Another Expert Wrong about Democracy

January 6, 2009

[First published January 18, 2005] The Independent Institute, a libertarian think tank, has just published a report, “U.S. Foreign Policy: Question All Assumptions,” by its foreign policy expert Ian Eland (link here). It well shows the inadequacies of libertarian thinking on foreign policy. Here, I want to focus on a prime target of the report, which is President Bush’s Forward Strategy of Freedom that is based on the democratic peace research findings.

One of Eland’s concerns is the “assumptions held by the U.S. policy elite and general public. . . . The first is that democracies are more peaceful than more authoritarian governments. Scholars have shown that no empirical support exists for this proposition. In fact, newly minted democracies go to war at greater frequency than more autocratic states.”

I’m a scholar and I show the opposite. Eland is also misleading. If you count all war equally, such as involvement in the Boxer Rebellion, or the invasion of Panama, or Grenada, with World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and so on, then this is correct. But, it is a ridiculous way of assessing the involvement of democracies in war. Rather, if you take account of the importance and totality of a war by counting killed, then democracies fight far less violent wars than do nondemocracies. I have written an article on this, “Democracies ARE less warlike than other regimes,” European Journal of International Relations Vol. 1 (December 1995):457-479 (link here).

Eland goes on, “The second is that democracies don’t go to war with each other — the democratic peace theory. Although the validity of this theory is disputed among scholars, opponents of the theory convincingly argue that even if wars among democracies are rare throughout history, democracies are also rare.”

He ignores that about 120 democracies now exist, not one of which is threatening the other such that they arm or form alliances against each other. The danger of war comes from the nondemocracies. Moreover, if you do a statistics test of the number of democracies in history, you will find that lack of war between democracies is statistically significant.

Eland continues, “But examples of wars between democracies do exist—for example, the Boer war at the turn of the twentieth century, World War I, and the American Civil War.”

Eland has not done the research on this that he should have, and seems to be lifting this from a BBC news editorial (Link here — see my blog on this here). The BBC editorialist and Eland are wrong. The Boers were not democracies. And Germany in World War I was not a democracy in foreign and military affairs. As I wrote in response to the BBC, these and other cases have been studied in detail by students of the democratic peace and found to be no exceptions. See for example, the historian Spencer R. Weart’s Never At War (his summary chapter is on my website), and James Lee Ray’s comprehensive review article on the democratic peace (”Does Democracy cause peace” (1998) in the Annual Review of Political Science)

Eland then points out that, “[A]ccording to Time, President Bush is enamored with the Natan Sharansky’s book The Case for Democracy, which argues that security of the world depends on using any means necessary to support democracy. Even if democracies ultimately went to war less than more authoritarian nations and if they never went to war with each other—dubious propositions—the costs of all of the wars needed to convert autocratic countries to democracies would be too high. In addition to expending much blood and treasure, all U.S. wars have eroded civil liberties at home. Even if the U.S. could militarily convert all of the nations of the world to real democracies (most democracies in the developing world are fake)—and the record here is not good—the United States could very well endanger its own democracy.

There is so much here that is wrong that I feel like I’m grading a sophomore’s essay on foreign policy. One, it is not “dubious.” The evidence is solid that democracies do not go to war with each other. Two, Eland’s assumption is that only through war will nondemocracies be converted to democracies. Doesn’t Eland even recognize the nonviolence democratization of Eastern Europe (with the exception of Yugoslavia), Costa Rica, Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines, just to mention a few? Three, he says that most democracies in the developed world are fake. Tell that to Freedom House (link here) in regard to its annual rating of freedom. In 2003, it came up with 121 democracies, of which 89 were free in terms of civil liberties and political rights — in my terms, they were liberal democracies. Of these 89, less than half are developed. And I think freedom house would be upset if I told them that their freedom ratings on these countries were fake, as Eland says.


Eland, you have to do the research on this before writing about the democratic peace. And may I humbly suggest you start with my website website and Q&A.

Link of Note

”Spreading democracy” (1/18/05) By Tod Lindberg

President Bush “is a man who sees a ‘philosophical argument,’ which is to say, a contest with at least two sides. His presidency is ‘stimulating a debate’ over the spread of democracy by trying to spread it. He is aware that there are those who say ‘Bush is wrong.’ He doesn’t in turn say they are wrong. He says, ‘I assume I’m right’ — which is to say, he will act in accordance with the conviction ‘that the philosophical argument of the age’ will be resolved in favor of the spread of democracy.
“That’s because he thinks democracy is the right side to be on — not in the sense of the ‘right side of history,’ though he has his hopes, but in the sense that the promotion of democracy is morally right. Let those who disagree speak up.”

Right on.