A Clash Over 'Wars, Guns, and Votes'

Academics and journalists debate the merits of a recent, controversial argument by Paul Collier

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Oxford economist Paul Colliers made a splash with his 2007 book, "The Bottom Billion." Now he appears to be making an even bigger one with his new "Wars, Guns, and Votes." Today, yet another academic has added his voice to the debate over one of the book's more controversial elements: a call to insert Western peacekeeping forces into countries struggling to transition to democracy.

Chris Blattman, assistant professor of political science and economics at Yale University, is arriving rather late to the WGV debate. Last November, The New York Times' famed adventurer and human rights enthusiast, Nicholas Kristof, blogged about an advance copy, and other journalists and academics began reviewing the book this past March. The reviewers have generally applauded Collier's first argument--that democracy has tended to increase violence in the poor countries, particularly after elections, while international aid only further heightens the risk of a coup. The problem comes, as the New York Times reviewer wrote, "when Collier turns prescriptive."

British journalist Peter Preston for the Observer called Colliers' proposal for Western forces to allow coups after rigged or corrupt elections as a form of deterrence, "deeply dotty." "African pride and western timidity (not to mention guilt) won't let it happen," he wrote. Stephen Howe, a professor of post-colonial history at Bristol University, agreed, adding points about nationalism, colonial and racial resentments, and the difficulty of an "intellectual field, whose study is so dominated by outsiders." Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, in reviewing the book for the New York Times, added that "legitimizing coups" by allowing the overthrow of corrupt governments "risks substantial bloodshed."

Blattman, however, highlighted some new objections:

  1. "The UN only actively polices and peacekeeps in the political backwaters of no interest to none of the Security Council Five. Why do you think the ICC has yet to indict outside of central Africa?"
  2. "Collier argues that joint intervention by advanced democracies will avoid the excesses and exploitation of empire." Blattman and libertarian EconTalk host Russ Roberts, who interviewed Collier back in July, doubt this claim.

Blattman granted Collins's point that "Western intervention on its worst day couldn't be nearly so bad as colonialism on its best." He and Roberts, however, were concerned about possible exploitation by "criminals and opportunists."

Blattman's largest objection is based upon a deep pessimism regarding the West that no other reviewer thus far has shared (or dared to express). "I [...] doubt the basic premise," he wrote, "that Western powers and publics are capable [of] (or even interested in) acting in the public interest."

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