,” Ingram asks, “how can we be intelligent about predicting how the European Union will change, how African nations will respond to that continent’s challenges, or the trajectory of China’s economy? How can we see these and other strategic threats and opportunities?”
Paul Ingram is the Kravis Professor of Business in the Management Division and senior scholar at the Jerome A. Chazen Institute of International Business at Columbia Business School.