First, if I am not mistaken, the thrust of Bush’s position regarding the warlike character of democracies is that they are less likely to go to war than despotisms and especially less likely to go to war with each other than with despotisms. What truly democratic nations have the United States gone to war with? It is difficult to conjure up democratic bona fides in our enemies, old or new. ~Richard Reeb, Claremont Institute Blog
This comes from a response to Mark Helprin’s skeptical article questioning the administration’s “democracies don’t war” (Bush’s words) thesis. To answer Mr. Reeb’s challenge, it does depend on how broadly we want to define “democratic.” If we take Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s hard-line approach and identify all mass political movements of the 20th century as being fundamentally democratic (but also fundamentally illiberal and leftist), and accept his claim that democracy, fascism and communism are all competitors working in the same vein, it is very easy to recognise the 20th century as a series of wars that pitted one kind of democratic regime against another (perhaps the liberal vs. the illiberal, if you like). In other words, K-L would probably tell us that it is in constitutionalism, parliamentarism and (perhaps) classical liberalism that governments are more likely to be restrained and refrain from going to war, and that it is, if anything, democracy that breaks down restraint and precipitates mass conflict.
If this is too far out for some, we can point to the Quasi-War as a conflict with Convention France. That the democratic revolution in France had already degenerated into despotism is not much of a reason to count out France’s democratic regime–the democratic impulses to war and despotism are closely linked. We can also say in all seriousness that Wilhelmine Germany had most of the qualities of a constitutional, liberal democratic state that makes it as “democratic” as its contemporary in the constitutional monarchy of Great Britain. Mark Helprin makes an even less qualified claim on this point: “Germany, the primary instigator of World War I, was a democracy.” Mr. Reeb ducks this issue and focuses all of his attention on WWII and the Cold War.
If we view it differently, and ask how many times the United States have provoked or started wars, we can see that the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the War of Secession and the Spanish-American War were all products of an aggressive or provocative policy of the U.S. Nothing in our political system made these wars less likely, and indeed precipitated the War of 1812 and the Spanish war when both were unnecessary (and the former was clearly foolish).
In the case of the War of Secession, the belligerents were the most democratic nations on the face of the earth at the time. There is every reason to believe that the greater democratisation of American politics before the war made the war more likely and ensured it would be much more long-lasting and destructive than any previous war. Naturally, a Claremont writer with the institutional prejudices of the Institute cannot conceive that the war could have had anything to do with a fight between two democracies: “It is true that the Declaration of Independence fired the Union cause, but this was hardly a fight between democracies, rather between freedom and slavery.” Dishonest dodges like this are typical in the “democratic peace” camp, and they carry no weight.
Helprin basically agrees with arguments I have made about the Japanese political system here: “Less a democracy but a democracy nevertheless, Japan saw its parliamentary government wax and wane in the decades before World War II, losing eventually to the militarists but resurging as late as 1937 almost to regain control, with the Meiji Constitution unrepudiated and in force throughout the war.”
It is also worth noting that from the dawn of liberal constitutionalism in Japan, as was often the case with 19th century liberals, the liberals latched on to imperial causes as a means of pushing liberal ideas overseas. Japan had not, for various and sundry internal reasons, engaged in external aggression until it started to become a modern and much more liberal state. The annexation of Korea and the occupation of Manchuria took place under a liberal, constitutional monarchy. That it was not perfectly liberalised or democratised should be neither here nor there: increasing democratisation coincided with increased aggressiveness, militarisation and warmongering. To this Reeb has even less to say. It should not matter whether the Japanese attack was provoked or not–if the “democratic peace” thesis is true, Japan should have been that much less willing to attack another “democracy” because of its own democratic elements, all of which should have been working to prevent the war.
What democratists don’t want to admit, though, is that democracy encourages collectivism and virulent nationalism, both of which make a society more quiescent when its government decides to go to war. If the “democratic peace” thesis were true, democratic politics should strengthen a people’s resistance to these tendencies and make the people less willing to engage in warfare. It simply isn’t true, and if Mr. Reeb would face facts he would acknowledge as much. Mr. Helprin’s call to recognise complexity and contingency, as well as his recommendation to determine policy according to our interests instead of such trite slogans are most welcome.