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The Ignorant Freedomist

How do we know this? Because we know empirically from history and verified theory that democracies don’t make war on each other, and therefore we can predict that between any two democracies there will be no future war. However, war can well occur between two if one or both are not democracies. Moreover, the probability of war is far higher if both are nondemocracies.

Is war inevitable? No! We can expand the sphere of democracies to encompass the globe and thereby make war history. There is no reason to suspect that the relationships among democracies will be any different than they are today if all countries are democratic. Democracies will remain intrinsically democracies, and thus the essential nature of democracies –political rights for all citizens, the democratic culture, multiple civic groups, a spontaneous society, and bonds and cross pressure — that ensure peace will remain.~R.J. Rummel

What can one say in the face of such foolishness? I have occasionally encountered Mr. Rummel’s ramblings about “democratic peace” and “freedomism” before, and I have wasted little time on taking them seriously, but the troubling thing is that Mr. Rummel’s bizarre theory readily wins acceptance in conventional thinking. It is my impression that a great many Americans, and Westerners generally, work on the assumption that democracy=peace. Pacifists, of course, take this to the extreme with the assumption that war must therefore be undemocratic, so obvious is the equation between peace and democracy. But even a brief, cursory glance at history would tell us this political theory is simply false and has virtually no supporting evidence. It would be a waste of my time to explain in detail why the wars between democratic states that I have already mentioned in previous posts really are wars between democratic states. Perhaps simply a list of some relevant conflicts would suffice (I do not propose that this list is exhaustive, but simply what comes to mind).

There are the conflicts between what we must, for analytic purposes, consider as democratic states or, at the very least, states with very significant democratic elements: the American War for Independence, the Quasi-War (1798-1800), the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (unless we are going to quibble that Britain was not yet sufficiently ‘democratic’ at this point), the American War of Secession, the Boer War, WWI. Then there are the wars started by democratic states, whether the target of their aggression was a democratic state or not: the Greco-Turkish Wars, the Spanish-American War, the First and Second Balkan Wars, the Greek invasion of Turkey (1919-22) and, of course, Kosovo and Iraq. Japan’s wars of aggression were not conducted by a democratic government, but it was scarcely for lack of parliamentary institutions, constitutional rights and a broad franchise that Japan became expansionist and militaristic–democracy and military expansionism can often go hand in hand, fueled by the insane desire to bring the “gift” of democracy to other victims.

It would only be by narrowly definining democracy in terms of parliamentary and participatory government, which I have been doing here, that we could exclude fascist and communist revolutionary regimes from the label of democratic. Obviously, if we included these as part of democracy’s legacy (which, in the sense of being the legacy of 1789, they are), the indictment would be overwhelming. Also, I have intentionally limited the examples to American and European nations. There could very well be useful examples from other parts of the world in the last century of which I am presently unaware or which I have forgotten. But the list given above should be sufficient to disprove Mr. Rummel’s claim once and for all.

Confronted with this, only an ideologue could maintain that “democracies do not go to war with one another” or that “democracies do not start wars.” Of course they do! Democracies, last I checked, were populated with men, who are every bit as likely to succumb to ambition, greed, bloodlust, libido dominandi, the desire to acquire new territory and resources and ideological fervour as men in any other regime. I would go further and argue that democracies exacerbate all of these vicious tendencies in men and make wars both more likely and more destructive when they occur, but that is an argument for another time.

Besides, wars have causes in conflicts over the control of resources and territory. As long as resources are limited and territoriality is an element in human politics (in other words, until the Kingdom comes), there will be war. If all nations became true functioning democracies tomorrow it would not resolve disputes over territory and resources, nor would it change basic strategic interests, nor would it reduce the willingness of strong powers to go to war to achieve their strategic goals. Wars are caused by extreme conflicts of two interested polities, not by madcap dictators simply deciding that war is entertaining (or whatever it is that “democratic peace” advocates think causes war). Dictators may exploit grievances and whip up the crowd into bellicose frenzy, but the interests and grievances have to exist already for this to work.

We are also living in a relatively abnormal international situation, as international relations are still adapting to a world after Cold War bipolarity. At present, wars between most democracies (especially developed democracies) seem remote, but this is not because they are democratic. Rather these conflicts seem remote because it does not presently serve the interest of any major democratic state to war against its neighbours, democratic or otherwise. That can change and, if history is any guide, it probably will.

War between France and Britain in the future is probably a bad bet, but a war starting in central Europe between, say, democratic Hungary and Romania in another generation over Transylvania, drawing in many other interested nations, is not so inconceivable, even if it is very undesirable. In the event that democracy becomes more widely and firmly established in Africa beyond its few, small beachheads, the extreme artificiality of African states and borders will lead to all sorts of populist calls for revisions and “reunifications” of peoples, not all of them peaceful. Conflicts over resources, especially water and fuel, may become acute. Heightened ethnic group consciousness mixed with populist egalitarian rhetoric will easily foment new slaughters on the model of Rwanda. Here at home Americans could one day react to the ongoing immigration crisis in a very drastic way that might precipitate violent conflict with Mexico, irrespective of the democratic credentials (or lack thereof) of the two governments involved. And so on.

But is Mr. Rummel so out of touch to believe that if China had a universal franchise, a charter of rights and a full-blown civil society it would become less, rather than more, threatening to its neighbours? We may be grateful for the authoritarian control of Chinese foreign policy that prevents it from succumbing quickly either to nationalist enthusiasms for retaking Taiwan, revanchism against Japan or populist demands for territorial expansion into Russia and southeast Asia. Why we should want this policy set by leaders elected by the general population, which has itsef been trained since childhood to think of China as a put-upon victim, is beyond me.

To the extent that many democracies are pacific today, it is because they are also absolutely weak or weak relative to their neighbours. Mass warfare, which is the type of warfare introduced by democratic politics, is extremely expensive and prohibitively so for many small nations. In this sense, the democratic tendency towards war has been balanced in many cases by the sheer devastation and waste that democratic war entails. The mob loves war in theory, but learns to love it less after being put through war’s meat grinder a few times. We also have a relatively small sample of functioning democracies in history from which to draw our evidence–common sense would tell us that the continued existence of functioning democracies around the world, if they do continue to exist, promises a future where there will still be wars and the wars will inevitably be between democratic states. Mr. Rummel’s proposition is bound to be disproven more thoroughly as time goes by.

Mr. Rummel’s claim that there have never been wars between democracies make him either an historical ignoramus of the first order or a dishonest hack. I sincerely hope it is the former, as this is at least remediable.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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