A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is it true there has never been a war between two democracies?

October 22, 1993

Dear Cecil:

Is it true that there has never been a war between two democracies, excluding civil wars? One part of my extended brain trust, a highly unreliable source, claims that this is a natural fact, Jack, and I have not yet thought of an instance in which one democracy declared war against another democracy. In a quandary, we resolved to consult the Dope, and now refer this question to your esteemed self. Prithee, O ocean of fathomless learning, we sincerely and earnestly entreat you to [additional fawning verbiage deleted]

Cecil replies:

Don't gush, lad, it doesn't leave room for the cartoon. Cecil does not dispute the general proposition that war between democracies is relatively rare. Common sense alone suggests that embarking upon a military adventure is simpler for a king or dictator than it is for a head of government answerable to a parliament. But proponents of this idea argue that a war between democracies has never occurred. One arrives at this comforting conclusion chiefly by setting up the rules to exclude all the non-conforming cases. The most egregious omission is civil wars, which account for a high percentage of the world's violent conflicts — 159 of 575 wars between 1816 and 1980, by one count. The spectacle of the American Civil War, in which two popularly elected governments engaged in four years of the most brutal slaughter, refutes the bald notion that citizens will not vote for politicians who send them off to be killed. Clearly they will if they think the stakes are high enough.

OK, you say, but at least democracies won't get into wars with one another for purposes of foreign aggrandizement. Here we get into the issue of what constitutes a democracy. The U.S. and Britain fought in the War of 1812; Britain at the time had a parliament and a prime minister. So did imperial Germany prior to World War I. Advocates of the peaceful-democracy school account for these cases by saying that neither Britain in 1812 nor Germany in 1914 were liberal democracies. The definition of liberal varies with the teller, but the simplest formulation, proposed by Dean Babst, who first advanced the peaceful-democracies idea in 1972, is that "if a hereditary ruler, such as a king, can choose the prime minister or president, then the country is not considered to have an elective government." This takes both Britain and Germany out of the picture for the period in question. That's fair enough in the case of Germany, where responsibility for the war can be laid pretty clearly at the feet of Kaiser Bill and the Junkers. But the War of 1812 was largely the work of the War Hawks in the democratically elected U.S. Congress.

The more basic objection to excluding all but liberal democracies is that throughout most of history the number of such democracies has been small. According to political scientist Michael Doyle, there were only 13 liberal democracies prior to 1900, and just 29 between 1900 and 1945 — and many of those did not endure. Doyle counts 49 liberal democracies as of 1983; setting aside the confusing instance of Israel vs. Lebanon, none has fought another since 1945. But it may be argued that this merely reflected the postwar Pax Americana.

One would like to believe democracy = peace, but if we look at the big picture we find little to persuade us that it's a sure thing. Nazi Germany was not a democracy after 1933, but Hitler had been freely elected and the Nazis dominated the democratically chosen Reichstag. The United States and France conducted wars of great savagery in Vietnam and Algeria. The U.S. helped topple the elected Allende regime in Chile, with murderous consequences for the Chilean people.

One can easily make the case that what prevents war between democracies is not their liberal scruples but their wealth, coupled with the recognition that war would mean economic ruin. If we look down the list of wars over the last 50 years we see that in almost all cases one or both of the belligerents was poor. We now have a proliferation of poor democracies in the wake of communism's collapse. Will they refrain from attacking one another, as their authoritarian or totalitarian predecessors did not? One considers India vs. Pakistan, Russia vs. Ukraine. Clearly the notion that democracies will not make war on one another now faces its great test.

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