Do Democracies Fight?

Jason says that democratic peace theory is one of the better explanations for the decline of large-scale conflict around the globe. I remain unconvinced – here’s why:

1) This ain’t the Theory of Gravity we’re talking about. Until recently, democracies were remarkably rare. The third and fourth waves of liberalization still qualify as recent events. To put it in scientific terms, I’d say that more tests are needed.

2) There are too many confounding variables to account for. Until now, most major democracies shared important cultural commonalities (here, I’m thinking mainly of the Anglosphere and Western Europe) that probably won’t exist at future flashpoints. Economic interdependence between the United States and Europe – a factor Mack identifies as significant in his opening entry for Cato Unbound – may have also payed a role in deterring conflict. Europe’s unique post-war experience is another variable to account for: After enduring two world wars, I suspect a strong aversion to open conflict would have developed absent democratic governance.

By way of comparison, consider the Congress of Vienna and the subsequent peace between the Great Powers in 19th century Europe. Metternich, the architect of the post-Napoleonic framework, was an arch-reactionary, and none of the major participants would have qualified as liberal democracies in the modern sense of the words. But peace prevailed across the continent for the better part of a century. Disastrous wars have a way of binding nations together, at least temporarily.

3) Outside pressure encourages solidarity and deters conflict among allies. Would our democratic peace have been nearly as potent if the major democracies were not bound by military and political alliances, first against Hitler and later against the Soviet Union? Even after the threat has lapsed, the mechanisms of cooperation – NATO, the EU, SEATO etc. – remain in place, providing a ready-made framework for consultation and conflict avoidance that won’t exist among newer democracies.

I’m not dismissing the idea that certain shared political norms make conflict between democratic countries unlikely. But if we’re taking bets, I’d put my money on the “mature, Western, economically-interdependent liberal democratic peace theory” over the plain old democratic peace theory any day.

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18 thoughts on “Do Democracies Fight?

  1. It’s interesting that most of the things you mention: cultural commonalities, economic interdependence, and military/diplomatic alliances (usually against a common foe) are all things that have been in place to a greater or lesser extent in Europe since, well, the fall of Rome. Those things are Europe, and except for the last 65 years, they’ve produced a continent that has been at war pretty much constantly, and which in the last century has done its level best to destroy itself twice. Hell, in a sense it was the cultural commonalities, economic interdependence, and military/diplomatic alliances that caused World War I.

    So there must be some other explanation, and I suspect that Jason’s right, the democracy bit plays the biggest role, though I don’t think we should underestimate the cultural memory of the two World Wars that you mention, which certainly make the prospect of wars at home or near home seem significantly less appetizing to Europeans, nor should we neglect the fact that having a super power exerting influence over and playing international liaison to Europe for several decades makes infighting less likely. Conflict of Europe was always about the balance of power, both at home and in distant colonies. I suspect, though it’s really just a guess, that Europe would have seen a war or two since 1945 if the U.S. hadn’t been around to make sure that the balance of power looked like this: U.S. then everybody else.

    That said, since the U.S. has a different level and type of influence in many places outside of Europe, and since some of those places are relatively new to democracy, have long-standing cultural and ethnic conflicts that aren’t going to go away just because people can vote, and in at least many cases haven’t seen a world-destroying war at home in living memory, I don’t know that the theory will hold up outside of Europe and perhaps Eastern Asia.

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  2. > Europe’s unique post-war experience is another variable
    > to account for: After enduring two world wars, I suspect
    > a strong aversion to open conflict would have developed
    > absent democratic governance.

    That doesn’t go very far in explaining why Afghanistan (not that Afghanistan is unique) has been mired in some form of conflict for about a billion years. Shoot, you’d think if anybody was tired of war, it’d be people who have been locally engaged in war for a significant portion of recorded history.

    Personally, I think the frequency of war is determined by two main factors: utter survival (which has been very rare for a long time now) and perceived utter survival.

    Which usually boils down to someone (either very convincing or in a default position of massive authority) sells it to enough people to get the first shots fired.

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  3. Whether or not the nation/state in question has a standing army/militia might be of importance as well. I think even more than democracy, the economic situation of the populace and whether or not they are detached from the conflict is important.

    If many people are poor, I can see them being more apt to fight/enlist. In addition, if they are not poor, but there is a large standing army available, I can see open conflict being more easily rationalized as well (i.e. when citizens are divorced from the cost/sacrifice).

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  4. If I’m understanding the original question it can be paraphrased, “why haven’t there been any World War IIs since World War II?” Well, why haven’t we been hit by any mass extinction asteroids since the K-T event?How many World War IIs should we expect in any given 100 year period?

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          • Historically low levels since WWII. It hasn’t been very long since the end of WWII. China, India, and Africa are only just emerging. South America is starting to chart its own course. The middle east continues to evolve. Give ’em a little time.

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            • So you’re saying that its just natural variation in the number of wars and will eventually regress to the mean?

              A good null hypothesis to be sure but it leaves me wondering what would demonstrate a genuine trend to less war. Is there a certain amount by which the number of wars per year should be below the historical average or a number of years that it should remain below average before we can say there is something going on?

              My stats is *very* rusty and I never applied it to this kind of thing anyway so I really would like to know.

              If we establish that there is a trend then it would seem reasonable to look for causes but you are right that it makes sense to do this in the right order.

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  5. Sorry, but your premise is rather faulty.

    Lebanon was a “democracy” for the longest time. Despite this, Lebanese Hezbollah – the militant arm of Iranian foreign agitation, also part and parcel of the Iranian shadow government that runs Syria – regularly starts wars and assassinates anyone they feel like.

    The ability of the USA and Europe to engage in war, meanwhile, shows not a blockage at dealing with “democracies” but rather, a blockage based on the growth of the information age, infiltration of the media as a fifth column/”useful idiots”, and the increased speed of modern communications. In general, this has been read as the ability of a despotic power to play on the sympathies of gullible Americans/Westerners while ruthlessly controlling their own media. Thus it is that the US audience hears about “what all the evil US troops did murdering people in Iraq” through complicit useful idiots in the media, just as useful idiots in the media play up the supposedly “peaceful” Hugo Chavez… nevermind the way that Saddam Hussein, Hugo Chavez, Kim Jong Il, Hu Jintao, or any other assholish, tin-pot dictator runs their country and treats the people therein as far less than human.

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