Amichai Magen: Terrorist Threat – The Growing Democracy Advantage
On July 12th, 2018, the CISG hosted a lecture by Dr. Amichai Magen, Head of the Diplomacy and Conflict Studies Program at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy in Herzliya, Israel, on the growing democracy advantage in the face of terrorist threats. With a view to recent events that had culminated in calls to cancel the event with our highly esteemed Israeli guest, the evening started off with a greeting and short speech by University rector Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. Michael Hoch. As a place of science, knowledge and openness, he said, the University of Bonn with all its professors, students and members vehemently condemn hate speech, violence and racist attacks. Referring to the Bonn Declaration of Open-mindedness and Tolerance from 2015 (see here: https://www.uni-bonn.de/Press-releases/bonn-declaration-of-open-mindedness-and-tolerance), he made a powerful statement for academic freedom and peaceful exchange. Prof. James D. Bindenagel, Head of the Center for International and Security and Governance, then introduced the evening’s topic and guest speaker as a respected colleague and accomplished scientist. Since international terror has hit Western democracies repeatedly right in its heart in recent years – New York to Paris, Barcelona to Berlin – public fears are rising. As a result, calls for more security and political actionism is growing in an effort to ward off terrorism. Dr. Magen’s research challenges conventional wisdom that liberal societies are the main target of terrorism uses his findings to argue that democracies actually have less to fear in the face of international terror than other regime types do.
After this introduction, Amichai Magen proceeded to present the audience with what he called “a cautiously optimistic story about liberal democracy in an unsettling time”. With worries over tectonic movements in international relations and national politics abound, Magen outlined his area of research that is located at the intersection between governance and international security. As a large PEW study in 40 countries from 2017 revealed, the majority of citizens in all cases consider terrorism to be the greatest threat to national security, with issues like cyber war, nuclear threats or environmental change scoring much lower. Citing the enormous global spike in terrorist attacks that have increased by 1,029% between 2002 and 2016 worldwide, Dr. Magen stated that the fear of terrorism is not in fact paranoia but that the surge as a global phenomenon is real. However, he also emphasized that this says nothing about their distribution.
Dr. Magen then explained the methodical approach he used to gain more insights about the frequency with which certain regime types experience terrorist attacks. For this, he categorized all countries listed by the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) based on their level of openness, democracy, and rule of law, ranging from completely closed-off autocracies (i.e. North Korea) to liberal democracies (i.e. Canada, Sweden). He then sorted all countries into six groups in order to chart the number of terrorist attacks as well as the number of casualties in each regime category. The results were overwhelmingly clear: The so-called “Violence in the Middle-Thesis”, according to which extremely closed-off autocracies as well very liberal societies experience by far the lowest number of attacks, appears to hold. Further breaking down the results, Dr. Magen made a number of other observations: Firstly, liberal democracies enjoy what he calls a “triple democracy advantage” which consists of fewer attacks, a slower increase in numbers, and fewer casualties. Secondly, a minimalist democracy is not sufficient to provide this advantage. Various studies cited by Dr. Magen argued that democracy has an antiterrorist effect because democratic openness allows grievances to be addressed and dealt with peacefully which decreases violent political behavior: Accommodating conflicts in an open, pluralistic framework helps avoid their unloading in violence. According to his assessment, liberal democracieshave furthermore gotten better at dealing with terrorist dangers and especially the EU is safer today than it was three to four years ago. Taking into account the other threats for human life that result from an autocratic regime type, Dr. Magen concluded that liberal democracies, while certainly not perfect, are in all likeliness the best type of political organization in a large number of ways – including terror avoidance. In light of this, Dr. Magen was especially critical of the illiberal and populist wave among Western democracies undermining the democracy advantage. Preserving and deepening democratic substance plays an important role in enhancing safety and mitigating the risks of terrorism, he said. Thus, undermining democratic liberties and eroding the rule of law in an effort to increase security is likely to make democracies less safe, not more. As a result, Dr. Magen against castigating communities and minorities as this would represent a slippery slope to the erosion of democratic rights while at the same time feeding Islamic recruitment. At the same time, however, refusing to have responsible, open conversations about threats lays the ground for populist backlash, leaving liberal societies more vulnerable to terrorist attacks in the long run as well.
Magen concluded the evening with an optimistic outlook and a fierce appeal to safeguard democratic freedoms and rights. The situation is not similar to the 1930s, he stated – we are looking at serious challenges and have been too complacent, he said, but he also expressed his belief in open societies to renew themselves. To safeguard this, he finally concluded, we will have to live with a certain degree of conflict and uncertainty that is the cost of living in an open democracy.
You can find Dr. Magen’s article and presentation with the following links: