Friday, June 04, 2004

Within the hoary bounds of the discipline (or subdiscipline -- take your pick) of International Relations, there is a popular belief which runs under the name "democratic peace hypothesis". You've heard it a million times, spoken from the mouths of pundits and presidents: democracies don't go to war with each other. This belief has, at least rhetorically, served as the foundation for an untold amount of mischief since it was first propagated social scientifically (its philosophical roots are much much deeper) in the early 1980s, not the least mischief being Mr. Bush's War against Iraq. After all, if we "democratize" Iraq, that's the end of war/terrorism, right?

Samuel Brittan in the Financial Times today thinks it is high time to put the democratic peace hypothesis to rest (subscription only).
Democracy seems to me a very weak barrier to war. If I remember Thucydides correctly, the Athenian assembly, spurred on by demagogues, was often an influence for more aggressive action. In our own time, Israel's hawkish Ariel Sharon has been freely elected. The most one can say is that his more pacific domestic opponents have a freedom of expression they would not have in most dictatorships.

The real problem is the propensity of human nature to divide the world into one's own group and strangers outside it. If I knew how to tackle this trait, I would deserve the Nobel peace prize. Meanwhile, one has to concentrate on deterrence, diplomacy and piecemeal efforts such as Daniel Barenboim's Arab-Israeli orchestra. But it will not help to pretend that the masses have superior self-restraint to those who try to lead them.
Of course, Brittan fails to really absorb the key claim of the democratic peace hypothesis, which is not that democracies are more peaceable than other forms of government (which they clearly are not), but that they do not wage war against one another. Nonetheless, Brittan is right to be skeptical concerning the power of "democracy" to restrain the dogs of war.

Among the more popular explanations of the supposed "democratic peace" (offered by many not just as an hypothesis but a fact) is the preference of the masses for peace over war. This preference is rooted in the fact that the people are the ones ultimately paying for war, in both treasure and blood. But what if they aren't?

In Mr. Bush's War, the whole thing is bought on credit. It isn't the American population paying for the occupation via their taxes. It's Japanese and Chinese creditors buying T-bills that are facilitating war. Surely the bill will come due someday, but someday hardly restrains anybody today -- especially not Americans.

Secondly, Mr. Bush's War is fought by a professional military class. As there is no universal draft, if you choose not to fight, you don't fight. There is no war in the streets of America, after all.

The best thing about the democratic peace hypothesis as a propaganda weapon is the necessary conclusion that all wars fought between democracies and non-democracies are ultimately caused by the non-democracy. If democracies don't fight wars against one another, if there is something inherent within democracies which means they both restrain themselves and restrain other democracies, what else can explain war by a democracy than that the "other guy" made them do it? Sure the US invaded Iraq -- but Saddam "caused" it.

Small wars (compared to the likes of the World Wars) in the Global South fought on credit are precisely the kinds of wars that capital loves and capitalist democracies support. They are the "savage wars of peace." Look for more coming to a theater near you.

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