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Democracy's strength lies in safety in numbers

By Allan Stam - posted Monday, 12 November 2007

Events in the Middle East are forcing us to question the advisability of spreading democracy far and wide. But questions about the nature and desirability of democracy are as old as the republics within which the debates are taking place.

At the founding of the American republic Andrew Jackson, who went on to become the seventh president of the United States, and other populists, realised that the people were not a mob to be constrained by the aristocrats, but rather the source of the state's power. By creating systems of government where the people have a say in the decision to go to war through mechanisms of consent, democracies show that elite fears of the mob are unfounded. Aristocrats do not bring out the best in the people. Rather, it is the so-called mob that brings out the best in the government elite.

Based on the most recent research by political scientists, we now know that democracy is the "best" type of political arrangement, not just because it is the most just or the fairest. Rather, in the realm of international politics, there is no need to apologise for advocating the spread of democratic institutions, as it is these political institutions that lead to the best, securest and safest outcomes for the most people. In the context of interstate war, democracy equates to security.


Democracies have routinely been able to defend themselves, and when subject to the constraining effects of public consent, they are far less likely to initiate foolhardy wars - such as the one Australia and the US are now waging in Iraq.

Political scientists now know a norm of pacifism does not drive democracies to be more peaceful than other states in the international system. Democracies do initiate wars, and they do so when it is seen to be in their national interest (as defined by the people) - and not only as a last-ditch effort to preserve the national defence when diplomacy has failed. Further, they initiate wars against weaker foes, they initiate imperialist wars and they sometimes use genocidal means in warfare. There is no international community of democracy emerging from shared liberal norms. Democracies are not especially likely to ally with each other and they are not particularly likely to intervene on each other's behalf when one is attacked. Further, democracies are sometimes willing to take forceful action against nascent democracies, resorting to covert or even overt hostile actions.

All the empirical evidence points strongly to democratic governments calculating very carefully whether their foreign policy actions are consistent with public opinion. Democratic leaders typically try to avoid starting wars that they will lose or which will be bloody. They choose military strategies that help them win relatively cheap and successful wars, they fight shorter wars and they start wars only for popular causes. In short, consent matters. Moreover, the need for consent breeds success. Foreign policy is not necessarily best left to political and military leaders. Obeying the whims of the public tends to steer a state away from military disasters

As John Jay pointed out in the Federalist Papers (which were published in the 1780s to persuade Americans to ratify the US Constitution): "Absolute monarchs (regardless of how they achieve their position) will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it, but for purposes and objects merely personal - such as a thirst for military glory, revenge for personal affronts, ambition or private compacts to aggrandise or support their particular families or partisans. These and a variety of other motives which affect only the mind of the sovereign, often lead him to engage in wars not sanctified by justice or the voice and interests of his people." By acting only when the interests and voice of the people are at stake and have been consulted openly and honestly, state leaders reduce tremendously their chance for folly in the international arena. Further, the temptations of circumventing or manipulating consent through covert or illegal actions are best ignored. Bypassing public approval means bypassing public dialogue and ill-founded plans that might otherwise have their fatal flaws exposed live on to be implemented in probable failure.

Democratic governments need not undermine their very democratic natures to survive and thrive in the international arena. Those institutions that define a state as democratic - the vote, separation of powers, a free press - are just those which make its foreign policy effective and which help it win wars. Contrary to longstanding belief, the freedom provided by democratic institutions is not something that should be seen as a luxury that incurs unavoidable risks in international politics. Rather, democratic political institutions hold the key to prudent and successful foreign policy. The installation of democracy presents no Faustian bargain and no dangerous trade-off in an anarchic global system. Contrary to the view of many in the Bush Administration, our leaders need not subvert liberty in order to preserve it.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 6 November, 2007.

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About the Author

Allan Stam is a professor of political science at the University of Michigan and served in the US Army Special Forces. He recently spoke at the Sydney Democracy Forum at the University of Sydney.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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