and do win wars
By GERALD SEGAL
ONE of the greatest examples of
progress in political affairs in the 20th century
is the apparent emergence of "the democratic
peace": the notion that mature democracies
do not go to war with each other.
Few can doubt the value of the
fact that war is no longer an option between
France and Germany or Japan and the US.
But as explanations for the
democratic peace have been sought, so speculation
has grown -- that democracies simply find it
harder to wage any form of war.
The Korean or Vietnam war
suggested that democracies have little problem
fighting non-democracies, but nevertheless after
the end of the Cold War the trendy view was that
democracies did not have the stomach for war of
any sort. The Balkan war and even recent military
action by democratic India suggest democracies
actually have a very complex attitude to war.
At least four reasons have been
offered for why democracies are reluctant to wage
war. The most obvious is that politicians who are
used to pleading for votes in a democratic
process will be reluctant naturally to tell their
citizens that they are likely to be sent into
The powerful tendency to avoid
casualties has had several clear consequences.
Democracies will prefer to have professional
armed forces so at least the politicians can
pretend that they are merely putting people at
risk whose job it is to be at risk.
Democracies will also prefer,
as we saw in the Balkan conflict, to use
high-tech weapons and airpower both to minimise
their own and their adversary's casualties.
Second, democracies will also
be reluctant to wage war because war, especially
of a modern kind, costs money.
In an age of tight monetary
policy, and cuts in welfare services, democratic
politicians will have trouble arguing why one
day's cruise missile firings is a greater
priority than building a new hospital. If
democracy is about accountability, then as the
wagers of war become more accountable, they will
tend to become more cautious.
Third, democrats are simply
more used to haggling over everything and a high
profile war will be no different.
In an age of coalition
governments, war will not be left simply to the
professionals, even though a swift end to
hostilities is often best achieved by keeping
politicians far from the meetings that set
It took Nato weeks of
embarrassment in the Balkan war before it
realised that democratic representatives simply
had to learn to delegate to the professionals or
else the war would never be won. Finally,
democrats will always find it natural to play to
the galleries of public opinion and in so doing
encourage debilitating debate about military
You can guarantee that in any
democracy with a free and competitive media there
will be flamboyant opposition politicians making
demagogic arguments against even the most just of
wars. No matter how damaging to the war effort,
or simply logically absurd, a free media will
feel they are merely doing their duty by treating
reports from Belgrade as if they were as credible
as from Brussels. The so-called "CNN
Factor" drives democratic politicians to
"do something" about humanitarian
outrages. Western leaders could claim plausibly
to be waging a just war because their free people
understood that human rights extended beyond
their parish gate.
The pattern seems to be that
democracies are quick to anger, slow to do
anything substantial, but perhaps prepared to
wage a modern war in the long term as their sense
of justice is offended.
Non-democracies around the
world would do well to ponder this seemingly
contradictory and certainly complex attitude to
war. The West seemed to be loathe to wage war but
it does seem to have prevailed.
But by far the most difficult
aspect of judging the democratic way of warfare
is making sense of when the West will define
principles as national security and defend them
as they would oil or territory.
Nato went to war in the Balkans
for a number of reasons, but the main one
remained a sense of outrage about genocide and
human rights violations. Humanitarian issues
became national interest and the fact that Nato
prevailed will encourage many to believe they can
do so again. A related value interpreted as a
national interest was the determination to defend
"international order". Western
democracies are not such wimps when it comes to
waging war, and precisely because they are
democracies they may end up fighting for more
than just a narrow definition of national
[The writer is director of
studies at The International Institute for
Strategic Studies. He contributed this article to
The Straits Times.]