Nation Building and the History of Force

January 21, 2009

[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.