The Warlords of Democracy

“Of the people” might not mean a surer peace.

This year of elections is almost enough to make one give up on democracy–or at least on the idea that democracies are inherently more committed to peace than other forms of government.

The Israeli chief of state, who was totally committed to the peace process, was defeated by a candidate who openly played on Israeli fears of Palestinians. The victor’s idea of peace-through-strength may make peace highly problematic.

  • In Russia, a majority of the electorate voted for openly nationalistic–even imperialistic–candidates in the first round. Boris Yeltsin won the second round only by recruiting Alexander Lebed, a retired general with frightful views on Jews and other religious minorities.
  • And in Bosnia, the mere discussion of elections has exacerbated ethnic tensions, allowing the most virulent nationalists to gain support, and led to predictions that this democratic procedure could finish the country.

What is going on? Why is this most cherished belief not being borne out by events? Could it even be that under certain circumstances, democracies might be more warlike than other states? If so, what does that portend for us and our search for a more peaceful world?

The idea that democracies are the most peaceful political systems is attractive and plausible, but there is little evidence to support the notion: Fewer than a dozen countries have been continuously democratic over the past century–not an especially large sample–and only two of them, Canada and the United States, share a common border. Many of these democracies have gone to war, and not always in response to attack.

Still worse, democracies–or at least the electoral systems at their core–have produced monsters, some of them committed to waging war. One thinks of Hitler’s exploitation of the electoral system in Germany, but one can see similar, if smaller, figures in Serbia and elsewhere.

In the countries emerging from the former Soviet Union, aggressive nationalism has been a winning formula for leaders who can deliver little else to their populations–not just Lebed, but Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Armenia’s Levon Ter-Petrosyan, and others as well.

It’s tempting to view these examples as transitional. Both the Soviet and Yugoslav systems were based on the cynical exploitation of ethnicity, so it’s only natural that succeeding systems continue the tradition. One could argue that the cure for despotism is democracy itself. But that begs the question of why democracies, and often more established ones, have been less than peaceful.

The West’s belief in “peaceful democracy” endures, in part, because it celebrates us, because we think that the spread of democracy will usher in a period of peace that will allow us to concentrate on our own needs and ignore those of others. Our conviction reflects a widespread belief that the people are basically good and pacific, while governments are fundamentally suspect and aggressive.

If our cherished belief isn’t correct, the reverse may be true–that under certain conditions, democracies might be even more given to warlike behavior than other forms of government. Totalitarianism kept ethnic hatreds in check in many places, especially Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Now that the Communist totalitarians have been replaced by nominal democrats, murderous hatreds and regional conflicts have re-emerged.

While it’s probably true that democracies are unlikely to go to war unless they’re attacked, sometimes they are the first to take the offensive. And once involved in a conflict, democracies may actually be less willing than authoritarian regimes to end it short of “total victory.” These views may make conflicts longer and more bloody than they would otherwise be.

While authoritarian regimes can make war without the consent of the governed–as any number of democratic enthusiasts have pointed out–they can also make peace without consulting the voters. Indeed, democracies that take too many risks for peace may not win popular support, as the Israeli elections show.

Nor does democratization change the underlying reality of international relations: geography. With the possible exception of Poland, countries do not move around very much, and thus their geopolitical concerns and the conflicts arising from them do not change very much. The last decade has seen the triumphant return of geography in international relations and the enshrinement on the world scene of the old American political principle that “where you stand depends on where you sit.”

Russia’s interest in gaining access to warm-water ports did not arise under communism–nor has it now disappeared. We can hope that Moscow will seek different means of advancing its interests differently than it has in the past, but democracy by itself won’t repeal these pressures. In fact, the disintegration of the Soviet empire has recreated the geographic relationship between Berlin and Moscow that was the seedbed of World War I and World War II.

These observations don’t mean that we should withdraw our support for democracy in the former Soviet bloc. Democracy has done a great deal for all those who have experienced it, but democracy alone is not enough. Transforming those nations into peaceful members of the international system will require more than just a few elections and economic reform. As the American Founders knew, the rule of the people can be dangerous unless constrained by representative institutions and constitutionalism. Only if these additional arrangements exist can these countries–or our own–avoid disaster.

We  seem to have lost sight of the fact that democracy is as much about procedures as about preferred outcomes, excusing Boris Yeltsin’s use of tanks against his own Parliament and his dispatch of troops to Chechnya a year later. This has made many people in the region, who are still learning about democracy, cynical about what the system means. And it has undercut our authority as democracy’s backers.

Democracy by itself won’t solve all international problems; it won’t relieve us–in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s phrase–“of having to worry about defending ourselves.” Instead, we must work even harder to integrate these countries into the West and into the values that have brought peace, prosperity, and freedom to so many people here.

That won’t be easy. Many will grow discouraged, especially in the short term, as more open politics in the former Soviet bloc lead not to peace, but to more conflicts. But we shouldn’t blame democracy; we should only understand what it can and can’t do.