Saturday, December 31, 2005

War, Peace, and Democracy

In tomorrow's New York Times Magazine, Princeton professor Gary J. Bass asks, "Are Democracies Really More Peaceful?" The central thrust of his article is to summarize recent research by political scientists Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder, who argue that "new democracies are often unstable and thus particularly warlike." Bass suggests that this undermines the Bush administration theory that bringing democracy to the Middle East (starting with Iraq) will improve the prospects for global peace and thereby enhance US security.

Forget the practical problems with implementing the Bush theory, like How the hell are we actually going to bring democracy to Iraq? and Are we prepared to pay the unspecified but evidently stratospheric price? There's another issue that I haven't yet seen the political scientists grapple with.

If it's true that, in general, democracies tend to be more peaceful than authoritarian regimes, why would that be true? Wouldn't it be because average citizens have less desire to spend money and shed blood on empire-building, wealth-securing, and honor-enhancing exercises than politicians? And in a democracy, average citizens have significant influence (even ultimate control via the ballot box) over national policy. Therefore, the theory goes, politicians in democratic countries will tend to shun bellicose policies lest they alienate the voters on whose support they rely.

Sounds good. Except that it is precisely around issues of war and peace that the United States is rapidly de-democratizing. Over the past two generations, we've seen presidents run for election on a peace platform, then plunge us into war (Johnson), cherry-pick intelligence and lie to justify unpopular wars (Johnson, Nixon, Bush), undermine constitutional protections of privacy, free speech, and free association to suppress antiwar sentiment (Johnson, Nixon, Bush), and use war-mongering demagoguery to smear political opponents, intimidate the press, confuse voters, and steal elections (Nixon and Bush).

It's pretty clear that if the US were still a vibrant democracy, in which government policies actually reflected the will of the people, we would not be at war today. Which makes it more than a little ironic that the Bush administration should be justifying an invasion of Iraq on the ground that bringing democracy there will promote peace.

The underlying connection between democracy and peace may actually be valid--but the process of democratization needs to start here, not in Iraq.

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