Why Are We fighting In Iraq?

January 29, 2009

[First published November 2, 2005] The foreign policy of the United States, the War on Terror, and the War in Iraq is predicated on the democratic peace. President bush has expressed this explicitly in describing his Forward Strategy of Freedom. Secretary Rumsfeld has mentioned it, and Secretary Rice has accepted it as background to her speeches on democracy. Because of the democratic peace, even President Clinton made promoting democracy one of the pillars of his foreign policy.

The democratic peace is now the best empirically established theory and most widely held among students of international relations. The theory, which goes back to the Philosopher Immanuel Kant in his Perpetual Peace (1795), is that:

The republican constitution . . . gives a favorable prospect for the desired consequence, i.e., perpetual peace. The reason is this: if the consent of the citizens is required in order to decide that war should be declared (and in this constitution it cannot but be the case), nothing is more natural than that they would be very cautious in commencing such a poor game, decreeing for themselves all the calamities of war. . . . But, on the other hand, in a constitution which is not republican, and under which the subjects are not citizens, a declaration of war is the easiest thing in the world to decide upon, because war does not require of the ruler, who is the proprietor and not a member of the state, the least sacrifice of the pleasures of his table, the chase, his country houses, his court functions, and the like. He may, therefore, resolve on war as on a pleasure party for the most trivial reasons, and with perfect indifference leave the justification which decency requires to the diplomatic corps who are ever ready to provide it.

Indeed, we now know from research done over the last three decades that this is true. The table below shows that since 1816, there have been no wars between democracies, although 371 bilateral wars when one or both sides were nondemocracies.

A second table below shows that there have been only three cases of violence ending in deaths between democracies over the 190 years since 1816. Two of these involved Peru and Ecuador in 1981 and 1984 (26 to 100 killed in the first, and 1 to 25 in the second case of violence). In 1981 Peru was only marginally democratic, as was Ecuador, but less so. This was also true of Peru and Ecuador in 1984. The only other case of violence over these near two centuries was marginally democratic Ecuador (initiator) vs. the U.S. in 1954 in which 1-25 were killed. Only three cases, and none since 1984 despite there being 117 democracies today.

There is much more to the democratic peace then the avoidance of war or international violence. Democracies have been involved in many wars, some they launched themselves (Afghanistan and Iraq being the most recent example). However, by an order of magnitude or more, democracies fight the least severe wars in killed compared to authoritarian or totalitarian regimes.

Moreover, in general, democratic nations are the most internally peaceful — they have the least violence in number killed in rebellions, civil wars, civil unrest, anti-government riots, violent strikes, and coups.

Also, and perhaps most important, modern democracies seldom murder their own citizens. Democide (genocide and mass murder) is an evil of militarism (as in Burma), monarchism (Russia’s Peter the Great), theocratism (Iran), fascism (Hitler), and communism. Over the whole 20th Century during which governments murdered about 174,000,000 people, only 149,000 deaths were due to barely democratic regimes — nearly 100,000 to the far left Spanish Republican government during its 1936-39 civil war, 10,000 to Peru’s (1980-87) fight with communist guerrillas, 25,000 to India, 4,000 to Colombia, 2,000 to the U.S.A. (largely because of lynching in the early years of the century), and lesser numbers to a smattering of democracies. Among these democracies committing democide, none were liberal democracies at the time (when American domestic democide occurred women could not vote and minorities were systematically and legally segregated, harassed, and denied the vote in many states), and one might argue that some were not democracies at all. No democratically free people, liberal democracies of which there are about 88 today, have murdered their own.

How do we understand this nonviolence, peaceful nature of democracy? Kant had part of the answer. Democratic people usually oppose war. But not always. There are two other factors. One is that with democratic institutions comes a democratic culture of negotiation, compromise, and tolerance. And two, there is a civil society of independent and interlocking institutions and groups –churches, businesses, schools, and social, political, and recreation groups — that not only stitch and bond democratic society together, but also cross pressure interests so that the stakes in a conflict are never too high, and the conflicts themselves are isolated. Such a democratic culture and society also encompasses democratic nations, enfolding them in a dynamic democratic field of cross national governmental and nongovernmental organizations, multinational businesses, trade, cultural and educational exchanges, which are similarly bond the nations together and cross pressure interest that might favor violence. Moreover, the basic norm of negotiating and tolerating differences is shared among democracies, which is one reason democracies cannot well negotiate with dictatorship, to whom it is only war by other means.

So, why are we fighting in Iraq and fostering democratic freedom there and elsewhere? The answer is to promote an end to war, and democide, and to minimize internal political violence. In other words, it is to foster global human security. Surely, this is worth fighting for.