Jeffrey LewisDemocracy and War

He’s baaaaack!

Mark Helprin—senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, former advisor to Bob Dole, and owner of a pretentious personal websiteattacks the Bush Administration for it’s foreign policy focus on democratization:

THE PRESIDENT believes and often states, as if it were a self-evident truth, that “democracies are peaceful countries.” This claim, which has been advanced in the past in regard to Christianity, socialism, Islam and ethical culture, is the postulate on which the foreign policy of the United States now rests. Balance of power, deterrence and punitive action have been abandoned in favor of a scheme to recast the political cultures of broad regions, something that would be difficult enough even with a flawless rationale because the power of even the most powerful country in the world is not adequate to transform the world at will.


Even without reference to the case of a democracy that, finding self-defense insufficient justification and retaliation an insufficient end, makes war on a non-democracy so as to make the non-democracy a democracy, the postulate on which the president has in all good faith chosen to rely is contradicted by inconvenient fact.

Helprin pens 1038 words without once correctly stating the rule in question, which Jack Levy called “as close as anything we have to an empirical law in international relations.”

The law in question is not that democracies are more peaceful (by any measure, they most certainly are not), but rather that democracies do not fight each other.* Levy states the premise correctly:

The evidence is conclusive that democratic states have been involved, proportionately, in as many wars are non-democratic states. There is one aspect of the military behavior of democratic states, however, that is clearly distinguished from that of non-democratic states: liberal or democratic states do not fight each other.

I pause here to note the statistically compelling observation of friend of wonk and new UVA assistant professor Todd Sechser that the “democratic nature of a state’s regime reduces the probability that it will initiate a militarized dispute against another state.”

Todd demonstrates that democracies don’t fight each other (meaning the US and our friends) and are less likely to initiate militarized disputes. (Interestingly, Todd notes that new or partial democracies appear to be attractive targets for aggression, but that is another blog post).

I bring all this up because I would be disappointed if the President’s half-assed effort at nation building in Iraq and Helprin’s anecdotal sophistry drove Americans to embrace a Kissinger-style realpolitik. It was Dr. Kissinger’s realpolitik, I remind you, that gave us the secret bombing of Cambodia, genocide in East Timor and General Pincohet in Chile.

Come to think of it, Kissinger also laid the groundwork for the cozy relationship that Rummy and Saddam shared in the 1980s.

The superpowers don’t do windows crowd spent the 1990s arguing that we should let Bosnia and Rwanda burn—better yet, if possible, toss a couple of logs on the fire. It was Mr. Helprin’s Senator Dole who famously proposed yanking UNPROFOR in favor of arms sales to the Bosnians.

Of course, I am happy to see Mr. Helprin and his realist friends ignite an internecine conflict within their party. This is not, however, my fight. In this civil war, I will follow Mr. Helprin’s advice about Bosnia and “suggest not action but preparation.”


  1. Romach (History)

    John Rawls, in “A Theory of Justice,” suggests that it behooves a regime that is ruled by law to institute a legal system in society that needs it in order for that society to become well ordered. In that way, that society will “eliminate or at least control men’s inclination’s to injustice, and therefore warring and intolerant sects, say, are much less likely to exist, or to be a danger, once such a society is established.” (§39)

  2. mark gubrud (History)

    No doubt war is the enemy of democracy, and no doubt war can be engineered and initiated only by an authority structure which operates in an undemocratic manner. But such an authority structure can be installed and legitimized by nominally democratic means such as elections and a “free” press, and after achieving power can use undemocratic means including deception, secrecy and punishment of dissent in order to foment and initiate aggressive war. Do I have to name the most obvious examples? But the claim is that “democracies don’t fight each other.” Problems with this assertion include the ambiguity of status as a “democracy” – does Iran qualify, for example? If not, what distinguishes Iran from a “democracy” apart from differing ideologically with and standing somewhat strategically in opposition to the United States? Let’s see, recent headlines: In an upset victory against the clerical favorite, Iranian voters elect a populist president who turns out to be more than a bit of a rube. Suddenly war stocks are hot, as GW Bush, the legitimacy of whose election, unlike that of M Ahmadinejad, is seriously questionable, angles to save himself from the democratic hazard of public outrage over his earlier lies and needless warmongering in the only way he knows how: by starting another war. I guess if the US does attack Iran the democratic peace hypothesis survives if at least one of the belligerents isn’t really a democracy – even if we don’t all agree about which it is.