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War is almost as old as human history itself. Even the earliest writings in literature center on conflict: in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the central character goes to the supernatural realm to bring back the secret to eternal life, to bring his friend, who had died in war, back from the grave. The major literary works of ancient Greece either focus on wars between members of two different cultures, as with the Trojan War, or in smaller, more regional conflicts between clans or larger groups: one of the pink elephants in the room for Creon, the regent of Thebes after the self-exile of Oedipus, was the fact that if he had let Antigone have her way, and he had been perceived as a weak ruler, he might have been violently overthrown himself.
In general, war has to do with the human desire to sate one of three impulses: fear, envy or greed. The aforementioned Trojan War was fought at the behest of the jealous king Menelaus, whose wife had run away with the Trojan prince Paris. The Wars of the Roses, which tore England apart for a few centuries, featured the desire of the Lancaster and the York families to control the throne of England. The Great War, which would be known as World War I once an even greater conflict came after it, was started as a result of the fears which had caused the major powers in the world to form protective alliances with one another. World War II was sparked first by the greed of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and the Japanese Empire. The Korean and Vietnamese conflicts came about as the result of fear of the spread of communism.
When The Great War ended in 1918, the American President, Woodrow Wilson, called for the creation of a League of Nations that would serve as a place for resolving international conflicts, instead of having war break out. His motivation was certainly a sound one: the Great War had been one of the most horrific that had ever taken place in world history. In addition to the tragicomic spectacle of having mounted cavalry take on tanks, the war also featured gargantuan levels of bloodshed in the trench warfare that soaked much of France. It also became the first conflict to feature any sort of biological warfare, as the mustard gas that was unleashed in combat had such horrific effects on soldiers that it was banned from use in conflict by international convention. Unfortunately, the Senate in President Wilson’s own country would not ratify the treaty necessary for entry, and without American membership, the League was not stable enough to last very long, let alone stave off the coming forces of Nazism and Fascism, which would first use the peaceful impulses of the rest of Europe to grab hold of part of Czechoslovakia and Austria before finally provoking the world to action with their invasion of Poland in 1940.
Through all of world history, though, the incidence of two democracies fighting one another is quite rare, as the Yale-based theorist Bruce Russett, an expert in international relations, suggests in his book Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post-Cold War World. In fact, Russett suggests that conflict almost never breaks out between (or among) democracies) (Fukuyama). While it is true that a number of international mechanisms have arisen in the years since Hitler’s fall, such as the regional treaty organizations like NATO and SEATO, or the larger United Nations, to provide arenas for the resolution of diplomatic issues, and while it is also true that the possibility of nuclear holocaust has made widespread war a much less thinkable option than it was in the days of the Ottomans and the Austro-Hungarians (or even the Persians and the Spartans), but Russett asserts that these mechanisms are not the reason behind the lack of war between members of the democratic fraternity. After all, there have been wars involving non-democratic nations, such as the conflicts between the United States and Iraq that began in 1991, although the last major country to attack another with the eye of conquering it and adding it to its own territory was the Iraqi attack on Kuwait, 22 years ago.
Russett’s theory that democracies simply do not attack one another goes further than a reliance on these new mechanisms, though. Rather, he asserts that democracies will not go to war against one another because they share a certain set of values, and because democratic countries have a decision-making apparatus designed to keep rash decisions from becoming policy. While there are several new democracies that may challenge Russett’s ideas, because of the fact that the countries were drawn along lines that violate traditional ethnic boundaries, he stands behind his argument that the ideals and institutions of democracy will preclude the likelihood of war.
Many of Russett’s claims, while noble, ignore other truths about the way that the world works. Russett’s notion about the ways that democracy could usher in peace is echoed in many other high circles, such as President Clinton, who in a speech suggested that “democracies rarely wage war on each other” (Clinton). Rather than suggesting that the institution of democracy itself precludes, a more accurate argument would look at the overall change in values over time – and in the shifts in international politics. It may be, for example, that it is just countries that share American values that eschew war (if you’re willing to overlook the American incursion into Iraq under the pretext of weapons of mass destruction). The major democracies that have developed, particularly since 1945, either have always been American allies, or have been subdued into an alliance with the United States, or have received so much assistance from the Americans in the construction of their government that going to war with another democracy would be untenable.
Another way to look at this phenomenon is to consider the fact that there are some biases at work in Russett’s thought – as well as those who agree with him. First of all, in the research that indicates that democracies do not fight with one another, the United States received a perfect score in the metrics that establish that democracies are under consideration. When the United States went to war with Spain, though, in the 1890’s, both countries were technically democracies. The way in which that war started – the highly dubious destruction of the U.S.S. Maine in the harbor of Havana – brought much in the way of controversy. Some forensic testing of the explosion, for example, indicated that the detonation came from inside the hold of the ship – not from the outside. The spoils of the war, which included the colonial possessions of Cuba and the Philippines, among others, constituted the final territorial acquisitions of Manifest Destiny; one could argue that the United States was trying to emulate the British Empire, which was still functional on most continents at that time, rather than trying to spread some sort of democratic ideal across the world.
A more complete argument would consider the notion that political norms change as time goes by (Ball, et al.). In the nineteenth century, most of the major world powers were just concluding an age of colonization and empire. As one of the newest world powers, the United States sought to emulate those norms. At the time, the British Empire was also technically a democracy, in a parliamentary sense, and so the United States sought to follow its lead. Many of the other countries in Europe, through a series of revolutions in 1830 and 1848, had transitioned from monarchies to democracies. In the twentieth century, after 1918, war had a significantly more negative moral attachment than it had before. The poems writing about the glory of war, which began in antiquity but persisted through the Romantic era, began to dribble to a halt once mustard gas, tanks and trench warfare became the way that wars were conducted. As a result, countries that initiated war after 1918 were, by and large, seen on the world stage as villains, far more than they had been. The Hundred Years’ War, between England and France, for example, was just a part of the ongoing battle over the same parts of Western Europe that had been contested, really, since the time before the Norman Conquest in 1066. Once the Great War came to a close, though, it became clear that war was now too horrific, because of the technology available to those who would carry it out. Whether the country involved was a democracy or not, going to war would bring far more condemnation than it did before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand sent Europe into darkness.
Another bias that affects Russett’s calculations is a sense that American ideals represent the ultimate in democracy. Just as there are many different democratic countries on the planet today, there are that many different models for democratic government. India’s system, for example, differs from Germany’s, which differs again from that in the United States. The shorter campaign cycles in Great Britain, to make another example, make the election process quite compact, when compared to that in the United States, where it seems that the next campaign begins just as the most recent election results are certified. This bias towards ranking the American government as the ideal democracy skews Russett’s research: after all, the 2000 Presidential election is just one of several that have shown that the popular vote does not elect the next President – which, to many, would be a basic part of claiming status as a political democracy.
The notion that the type of government is an independent variable in calculating the likelihood of war is a third bias that does not quite make sense in this instance. What sort of government would have sprung up in the United States if the division between Protestants and Catholics had not led to the revolutions that first led to Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Protectorate and then to William of Orange’s assumption of the throne? What if religious freedom had not been an issue in Great Britain at all? Would the Puritans have been so keen to set up an experiment in the New World? What if King George III had relented and allowed the American colonists to send representatives to Parliament? Would there still be a constitutional monarchy over North America?
Because of the unique variables that go into the development of any nation’s polity, it is problematic to suggest that governmental form is an independent variable (such as time is). Instead, each country’s polity can be argued to be a dependent variable – in other words, malleable with the prevailing conditions in that country at that given time, or in the decades and centuries before. What if the thirteen colonies had been a Spanish possession, for example? The Spanish monarchy reigned (without most of its colonial possessions, but that had a lot to do with the Spanish-American War and the defeat of the Spanish Armada) until well into the 1900’s. What form of government would have held sway in North America?
This book is thorough in its analysis of the many factors that lead to war, as well as in its definition of the American system of democracy. The arguments that it makes about the contributory factors that led to a number of the major conflicts in history are convincing. However, much of their correctness depends not on their own merits but instead on a view of world history, and of the polity that is democracy, that is centered on what has happened in the United States of America. Democracy is much older than the United States, and so any analysis of democracy cannot take the American system as the ideal. Also, just because the United States is the remaining superpower, at least in current geopolitical events, does not mean that its history is the lens through which the decision to go to war, or to use diplomatic solutions, should be viewed. Instead, as with many factors, the decision to go to war depends on a number of different metrics and affective considerations. If al-Qaeda, for example, had been based in France, and the French had been complicit with the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, would the United States have refrained from going to war with France to avenge the tragedy, or would its status as a fellow democracy have let it off the hook? As Timothy McVeigh so clearly showed, you don’t have to have a totalitarian regime to have elements of terror, and pockets of hatred, within a country. If a democracy is weak, it may not be able to control certain elements of its leadership. Also, certain democracies may decide that war is the best way to achieve their aims, even if the country with which they have a difference is also a democracy.
Works Cited.
Ball, Terrence, Farr, James, and Russell Hanson, eds. Political Innovation and Conceptual
Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Clinton, William. “Confronting the Challenges of a Broader World.” Speech made to the U.S.
Department of State, 1993.
Fukuyama, Francis. “Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post-Cold War World.”
Foreign Affairs November/December 1993. Web. Retrieved 20 February 2012 from
http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/49234/francis-fukuyama/grasping-the-democratic-
peace-principles-for-a-post-cold-war-wor
Russett, Bruce. Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for Post Cold War World.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

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