If the United States or Western Europe intervenes in the turmoil in Ukraine in hopes of promoting democracy, a new study suggests that the citizens of that troubled country better believe the troops are friends.
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If they are seen merely as representatives of a rival country with its own interests at stake, the chances of success are nearly zero.
That's the implication of a new study, which found that an intervention in a civil war by a single country can "poison the well of democracy," even if the intention is to help rebels overthrow a merciless dictator.
If the rebels win, the foreign support from a country perceived to be a rival will leave a residue of distrust that will undermine any attempt to build a free and prosperous country, the study finds.
Political scientist Michael Colaresi of Michigan State University analyzed 136 civil wars from 1946 to 2009 and came up with some dramatic results, published in the international Journal of Peace Research:
That's worth repeating. Of 34 civil wars, all ended in failure except Algeria, which benefited from the fact that a rebel group was more feared than its chief rival, Morocco. Otherwise, its flat-out zero for democracy.
Other researchers at the University of California, San Diego, have found that interventions don't usually help bring a civil war to a close; instead, they often make it last longer. And researchers at New York University and Stanford University found that "third-party military interventions" have often led to "erosion in the trajectory of democratic development."
So history suggests intervention may lead to the opposite of the desired result.
Of course, intervention was not the only reason for failures, Colaresi said in a telephone interview. Civil wars can be complex, and if there is no history of democracy or democratic institutions in the country, or no clear leader whose motives are above reproach, then success is unlikely.
"This study is not an end-all, be-all," he said, but "this is an important component that we didn't previously understand."
Colaresi's research was based largely on extensive data collected on civil wars over the past 20 years by researchers at Indiana University, the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan. Civil wars that did not have interventions by rival countries have had a better fate.
Princeton's Leonard Wantchekon estimates that about 40 percent of all civil wars between 1946 and 1993 succeed in establishing, or rebuilding, a democracy.
Colaresi argues that even if the citizens of a country are unaware during the war that an enemy country provided aid to the winners, that will ultimately come out if the country moves towards democracy. More transparency and competitive elections will result in disclosures that erode the public confidence in the winners, he said.
Intervention is much more likely to succeed, he added, if more than one country is involved, so that the selfish interest of one nation is not viewed as the reason for the action. Any country that survives the cruelty and heartache of a civil war is going to need a lot of help to recover, and it is best if that help comes from many sources.
"Democracy isn't prefabricated," he said in the interview. "You don't just plop down a constitution and a capital and call it a democracy. You have to build it, you have to frame it in the right way, so having people around who can give you advice from different voices in the democratic community seems to help it take root."
His work, as well as that of many others, is particularly timely because civil wars are becoming far more common. And they always seem to pull neighboring countries, some of which are likely competitors for resources, into the war.
"Civil war is no longer these pristine conflicts that are encapsulated in one country," he said. "They are actually international events that other states get involved in, other states have interest in, and sometimes they pursue their own national interest within the civil war context that has nothing to do with the different sides in the civil war. They are just using them."
In the sad story of Ukraine, only one country so far has acted entirely on its own, and that is Russia, and Colaresi suspects Russia and the people of Crimea will pay a high price for that down the road.
Not everybody in Crimea loves Russia, he said, and the eventual government that rises there will be suspect.
There is much at stake in Ukraine, and many nations would undoubtedly like to shape its future to serve their own interests. A better course, Colaresi said, would be to work together.
It's likely most Americans agree with that. But history suggests it's probably not going to be that tidy.