IT'S a principle the Clinton administration has embraced wholeheartedly: Democracies don't fight each other. Their government leaders are too used to resolving political problems via compromise, the theory holds. Their people, as a whole, have little interest in being warlike.
Belief in this credo is a big reason the Clinton team has adopted the promotion of democracy as a central foreign-policy theme. The problem is, it may not be true that democracies are essentially peaceful - or at least it may not be true any longer.
``We should have a clear assessment that the spread of democracy isn't a panacea that would solve world problems,'' says Thomas Carothers, a senior associate at the New Yorkbased Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Throughout most of the 20th century it has been correct that nations with real democratic traditions have rarely fought each other, concludes Mr. Carothers in a recent World Policy Journal article. But these old-fashioned free nations may have been a special case. They are largely rich industrial nations with secure borders, no dangerous ethnic strife, and government systems that reflect far more than mere surface democracy. They faced no real geopolitical forces pushing them into conflict with each other.
But the explosion in world freedom since the fall of the Berlin Wall has produced a different kind of democracy in eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Africa, and Asia, according to Carothers. He dubs these nations ``formal or partial democracies.'' While they feature positive democratic trends, they are also afflicted with entrenched elites, human rights abuses, and little in the way of democratic tradition.
Many are in proximity to each other, poor, and riven by ethnic tension. This is an explosive mix that makes them far more likely to go to war with each other than their Western industrial counterparts. ``This is true because their domestic habits of resolving disputes peacefully are so much weaker and because of the severity of the other problems they face,'' writes Carothers.
The Balkans are a case in point. Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia are all led by at least nominally democratic governments. Fractious yet partly free parts of the former Soviet Union also include Moldova and Tajikistan. Pakistan and India feud continually.
Furthermore, free elections may not be a foolproof way of ending ongoing civil conflicts. Reasonably free elections in both Cambodia and Angola were not followed by an end to fighting. Strong democracies may indeed be peaceful; but the process of building a strong democracy is a risky one in places where peaceful politics has not been the norm.
Finally, just because a nation has become democratic does not mean it will be friendly to the US. Islamic fundamentalists could well triumph in truly free elections in Algeria, or Egypt. Few, if any, US policymakers would consider this positive.
All this does not mean that democracy is not a good thing, in and of itself. It does not mean the US should stand for tyranny abroad. It just means the Clinton White House should have a clear view of what to expect, argues Carothers.
``It's nice that they're trying to promote democracy,'' he says. ``We shouldn't take as much comfort from it as we seem to.''