Nation Building and the History of Force

[First published January 19, 2006] Political Scientist James L. Payne is an excellent and thoughtful scholar in the traditional vein (no quantitative methods), and many years ago I used his book, The American Threat: National Security And Foreign Policy, as a text in my national security class. He has recently published an article, “Deconstructing Nation Building: The results are in and the record isn’t good “ in which Payne says:

When plunging into war, hope generally triumphs over experience. The past—the quiet statistical tabulation of what happened when this was tried before—tends to be ignored in the heat of angry oratory and the thump of military boots. At the outset, it is easy to believe that force will be successful in upholding virtue and that history has no relevance. Lately, this confidence in the force of arms has centered on nation building, that is, the idea of invading and occupying a land afflicted by dictatorship or civil war and turning it into a democracy. . . . Nation building by military force is not a coherent, defensible policy. It is based on no theory, it has no proven technique or methodology, and there are no experts who know how to do it. The record shows that it usually fails, and even when it appears to succeed, the positive result owes more to historical evolution and local political culture than anything nation builders might have done.

RJR: Payne identifies 51 cases (and gives the list) of attempted nation building by Britain and the U.S. since 1850, and in which they succeeded in 14 cases — 27 percent. This is the basis of his conclusion. But, he does not take into consideration that “nation building” was not the intent of the intervention or war, but the consequences of military success, as it was for Italy, Japan, and Germany after their defeat in WWI, and Afghanistan and Iraq recently. Then what is Britain or the U.S. to do after winning the battles. Occupy the country and control it, as though by imperial rule? Leave and let some bloody gang take over the country again, with a new possibility of violence down the road? Or democratize? Given the importance of globalizing democracy for eventually solving the horrendous evils of war and democide, that 27 percent of the cases were successful is great. But Payne does not understand this relationship between democracy and violence.

This is clear in his recently published book, A History Of Force: Exploring The Worldwide Movement Against Habit Of Coercion, Bloodshed, And Mayhem (2004). Payne analyzes the role and progress of force in history, and finds that:

As far as we can tell from the historical record, we live in a much more peaceful world than has ever existed. Humans are less vicious, less inclined to inflict physical injury than they used to be. Within this broad picture there are of course deviations and exceptions, cases where certain regimes and cultures have exhibited temporary increases in violence. But these exceptions cannot obscure the larger pattern. As the following chapters show, the evidence for a decline in the use of force is massive, so broad and so obvious as to make the point something of a self‑evident truth. (p.7)

To show this, he presents the chart below (p. 15).

Now, although Payne writes as though he is the only one to discover this, other’s have shown this decline, and I have presented their data in several blogs (“Democracies Increase and Ipso Facto, World Violence Declines,” “Democracies Increase, Violence decreases, Media Still Blind,” and “World Conflict in Sharp Decline”)

About this decline, Payne says:

But, for most people, the observation seems to be wrong — and not merely wrong, but irresponsibly wrong and irritatingly wrong. Swayed by a number of fallacies and distortions, they are convinced that, compared to the past, we live in particularly vicious, bloody times. They therefore are disposed to reject out of hand any study that purports to find the opposite. Even if you can get them to look at some of the evidence and to agree that the facts do indeed indicate a dramatic decline, they are convinced against their will, so to speak. In their minds there remains a bedrock of contrary conviction that will continually reassert itself. For example, they will demand still more data to support the conclusion that force has decline — never noticing that the have no data to support their conviction that is has not declined. (pp. 7-8)

RJR: All true, but then, how does he explain that others don’t see this massive decline? By three factors: people tend to focus on the here and now, there is a “vested interest in perceiving a violent world,” and “sampling bias in the mass media.” And how does he explain the decline?

The routes whereby uses of force are abandoned are often quite unexpected, even mysterious-so mysterious that one is sometimes tempted to allude to a higher power at work. Time and again one encounters violent practices so rooted and so self-reinforcing that it seems almost magical that they were overcome. One is reduced to pointing to “History” to explain how this immensely beneficial policy — a reduction in the use of force — has been gradually imposed on a human race that has neither consciously sought it nor agreed with it. (p. 29)

Mysterious? Hardly. It’s the growth in democracies, which now comprise 121 countries in the world out of 192, and nothing mysterious about this.

Payne sent me a copy of this book in manuscript, which I read, and then pointed out to him that he missed the importance of the growth of democracy. Apparently, he could not accept this, for he made no change in his book, nor will you find anything on the democratic peace in his index. He does, however, address the fact that democracies seem to employ less force than other regimes, but he says that it is not democracy that comes first, but the fall in violence. Violence decreases and this encourages democratization. I suppose he would say that the causation runs from the great decline in force to the great increase in democracies.

Payne writes as though the hundred or so democratic peace articles and books do not exist, and in that sense, his book would fit into the 1950s or 60s, rather than 2004. How could he refuse to recognize the democratic peace, as also does Frank Denton in his Knowing the Roots of War: Analyses and Interpretations of Six Centuries of Warfare, which is on my website. Both are historians who, with the traditional distain of such scholars, refuse to recognize the value and results of scientific research on history. They don’t understand the philosophy and methods of research, they cannot believe that quantitative research is better than their educated mind focused on historical events, and thus they do not recognize the results of such research.

And this goes even more for the commentators, analysts, and editorialists who struggle to explain the sharp decline in violence of the last decades.

2 Responses to Nation Building and the History of Force

  1. Jake says:

    The democratic peace theory is a commonly misunderstood concept. Applied to the post WWII era in reference to the US and US colonies and allies, it attempts to declare coincidence as causation. In fact, what really matters for interstate peace is how states perceive each other. Even if two states are democracies, if one votes for something the other does not like respect is not guaranteed simply because of their common systems of government. When national security and democracy collide, democracies tend to treat other democracies like any other state. What actually provides common ground between democratic states are shared histories, past cooperation, and common values.

    When it comes to peacebuilding, the establishment of democracy is a the traditional liberal internationalist response. As stated by Roland Paris in Peacebuilding and the Limits of Liberal Internationalism, the traditional belief is that “the surest foundation for peace, both within and between states, is market democracy, that is, a liberal democratic polity and a market-oriented economy” (56). In many cases the transplantation of democracy to conflict areas can promote (in the short and medium term) increased instability. For example, initially in Bosnia elections helped to separate groups instead of uniting them. Furthermore, leaders during emerging democracies are forced to rely on nationalism to unite the countless number of blocs that exist. To rally elites, commoners, politicians, and other networks often an external enemy is created so that domestically, citizens “rally round the flag.” Unfortunately, rallying around the flag can eventually lead to war between a democracy and its neighbor.

    Nevertheless, liberal democracies are still the best and most stable options for lasting peace. There are several ways that peacebuilding efforts can be tailored to better suit long term liberalization. First off, democratic and capitalistic emphasis on competition need to be minimized. Without a civil society to balance the power of the state and provide a political outlet, this can lead to dangerous consequences. Second, sometimes nations engaged in peacebuilding need to admit that immediate and widespread democratization is not always the best case (in some cases economic liberalization is more vital to a country’s health than political liberalization, which can lead to social chaos). Finally, peacebuilders need to reward moderation and cooperation in order to prevent ethnic conflict and stalemate. Once a country is ready for democratization, it is necessary that its leaders are given incentives by sponsor states to seek broad, cross-factional support.

  2. rudyrummel says:

    This is an excellent comment, but still flawed. It mistakes coincidence for causation. Democracy is the empirical cause for the fact the democracies do not make war on each other. No research study of the democratic peace has found there to have been a war between democracies. And this has been predicted and explained.

    The comment mistakes conflict for violence and war. True, war is a kind of conflict, but most conflict is not war or violence. The comment speaks only of conflict, and it is undeniable that democracies have conflict. Witness France versus the United States.

    And thus, the comment misunderstands the democratic peace.The democratic peace is this. Democracies do not make war on each other, and there is a very small likelihood of lesser violence between them. And internal violence, including genocide and mass murder, within them is minimal compared to nondemocracies.

    All this is summed up by the principle that democracy is a method of nonviolence.

    On all this see my book : Power Kills here

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