TCS Daily

Democracy: No Panacea

By Dale Franks - August 13, 2002 12:00 AM

"Democracies don't go to war against each other."

We've all heard this bromide so often that we uncritically accept it as true. Upon thinking about it a second time, however, perhaps the real conclusion on this adage should be the "Scottish verdict": Not proven.

Certainly, in modern times, democracies have tended to be allies, rather than enemies. It is less certain, however, that the tendency of modern democracies to foreswear war against each other stems from some shared quality of democracy, except insofar as democracies are reluctant warriors as a general matter.

But, until recently, there simply weren't a lot of democracies to begin with. Prior to the First World War, the number of actual democratic states could be counted on one's fingers. Indeed, even today, the number of democracies is far smaller than the number of authoritarian regimes of various stripes.

In addition, until the breakup of the Soviet Union, modern Europe, where most of today's democracies are concentrated, has always operated under the threat of one or another authoritarian government attaining continental dominance. Indeed, the struggle between republican France and imperial Germany to become the dominant continental power in Europe lasted from the German Unification of 1870 until the end of the Second World War. In that struggle, France's traditional enemy, Britain, became a French ally against Germany. The authoritarian German state was a greater threat to Britain - which was, by the end of the 19th century, about as democratic a government as existed anywhere - than republican France. This was true not, it must be understood, because France was no longer a threat to Britain, but rather because Germany was a greater one.

In the post-World War II era, the number of democracies - in Europe, at least - increased drastically. At the same time, those democracies were forced to ally themselves against the threat posed by the Soviet Union.

It is true that democracies have tended not to war against each other in modern times, but, as we've seen, they had other fish to fry. Authoritarian regimes, who do not have to concern themselves with public audit, have tended to be prone to cause trouble. In consequence, democracies have banded together against the threats posed by autocrats because such threats were more immediate. That may say a lot about the democracies' shared commitment against authoritarianism, but it may not tell us an awful much about how democracies treat each other in the absence of compelling authoritarian threats.

We do, however, have knowledge of a time and place where democracies rather regularly warred against each other. The democratic city-states of Greek Classical Antiquity were built on a foundation of civic militarism.

The free yeoman farmers, who also served as the hoplites of the Greek phalanx, voted on whether to go to war. They usually elected their military leaders. As often as not, those leaders faced rigorous civilian audit of their conduct of military campaigns when they returned to the polis and their former hoplite subordinates reverted to their prior status as civilian voters. In some cases even successful, victorious generals were put on trial for their lives due to their lack of attention to their men's welfare while on campaign.

Modern democracies may, perhaps, tend to be less inclined towards warfare in general when compared with authoritarian states. But it is not entirely certain that democracies cannot evolve into warlike states themselves.

As UC Fresno Professor of Classics Victor Davis Hanson writes in his book, Carnage and Cultures, "[T]he choice of military response to win or protect territory was a civic matter, an issue to be voted on by free landowning infantrymen themselves." Additionally, he reminds us, that republican Rome operated in a similar fashion. "[T]he republican legionaries themselves felt confident that they fought to preserve the traditions of their ancestors (mos maiorum) and in accordance with the constitutional decrees of an elected government."

Being a democracy seems to have done little to bar the development of Athens as an imperial power in classical Greece, just as it presented no particular obstacle in preventing republican Rome from doing likewise. Both states were democratic. In both states, the military leadership was elected or appointed by civilian leaders, and subjected to civilian audit of their conduct on a regular basis. Yet, they both became warlike and aggressive states.

There is no guarantee that a modern democracy could not do likewise.

For example, if a free, fair, and honest election were held in Palestine tomorrow, the chances are quite good that Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority would be removed from power. Unfortunately, the replacement government would probably come from the more radical ranks of Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Brigades. It would be a perfectly democratic result, but such a democracy would be fairly threatening to their neighboring democrats in Israel.

Westerners in general, and Americans in particular, are prone to believe some rather unrealistic things about democracy. Chief among these is the idea that democracy in and of itself is inculcated with some virtue that makes the people more peaceful and reasonable. Such a view is entirely specious.

The reason democracy works as an ameliorating institution in the West is because it is based upon a host of other liberal ideals. Democracy is the result of ideas such as individual equality, open debate, freedom of thought and speech, and freedom of the press. It is not a precursor to them. Such ideas need to have relatively firm root in a society for democracy to work as a restraining force.

Democracy is, of course a fine institution. If nothing else, it is a wonderful method for ascertaining what the people want, and selecting leaders to carry out the people's will. It is not, however, in and of itself, a particularly good way of ensuring that what people want is the right thing.



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