Democratic countries don’t go to war with each other?

This morning I was thinking about a conversation I had with a friend over the last winter break when I was visiting my old school in Vancouver Island (I’ll talk more about it later since it deserves at least a whole post), in which we were talking about sciences and social ‘sciences’. The topic of political ‘science’ came up, and she said something along the lines of “the only real law they have in polit. sci. is that democratic countries don’t go to war with each other”. I didn’t question it much at the time, but for some reason this morning I could not fall back asleep thinking about it. Here is my response:

  1. How about the several US backed coups on democratically elected regimes in Latin America and elsewhere in the second half of the 20th century? I’m talking about the coups against Allende in Chile, Goulart in Brazil, Árbenz Guzmán in Guatemala, Mossadegh in Iran, Lumumba in the DRC, etc. I mean, a coup isn’t really a war, but I would definitely consider it a direct attack, much more effective than a direct military attack since it entirely incapacitates the attacked country’s institutions. And sure, these countries didn’t retaliate, but not because they were not democratic, instead, I would argue, because they were poor. And the ‘law’ didn’t say “rich democratic countries don’t go to war with each other”. Also, how about the recent Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006? True, Lebanon is quite unstable, but its leaders were still democratically elected.
  2. Democratic regimes didn’t really begin to proliferate until after World War 2. At the same time the Cold War – that covered most of the time since then – divided the world in two parts, the communist and anti-communist. And most democratic regimes (except the ones that were quickly overthrown, as mentioned above) leaned towards the same side, that is, against the USSR, united under NATO. So does that really count? They were all on the same alliance, so of course they didn’t go to war with each other, but not because they were democratic, but because they were in the same alliance. It was pretty rare for communist countries to attack each other too (exceptions include the Soviet crush of the ‘Prague Spring’, the Chinese attack on Vietnam, and the Cambodian-Vietnamese War).
  3. I remember the topic had come up before when this friend and I were in history class together, back in school. That time she, or maybe another friend, said something about how it might be because  politicians in democratic regimes need to “sell” the war to their people. But is it really that hard to do that? It didn’t seem too hard to sell the Iraq war (though to be fair, they weren’t able to in the UK), or the Afghanistan war, and I didn’t see anybody even trying to sell the Libyan war. Is it really so absurd to think that one of those horrible warmongers they have here in the US may come to power and attack another democracy? Maybe one of the countries that will hopefully become democratic in the Middle East this year? Or what about Norway? With their commie public health care, free higher education, and large proportion of godless heathens (as we all know, atheist = communist), they would be the perfect target for Sarah Palin. She won’t even miss her native Alaska, it’s just as cold. Joking aside, an interview of Göring from the Nuremberg trials comes to mind:

Göring: Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.
Gilbert: There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.
Göring: Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

Note that all of this is not to contradict the value of democracy, I am a huge supporter of the “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. I’m just hesitant to give it any pacifying value, at least in all of its current forms. Hopefully one day we will learn to make democracy international and sort our differences in some sort of world parliament, instead of the battlefield.

Edit: I just found a much more thorough discussion of the same topic here.