Saturday, June 18, 2005

Democratic Peace: Bullshit

I hate to use such a phrase for a theory whose composite logic I am so sympathetic to, but the theory that "No two democracies go to war" or that "Democracies are less violent" is total bullshit. These theories are known as Democratic Peace Theory, and the two versions are respectively "dyadic" (referring to the fact that the first talks about the behavior of sets of two states) and "monadic" (referring to the second's focus on the behavior of each state as a single unit). As far as I can see, there are about seven main problems as of this writing:

1. The theory is just not true even within its definitional confines. A fantastic article by Matthew White lists 22 good cases plus 6 decent to poor candidates at the bottom: http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/demowar.htm . The unfortunate part is that this is not a complete list. Even more exceptions could include US or US-supported action against Italy, Nicaragua, South Vietnam, Grenada, Indonesia, Venezuela, East Timor, etc. To cite William Blum from America: Rogue State, "From 1945 to the end of the century, the United States attempted to overthrow more than 40 foreign governments, and to crush more than 30 populist-nationalist movements struggling against intolerable regimes. In the process, the US caused the end of life for several million people, and condemned many millions more to a life of agony and despair." That's simply America: with a little bit of work, I could undoubtedly pick out a few more from other democracies. Of course, many of the DPT advocates would either argue with the facts or my usage of those facts, but I think that underscores problem #3 rather dramatically.

2. Statistical limitations plague the dyadic theory, especially given the use to which the theory is often put and the limits that the advocates use to limit out dubious democracies. White again goes through the various ways one could clip out democracies but also shows that those reduce the number of cases of democracies out there. Also, international wars are rare enough: though one can imagine long-term border disputes and civil wars, actual substantial commitment to an invasion or otherwise large-scale military operation is fairly rare for obvious reasons, even in non-democracies. (Of course, we're also hitting the problem of #3: why is the state necessarily the best resolutional choice? Isn't it indicative that democratic countries have substantial civil wars, such as the American Civil War?)

As White puts it: "This means that among the 39 international wars during the WW2-Y2K Era, we would only expect to find 8 inter-democratic wars anyway. And we've found 6 instead -- maybe. What does this tell us? It tells me that when you're calculating the odds of a rare type of country (democracy) performing a rare act (fighting an international war), the sample is too small to draw any valid conclusion. The difference between 6 and 8 falls easily within any reasonable margin of error." This becomes worse, as he points out, when we use limits like the first peaceful orderly transfer of power, women's suffrage, fair elections, etc. As each exception happens, the number of democracies decreases, but that decreases the sample size, which means we operate from more statistically nebulous territory, which in turn means that whatever causal influence we're looking for is going to be buried more and more under chance and coincidence.

Putting aside the double-standard problem (that's for #3), we hit the worst major barrier. The democratic peace theory is used not just as a descriptive theory saying "Hey, this is what happens" but as a prescriptive justification for the crimes of imperial states. If invading Iraq will increase democracy, it will also increase peace! Yay! Intellectuals have to remember that they do not operate in a vacuum: even a seemingly wholly innocuous contribution, even a good one (say, a new theory of international relations) could be morally dubious if that contribution once processed through the imperial machine became violence. This is especially important remembering the exceptions that the advocates put in. Politicians doing a stump speech will cite their work saying "No two democracies ever go to war" but not mention the fine print that a democracy must be a system with guaranteed constitutional rights, women's suffrage, no slavery, peaceful transfer of power from one party to another, etc. Heck, under the "No constitution" argument, Israel and Britain are excluded, as both only have Basic Laws.

3. Ideological limits also plague the theory. The definitions are notoriously Eurocentric; heck, even a particular type of Eurocentrism. Nazi Germany (Hitler being one of the most popular Chancellors in German history), the Pirates of the Caribbean, the Native Americans, and so on had elements of democracy, often incredibly substantial ones, in that the will of the populace was manifested very organically. In fact, in many respects, the Native Americans and other tribal institutions as well as the Pirates and other voluntary institutions (say, the kibbutz) were substantially more democratic than any state the Western advocates of DPT prefer to focus on.

The DPT advocates also have a de jure bias; that is, they focus on the structure of the institutions (something I'm normally receptive to), but only the political institutions and with no context. They ignore that a monarchy in fact could be very democratic, if the monarch committed herself to doing only what the people said they wanted in referenda. They also ignore the flipside: that economic power in capitalist societies or similar elite domination could make a de jure democracy a de facto oligarchy.

Again from White: "
The old double standard:
Slobodon Milosovic was frequently denounced in his nation's press and challenged in elections by opposition leaders, but he maintained an iron grip on power through vote fraud, private security forces and the judicious application of unregistered cash. His armies fought secret wars. When the voices against him grew too loud, he scurried away like a thief in the night.
Dictator, right?
The same, however, could be said about Richard Nixon. Why do the irregularities of Milosovic's regime prove that Yugoslavia was a dictatorship, but the irregularities of Nixon's regime prove that in America, "the system works"? (Of course, on the other hand, if we accept that Nixon was dictator rather than a democratic leader, it becomes easier to explain that the 1973 unpleasantness between Chile and the US was not an example of two democracies at war.) "

Also take into account that they ignore internal federation (though Weart thinks it's somehow awesome for his theory that no two Swiss cantons have ever fought), separation of powers (if one has a totalitarian executive but a democratic legislative and an appointed judiciary, what is the country), and differences between the US model and the more commonly accepted legislative model.

Further, because of the ideological commitments of these advocates, particular wars often don't count: in general, when America does the killing, it's liberation; if the Soviets did it (unless we liked it), it was brutal invasion.

4. As an anarchist, I argue that the demos and the state are two diametrical poles: voluntary involvement, democracy, etc. versus hierarchy, coercion and domination. In this sense, American democracy like all other democracies are complex balances on a number of vectors between these poles. I can recognize intellectually that a democratic society of racists could be quite violent, but that the worst death has been state-centric not people-centric.

My position is that DPT is likely to be, in the aggregate, correct... but that we don't have democracies.
5. These are two objections I have grouped because I think they deal with the predictive value and assumptions of the theory.

The first is an objection also raised to the Golden Arches Theory, which I'll touch on before the end: Most democracies in any given time period, either the Athenian or the modern post-Enlightenment era, tend to be culturally homogenuous as a fact of the past. For awhile, Britain and America were the only democracies in town. As time went on, most of Europe became democratic... but that's the point: most of Europe. With tied racial, cultural, economic, social, etc. similiarities and connections, of course you're going to have some degree of peace, especially in the post-World War II era where Europe committed itself to peace because the alternative was too hellish.

The second is that the theory often makes a hidden value claim: Namely, that long-term peace is necessarily always worth striving for. Of course, I am a peace advocate, but I am moreso a justice advocate, and I can recognize cases where war may be necessary to resist occupation or change unjust systems. More importantly, though, the DPT theory often concedes that states in transition to democracy can be even more violent, especially if that democracy is instilled onto an unreceptive cultural norm within the bounds set by European power by violent Western intervention (almost always part and parcel of imperialist action as well). In that case, transition to democracy could generate more short-term war in exchange for less long-term war, and that is not an easy question to adjudicate.

6. Though excluded by the theory, I still think cases where democracies attack non-democracies can go against the underlying logic of the theory. Let me explain my reasoning. DPT was developed largely using 20th century data, hence the definitional limitations that wouldn't apply to, say, Athens or Rome. Obviously, democracies went to war with non-democracies within the concept of the theory: World War II and the Cold War demonstrated that fairly conclusively (or did it? See above). But the advocates recognized that a democratic state could go to war with a non-democratic state for humanitarian purposes, to spread democracy, or to contain/deter/defend against a violent totalitarian adversary, among other possible reasons.

Fair enough. But remember that the basic logic is that democracies have conflict-resolution systems, ties to each other, populaces who will be informed and will oppose war, etc. If a democratic state were to have the same geopolitical structure and interests as any other empire (say, even going to war undemocratically - perish the thought!), the theory would lose a lot of substance, even if it just so happened that most of the time a democratic empire waged war against non-democratic foes.

The fact that this is an adequate description of what happened in Iraq (it was about oil, the National Security Strategy, attempting to scare or provoke China, etc. etc., and the majority of the population opposed unilateral intervention according to CCFR and Times polls), during the Cold War (Russia wasn't a democracy but all of our attempts to 'contain Communism' were laughable guises for imperial rule), etc. seems to be an effective rebuttal to the theory as well. A
number of the exceptions listed under White's list establish this fairly well, I think.

7 (updated June 23, 2005): This may seem like a quibble, but it is in fact a methodological necessity. It strikes me that even if we accept the evidence we can reject the causal linkage and say it could be the other way (a reverse causal argument): that a general era of peace and prosperity can help establish democracy. I'm not sure about this thesis either, but it certainly has some initial plausibility. We saw post 9/11 that even very free societies (like the US is in a lot of respects) can have a severe struggle regarding civil liberties during times of war. In general, one sees a phenomenon of a "rally around the flag or leader" during wartime. When times are easier, democracy (though in my eyes not a luxury) becomes seen as an affordable luxury.

Resources:

A fantastic list of US actions: http://www.doublestandards.org/enemies.htm
Chomsky, Noam. What Uncle Sam Really Wants. Odonian Press 2002. Chomsky cites as follows: “7-8. On "Grand Area" planning for the postwar period by the State Department and the CFR, see Laurence Shoup and William Minter, Imperial Brain Trust, Monthly Review, 1977. There is extensive literature on the development and execution of these plans. An early work, of great insight, is Gabriel Kolko, Politics of War,: Random House, 1968. One valuable recent study is Melvyn Leffler, Preponderance of Power, Stanford University Press, 1992. For further sources and discussion, specifically on NSC 68, see Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, Chapter 1. NSC 68 and many other declassified documents can be found in the official State Department history, Foreign Relations of the United States, generally published with about 30 years delay.” What Uncle Sam Really Wants is available online at http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/sam/sam-contents.html.

Poniewozik, Jamie. “Fallen Arches”, Salon. http://www.salon.com/media/col/poni/1999/04/05/poni/

Snyder, Jack and Edward Mansfeld. “Democratization and War”. Foreign Affairs, vol. 74 (May/June 1995), pp. 79-97. Snyder and Mansfeld actually establish that democracies can be more violent, especially in transition.

Weart, Spencer R. Never At War: Why Democracies Will Not Fight One Another.Chapter One. New Haven, CT 1997 Yale University Press. http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/WEART.CHAP.HTM

White, Matthews. “War Between Democracies.” http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/demowar.htm

5 Comments:

Blogger Sarah said...

What application does this DPT have? Who is "using" it? Can it be operationalized? What is its actual relevance besides social science? Or more broadly- can any one theory of government really work?

--great post, very well said.

10:07 AM  
Blogger Doug Truth said...

Love the discussion. I do have a question or thought - reification. When the topic is something as broad as "democracy" and other words of such ilk, I think we need to be hyper aware that we're talking about an abstraction. Not that it's useless to talk about abstractions, or that it shouldn't be done (the Korzybski position?) - just that it all comes down to individual actions. The abstraction and analysis come later.

"Democracy" is a term that was already weak when the "administration" started using it to justify its international actions. Now it's so debased; just a stand-in for "capitalism." Which is itself a stand-in for something else it's not polite to mention in these United States.

R. Crumb had a character named Mr. Natural. There was a wonderful poster with a pic of Mr. Natural (long flowing beard, white robe) riding a big farm tractor. Under this, in big letters:

T'WAS EVER THUS

We humans seem to have fairly predictable behavior, is all.

on another topic entire, but I'm thinking of it: Choosing Realities by B. Allan Wallace is a wonderful book on science and buddhism. You might like it.

5:03 AM  
Blogger Frederic Christie said...

"What application does this DPT have? Who is "using" it? Can it be operationalized? What is its actual relevance besides social science? Or more broadly- can any one theory of government really work?

--great post, very well said."

Democratic peace theory is an international relations staple that seeks to answer one of the main questions in IR: the war question. DPT isn't totalistic: that is, it does not describe every possible war scenario. It simply notes what it believes to be a causal pattern based on evidence it believes it has compounded.

One thing I'll have to edit back into my original post is that the theory may be reverse causal: a general period of peace, such as in the Cold War period, creates democracy.

Its relevance, as I allude to, is that propagandists for "democracy promotion" (see Robinson, Chomsky, et al as to how this 'democracy' is in fact US-elite polyarchy, or rule by elites in the traditional Third World form) can use it as an additional reason to bomb a country. After all, if bombing Iraq makes Iraq democratic, and democracy leads to peace, then democracy will create a "ripple effect" in the Middle East(one of the least cited arguments for the war, but one Condi and PNAC stressed quite a bit.)

More broadly, anarchism's answer is no: That all of our political institutions should be understood as, while being stable and lasting, being quite malleable, changing to qualitatively different forms when needed.

"At 5:03 AM, Doug Truth said... "
Love the discussion. I do have a question or thought - reification. When the topic is something as broad as "democracy" and other words of such ilk, I think we need to be hyper aware that we're talking about an abstraction. Not that it's useless to talk about abstractions, or that it shouldn't be done (the Korzybski position?) - just that it all comes down to individual actions."

Especially with words like "democracy", "peace", "justice", "left, "right", "free enterprise", "free markets", "capitalism", "liberalism" (Milton Friedman calls himself a "liberal") and so on, that are comprised of so many disparate and often contradictory strands and are frequently purloined by elites.

Yes, it does all come down to individual action, and again as an anarchist I will credit this primarily... but also as an anarchist I can see that humans are fantastic at making enduring institutions, either ones that propel spiritual/liberatory/creative goals or ones that repress them. The state is the latter. So is capitalism. So is sexism and patriarchy. So is racism and uniculturalism. These institutions outlast individuals, create incentives/disincentives, alter perceptions (of everything from right/wrong to what "efficiency" means), and form institutional roles. In the aggregate, these institutions (things like the Marxist notion of "class"), despite the general decent humanity of everyone involved, propels disaster. Nuclearism is a perfect case: all these well-meaning soldiers and scientists and professors making up the totally insane US nuclear system.

""Democracy" is a term that was already weak when the "administration" started using it to justify its international actions. Now it's so debased; just a stand-in for "capitalism." Which is itself a stand-in for something else it's not polite to mention in these United States."

Very true. Especially given that even under their standards of "democracy" what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan is a transparent colonial farce and nothing more. My post on the Bush press conference shows just how little respect Bush and his puppetmasters have for their audience.

"on another topic entire, but I'm thinking of it: Choosing Realities by B. Allan Wallace is a wonderful book on science and buddhism. You might like it."

I'm sure I would. You point me to good stuff.


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11:21 AM  
Blogger Doug Truth said...

I like the idea of considering a reverse causality. Someone I read a couple of years ago (can't remember who) persuasively (to me) demonstrated that all the preconditions for democracy (strong middle class, high eductation levels, family structures, etc.) were being destroyed by unfettered capitalism. Seems that real - functional - democracy does rely on things not present in Afghanistan, Iraq, others.

5:32 AM  
Blogger Frederic Christie said...

"I like the idea of considering a reverse causality."

I should probably write a post on how to hone a Bullshit Detector. One of the primary ones is the Reverse Causality test: can they exclude that their argument flows the opposite direction?

"Someone I read a couple of years ago (can't remember who) persuasively (to me) demonstrated that all the preconditions for democracy (strong middle class, high eductation levels, family structures, etc.) were being destroyed by unfettered capitalism."

Very true, putting aside capitalism's inherently undemocratic nature. (What is the distinction? The first is a question about how capitalism behaves internally. The second is the way capitalism bleeds outwards to affect other institutions. Many capitalist advocates, if the arguments got this sophisticated, would say that while capitalism may be internally anti-democratic it projects good influences outwards). Since capitalism inevitably tries to alter state policy and can never tolerate a truce as long as there is profit to be made, one will see inequity bleed into the political system. Even if private inequity is tolerable and tenable, public inequity is not.

There's also another phenomenon noted in my back posts: When inequity increases, a variety of health vectors change. In fact, it seems that the internal degree of inequity of the society is a key factor to determine disease rates, population growths, and ethnic conflict (see Albert, Donald Rothchild's article about ethnic conflict and the fear of the future, and my December post "Capitalism and Disease", among others).

"Seems that real - functional - democracy does rely on things not present in Afghanistan, Iraq, others."

Maybe. Tribal democracy, Athenian democracy, the democracy practiced in real functioning social units such as cooperative institutions or families, all have different requirements.

What I think anyone can recognize is that a democracy should ideally be holistically situated given the material and cultural conditions of the society and that imposing Type A democracy is likely to not yield Modified Type B but rather tyranny or ethnic conflict. This is especially true when Western influences force countries to choose the nation-state as the model for political interaction.

12:50 PM  

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