The chimera of democratic peace

Suhaib Salem/Reuters)
Smoke from an Israeli air strike rises over the Gaza Strip (Photo: Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

To the governments of Israel and of much of the Western world, the current battle against Hamas in the Gaza Strip is a black and white case of democracy versus terrorism. Israel claims that its sole motivation is the reduction of rocket fire from the territory; defence minister Ehud Barak has declared repeatedly that “our aim is to force Hamas to stop its hostile activities against Israel and Israelis from Gaza, and to bring about a significant change in the situation in the southern part of Israel”. There is no tone of tragedy or sadness in this statement and in others like it, only a stern-sounding bureaucratese meant to evoke a sense of determination and cool professionalism. Yet for those who claim to love democracy, especially for those who claim to see it as the solution to the intractable problems of the Middle East and of the world in general, there is a political tragedy going on, for two democracies are at war.

If that statement strikes you as unexpected, perhaps it is because the papers we read and the television we watch have generally been careful to discuss the war without mentioning the fact that both parties to it are the elected representatives of their people. The Globe and Mail, for instance, recently provided a long-term backgrounder to the conflict that did not once note the 2006 parliamentary elections in which Hamas won 43.9% of the popular vote and 74 of the legislature’s 132 seats, and about which EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana observed that the Palestinians had voted “democratically and peacefully.” In news report after news report, in fact, the language chosen to explain Hamas’s relationship to the Gaza Strip has given readers no hint whatsoever that Hamas is anything other than a criminal gang that cruelly seized power. Since its fierce internal struggle with Fatah in 2007, which shattered Palestinian unity and left Hamas governing Gaza and Fatah the West Bank, there has been an ongoing dispute between the two parties over the timing of the next parliamentary and presidential elections — a complex question that has both political and legal points of contention — but there is no disagreement over the fact that elections will indeed be held.

As a war between democracies, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict represents an apparent anomaly. We had been assured that this type of thing was not supposed to happen, that democracy would lead necessarily to peace. While the scholarly study of the concept of the “democratic peace” has been ongoing for several decades now, with the passing of the Cold War its basic theme has been picked up and amplified by Western politicians bent on justifying their foreign policies. “Ultimately, the best strategy to ensure our security and to build a durable peace is to support the advance of democracy elsewhere,” said President Clinton in his 1994 State of the Union address. “Democracies don’t attack each other.” Even more famously, George W. Bush made democracy an ex post facto justification for the invasion of Iraq, and has hoped rhetorically for a democratic renaissance in the Middle East ever since. “The reason why I’m so strong on democracy is democracies don’t go to war with each other. And the reason why is the people of most societies don’t like war, and they understand what war means,” he told a news conference in 2004. “I’ve got great faith in democracies to promote peace. And that’s why I’m such a strong believer that the way forward in the Middle East, the broader Middle East, is to promote democracy.”

The people of most societies don’t like war, and they understand what war means. President Bush, in his own way, was expressing some of the assumptions that have under-girded democratic peace theory ever since Immanuel Kant wrote his Project for a Perpetual Peace in 1795. To Kant, the “first definitive article” (or key requirement, we might say today) for achieving a perpetual peace is that “the civil constitution of every state ought to be republican.” This, of course, sounds very much like our modern concept of democratic peace. But note Kant’s reasoning:

According to the form of this constitution, the assent of every citizen is necessary to decide the question, ‘Whether war shall be declared or not’. But to decree war, would be [for] the citizens to decree against themselves all the calamities of war, such as fighting in person, furnishing from their own means towards the expense of the war; painfully to repair the devastations it occasions; and, to fill up the measure of evils, load upon themselves the weight of a national debt, that would embitter even peace itself, and which, on account of constant new wars, can never be liquidated.

If all of the above assumptions were true, then democratic peace theory (at least in its Kant-derived form) would indeed have a solid foundation of logic to stand upon. But they are not true, and demonstrate instead just how far modern democracies have evolved away from the republican ideal upon which Kant’s ideas were based. Modern democracies, for instance, do not allow their citizens to vote on whether war should be declared; in fact, they often do not even allow their legislatures to vote on it, as “declaring war” has become a practice seemingly as quaint as putting one’s cape over a mud puddle on behalf of a lady. And Kant’s assumption that war inflicts on a democratic citizenry “all the calamities” that travel with it is equally untrue in the modern age. Even after seven years of fighting in Afghanistan and five years in Iraq, compulsory military service in the U.S. remains only a remote possibility, and the average American has virtually no risk of being sent to war against his or her will.

As for the expense of the war, the decision of governments to leave taxes unchanged means that the costs of our current wars are being conveniently loaded onto future generations through increased national debts — in this, at least, things have not changed much since Kant’s time — but the financial burden of these debts has yet to become obvious. To the majority of the citizens of a modern democracy, therefore, the perceived cost of fighting a war in a far away land is literally zero. Partly by trial and error, partly by deliberate policy design, our governments have worked their way around Kant’s Enlightenment reasoning, and in so doing have freed our democracies to launch wars at will and to maintain them almost indefinitely.

Indeed, democracy may sometimes even encourage war. Consider the influence that an active war has on an incumbent’s ability to win re-election (George W. Bush in 2004, obviously, or Britain’s Conservatives in the “khaki election” of 1900), or the conveniently distracting effect that military action can have on a free press otherwise focused on government scandal (think Bill Clinton’s bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory in August 1998, three days after his grand jury testimony in the Monica Lewinsky case). And in regard to the conflict in Gaza, the role of elections in influencing the Israeli decision to respond to the end of the ceasefire with a multi-day campaign of air strikes and a ground offensive has been noted by many: defense minister Ehud Barak and the Labour Party he leads had been expected to be soundly defeated in February elections, but Barak is now enjoying a massive surge in support because of the attack on Gaza. Others have suggested that the Israeli government may well have been uncertain of how an Obama administration in the United States would react to such a campaign, and so preferred to attack the Gaza Strip while President Bush was still in power. If this is true, then even the democratic processes of a foreign power can influence the timing and nature of a war.

The notion of “democratic peace” may itself lead to more war, as the fewer in number are non-democratic states, the more we may find ourselves tempted to engage in what we tell ourselves will be one last round of, well, tidying up — all so that a permanent peace can finally be brought into being in a world governed only by democracies. The irony is that this is precisely what we used to condemn the Soviet Union for thinking. In 1985, National Security Agency director William E. Odom argued that “the Soviet definition of Peace is unique and incompatible with Western definitions. Defense, in this peculiar Soviet sense, means offense. Peace means the destruction of all non-socialist states…” Both yesterday’s totalitarian communists and today’s crusading democrats seem to share the same belief: that peace comes from political homogeneity.

As various wars have now demonstrated — between Israel and the Palestinians, the United States and Serbia, India and Pakistan — democracy is no angel of peace. But somehow we do not want to believe that the democratic peace is a delusion; perhaps because we’ve grown fond of the idea that the love of peace is the monopolistic possession of “free peoples”, and that war is always and everywhere the doing of nasty dictators with moustaches. It certainly makes us feel virtuous. Yet the democratic peace may well prove to be one of the last dangerous utopian fantasies of our modern world; communism is dead and its victims enumerated, but the seductive idea that when we initiate war in the name of democracy we’re doing it in the service of a permanent peace has a body count that is yet to be added up.

10 thoughts on “The chimera of democratic peace

  1. An excellent post.

    Wikipedia provides a very helpful list of exceptions to Democratic Peace Theory:

    Some of the exceptions go back a long way in history (to the ancient world as well as the 19th century). They raise the question of whether the term democracy even has any real transhistorical stability: 19th century America was considered the most democratic society on earth but by our standards it was comparable to apartheid era South Africa. And the Kaiser, during world War I, was considered a despot but arguably imperial Germany was more democratic than Jim Crow America.

    Defenders of Democratic Peace Theory will enter all sorts of caveats: we’re talking about mature, liberal democracies, etc. But with all these caveats, what use is the theory, since it applies to only a very small number of states in a very small period of time (since World War II)?

  2. Thank you everyone for your kind comments! 🙂

    Jeet — I think your point about the use of caveats is dead on, and when one stops to consider just how many other factors may be responsible for peace among mature democracies (the existence of the Soviet Union as an external threat, the possession of nuclear weapons, the great power status of each of the major democracies, the recent experience of devastating wars, etc…), one’s head spins.

    It also occurs to me that whatever statistical observations political scientists make about the behaviour of democracies must always be conditioned by and dependent on specific historical situations, and cannot take into account future possibilities which are only intellectually addressable through political and philosophical judgment. In other words, we cannot extrapolate from history to conclude that because a handful of democracies in a largely non-democratic world remained at peace with each other over a significant span of time, that therefore a fully democratic world would achieve a universal and permanent peace. Humans have a natural tendency to fissure, and it is reasonable to expect that the tyranny of small differences would inevitably produce plenty of reasons for war between states.

    I think the only real path to peace is the constant improvement of our ability to live amicably with other nations — nations as they are now, and not as we would prefer them to be.

  3. I think the only real path to peace is the constant improvement of our ability to live amicably with other nations — nations as they are now, and not as we would prefer them to be.

    What if, just for a second, you substitute the word “our” for “Hamas’ ” and then the word “we” again for “Hamas”. To help, it would read like this:

    I think the only real path to peace is the constant improvement of Hamas’ ability to live amicably with other nations — nations as they are now, and not as Hamas would prefer them to be.

    Does that change the way in which this could be viewed?

  4. Hi pino,

    Your wording changes only make my point more specific. The general principle I’m driving at is that any theory of peace premised on the establishment of homogeneous political systems — whether such systems be democratic, communist, or islamist — is unrealistic, and encourages conflict rather than co-existence. Democratic peace theory happens to be the fancy of Western intellectuals, not Hamas, which is why my essay was directed at “us” rather than “them”. But if Hamas believes that long-term peace will only come with the establishment of an islamist regime on the territory of Israel, then this is the chimera that they must try to dispel.

    – Ian

  5. Ian, very good points. Being elected did not magically change Hamas from being a bloodthirsty deathcult. One quibble: in your establishment of Hamas as a legitimately elected government you do gloss over the expulsion of the party of the president and executive branch. This was quite a gory maneuver (Fatah hands chopped off, etc); even uglier so than our parliamentary coalition!
    I agree that democracy-seeking should not in itself be used as a cause for war, but that doesn’t mean we should stop seeking democratic development.
    Democratic governance cannot of itself eliminate grave disputes between nations; but its probably better than the alternatives.

  6. David: Though I did mention the “fierce internal struggle” with Fatah, I intentionally glossed over the issue of who did what to whom because that would have required a long posting in and of itself, and it was really beside the point. Gory acts, after all, are not limited to Palestinian democracy. In the United States, democracy survived institutionalized slavery, a civil war that killed more than 600,000 people, and democracy has apparently even survived an administration that tortures its prisoners as an act of policy.

    With respect to the peaceful promotion of democracy, more power to you. But I would predictably caveat that we should encourage democracy for its own sake, not for the sake of an illusory peace, and further, that we should carefully consider whether in the hierarchy of human ills a lack of elections is really the first thing that should be addressed in every case.

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