The Straits Times


JUN 11 1999


Democracies can and do win wars



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 extreme danger.

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 military targets.

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 strategy.

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 interest.

[The writer is director of studies at The International Institute for Strategic Studies. He contributed this article to The Straits Times.]



Copyright 1999 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.