Sunday, October 02, 2011

Spencer Weart and Never at War

1. Spencer Weart.

I've been interested for quite a while in the theory that democracies don't fight wars with other democracies, but only recently learned that Spencer Weart, the historian-god of climate change science, also wrote a book in 1998 called Never at War: Why Democracies Will Not Fight One Another. (I'm shamefully cribbing off of wiki rather than his book, but I'll get around to the real thing sometime I swear).

Weart makes the maximalist argument, that any country sufficiently democratic to have let at least 2/3 of male adults to vote and control the government for at least three years will not go to war with a similar democracy. He includes many classic Greek city-states in this category. The book then discusses borderline cases and his theories about why democracies don't fight each other.

Wiki has a quite good general article on the democratic peace theory - as with any other field, you can find some expert who absolutely denies the consensus position, but it seems pretty clear that well-established democracies don't fight each other, and quite likely that even immature democracies are less likely to fight democracies. No consensus on why that's the case however.

My own view: I don't know enough about classical Greece to say anything relevant. I think democracy requires at least a certain level of organization and sophistication before the democratic peace kicks in. Hunter-gatherer and small-scale agricultural societies were reasonably democratic/anarchic and very often violent toward outgroups. Weart's maximalist position may or may not work - the 1999 Kargil War between India and Pakistan that started a year after Weart's book is a contrary example. OTOH, Pakistan's elected parliament didn't really control its military which initiated that war.

That Weart could even plausibly maintain his position suggests the overall strength of the democratic peace theory.

2. Israel.

Israel's antipathy and fear of the Arab Spring is interesting in light of the fact that Israeli policymakers should know about democratic peace theory. Why Israelis thought their security was better protected by a hated 82-year old tyrant instead of a potential shot at Egyptian democratization isn't clear. I guess one response would be to look at how unpopular Israel is now with the average Egyptian, but I suspect that unpopularity itself could partially be a result of Israeli antipathy to Arab democracy.

I think the disinterest in Arab democracy in light of democratic peace theory suggests at least partially that Israel isn't all that worried about its security. It also suggests that Israel does not want democratically elected Arab leaders to be expressing grievances about West Bank and Gaza, because those leaders are much more persuasive that what Israel's had to deal with previously.

3. Labor unions.

Something of a tangent here, but one pithy statement I read somewhere about peace between democracies went to the effect of "yes it works in practice, but can you make it work in theory?" Weart isn't the only one who's tried to explain it, and no one's got a consensus theory for it.

I feel the same way about unions - the increasing inequality and declining middle class seems to be an effect of declining union power, but I don't think there's a good explanation about why unions benefit society generally, as opposed to just their members. I think the data is pretty good that they do benefit society, and there are plenty of theories why, but I'm not convinced as to why.

We'll just have to live with uncertainty.


Jonathan Gilligan said...

I'm troubled by the statement above that women's suffrage is irrelevant (the only thing that matters is how many males vote).

John said...

For about $3 billion per year to that single 52-82 year-old Egyptian tyrant the USA bought Israel security. This is a clear example America's penchant for controlling countries around the world with our installed, if not all that expensive, purposefully anti-democratic regimes.

It should also be noted that Egypt and it's tyrant were the second biggest tab in our foreign "aid" budget after Israel itself.

John Puma

EliRabett said...

Well there is the mom issue, but if you want to look at anything before 1900 you need to go male only, and of course, before then there is the issue of slaves, etc.

Brian said...

I think Weart is arguing that even a somewhat minimalist democracy still exhibits this behavior.

John said...

As to "a good explanation about why unions benefit society generally, as opposed to just their members," look your own point that the "declining middle class seems to be an effect of declining union power."

If one accepts the notion that there can be no democracy without a middle class, then the explanation of the benefit of unions to the society of the democracy is evident.

Of course, even if democracies don't make war with other democracies, there sure seem to be enough non-democracies for democracies to profitably beat up on.

John Puma

Anonymous said...

I would suggest that Israel's discomfort with the Arab spring is not motivated by a fear of democracy. It is motivated by the fear that Egypt will fail to successfully achieve democracy, or that the democracy it achieves will be impotent to stop the anarchy of non-state actors.

While it seems to be the case that democratic governments don't make war on other democracies, weak democracies can allow powerful, non-state proxy armies to build up weapons caches and launch attacks from their territories. Lebanon is a case in point.

As an American who sides with the Israeli left RE the peace process, I admit that I am somewhat frustrated by the Israeli right's cynicism towards the Arab spring. But, at the same time, I do feel that Israel has a legitimate cause for concern about where this could all go. Democracy or no democracy, the most important ingredient for peace along Egypt-Israel (and especially Egypt-Gaza) boarder is a strong government that can reign in domestic, non-state militias... Let's all hope for the best for Egyptian democracy and Mideast peace.

Matt W

David B. Benson said...

I don't believe in psychohistory.

Martin Vermeer said...

Matt W, while agreeing with most of what you write, please be cynical enough to see that Netanyahu and friends live in fear not of the failure of the Arab spring, but of its success. And the bomb-throwers are his allies.

Brian said...

Democracy can function with a weak middle class, like that found in post-1947 India and a number of other Third World democracies, but I agree it does better with a strong middle class and tends to support middle class development.

I also agree that Israel can't ignore the possibility that the Arab Spring will degenerate into fanatically hostile theocracies, but sticking with an 82-year old dictator creates its own problems, without as much of a potential upside.

FancyRat said...

I agree with Matt W.

Israel's fear of the Arab Spring in Egypt is based on knowledge that there is a strong popular hatred of Israel in Egypt - visible attacks on journalists alleged to be "jews" and in the mob attack on the Israeli embassy after the accidental killing of Egyptian police during a terrorist attack, but there have been many Egyptian calls for the peace treaty to be abolished. I also doubt if they have confidence that Egypt will become a democracy not an oligarchy. Even if Egypt becomes democratic, war could start inside the first three years of true democracy without breaking Weart's theory. The Muslim Brotherhood is the most organised non-government group, and they are strongly in favor of scrapping the peace treaty with Israel, and want democracy as a step toward introducing Islamic oligarchy.

The Democratic Peace Theory, as described in Wikipedia, depends on democracies recognising one-another's members as 'in-group'. Popular Arab Islamic antipathy to Jews and Israel looks like overriding this, helped by years of govenments using Israel as a political pawn - direct anger towards Israel, and gain credit for being aggressive towards Israel. This has been even more intensive in the Palestinian territories with education and media protraying war on Israel as everyone's duty and pleasure. This antipathy has little to do with alleged Israeli antipathy to the Arab Spring.
(I'd also like to know what forms this antipathy has taken - I am not aware of much significant action by Israel)

Democratic Peace is also only as stable as the democracy, and there are plenty of examples of democracies moving out of Weart's criteria. He requires full control over non-state actors, good quality elections, and no fear of military coup - all things Egypt will take years to achieve.

Supporting dictators against calls for freedom and democracy is unethical, unless you have clear reasons to believe the calls are a cover for a different group to grab power, which is not the case for Egypt (there is fear that a different group will grab power but thbe unrest is popular), but on a risk minimisation basis I can see why they might do it.

John said...

Does Spencer Weart know that the US installed the Shah of Iran in 1953? The CIA staged a coup, replacing a democracy with a dictatorship. The Iranian democracy had nationalized Iranian oil, frustrating the US desire to control the oil in the Middle East. OK, Weart may say, the US didn't actually wage war with Iran, merely replace the democratic government with a more pliable dictatorship. But regime change is serious business.

Has Spencer Weart thought about Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon? Lebanon had a functioning Parliament in 1982, so it was a democracy as most people understand the term.

What about Reagan's 1983 invasion of Grenada, or Kennedy's 1961 invasion of Cuba? The former was condemned by the UN, and even by Canada and the UK, as a "flagrant violation of international law". In the latter case, the Cuban government under Fidel Castro was far more democratic than its predecessor, the Batista dictatorship.

In last Sunday's (10/2/2011) NY Times, a book review (by Thomas Powers, of a book by ex-spook Paul Pillar) comments that the real reasons for the US invasion of Iraq may never be public knowledge. My point is that, although the US is a formal democracy, the decision to invade Iraq was made by small numbers of men acting in secret, proceeding in the same way as in undemocratic countries.

I think Weart's theory is just coffeehouse sociology.

Brian said...

"The Democratic Peace Theory, as described in Wikipedia, depends on democracies recognising one-another's members as 'in-group'."

Not necessarily - the fact of democratic peace is well established for stable democracies and pretty strong even for young democracies. Why that's the case is less clear.

I think we can see part of the reason for it though - Israelis themselves might feel slightly less inclined to ignore the claims of the Arab world if those claims were expressed by legitimate leaders, and that change on the Israeli side could help the cause of peace and a reduction of antipathy on the Arab side.

"[Weart] requires full control over non-state actors, good quality elections, and no fear of military coup."

Not necessarily, except maybe for somewhat-fair elections. I think "never at war" would be much better understood "as increasingly unlikely to vanishingly unlikely to come to war" and people could see the idea's importance, even if it's not an absolute guarantee.


Lebanon 1982 wasn't much of a democracy, or even a country. Did Lebanon's parliament even oppose the Israeli invasion?

Neither Grenada 1983 nor Cuba 1961 were democracies, regardless if they were somewhat less repressive than earlier regimes.

If you're not defining the US as a democracy, then you're really using the concept differently from Weart.