by Matthew White
I've witnessed this debate on Usenet several times, and it always follows the same pattern:
In any case, here is the traditional list of wars which may or may not have been fought between democracies:
If you define democracy as a system of government in which policy is set by unpunished, unrestricted debate among the citizens of a nation and put into action by their elected representatives, then all of the above nations are democratic. On the other hand, if you start narrowing the definitions, then obviously you'll get fewer democracies to work with, so of course you're going to have fewer wars between democracies.
I suppose that all these limits and conditions are fine in theory, except for four problems:
On any given day, as you flip page-by-page through a big city newspaper, you'll see stories from a half dozen wars going on worldwide -- and these are just the wars that produced something newsworthy the day before. Taking into account the wars which have entered a hiatus as one side plans and the other side licks its wounds (along with unofficial cease-fires, disruptive weather, and concealed massacres) we can easily assume another dozen distant wars smoldering out of sight of newspaper's understaffed foreign bureaus.
In fact, to pull some numbers into this discussion, the Center for Defense Information listed 21 armed conflicts under way as of 1 January 1998. The New State of War and Peace by Kidron and Smith has a table listing 82 unique wars fought between January 1980 and September 1990.
And yet, in this violent world, how many wars were being fought between democracies? A handful at most -- and arguably none at all. Eighty-two wars and not a single one pitting undisputed democracies against each other? Shouldn't this tell us something?
Well, it tells me that we need to clarify what we mean by war. Most of the conflicts raging across the world at any given time are civil wars. Rather than being well-organized, distinct affairs in which massed armies blitzkrieg across the border and formally annex foreign territory, your average civil war sputters along indistinctly, year after year. In these wars, loosely constituted rebel armies launch sporadic raids from secret bases against government targets and then melt back unrecognizably into the population. The government retaliates by torturing information out of any citizen who may have made contact with the rebels, and by depopulating the war zone with massacres and deportations in order to dry up the rebels' pool of supporters and potential recruits.
In civil wars, the opposing sides are generally refered to as the rebels and the government -- that's "government" in the singular -- but when we talk of the likelihood of two democratic governments going to war, we are talking about "governments" in the plural. So, let's forget the 82 armed conflicts of the 1980s. If were going to get a handle on the probability of two democracies coming into conflict, we have to limit ourselves to international wars, a much rarer phenomenon.
How many international wars have there been in the 55 years since WW2? How many times have regular troops from sovereign nations openly exchanged fire with each other, with intent to kill, under orders, during a continuous period of armed clashes? The list thins out quite a bit:
|1||1st Indo-Pak War||1947-49||India vs. Pakistan||5|
|2||Israeli War of Independence||1948||Egypt, Syria, Jordan vs. Israel||11|
|3||Tibet||1950||China vs. Tibet||2|
|4||Korean War||1950-53||North Korea, China vs. South Korea, USA, UK, et al.||1200|
|5||Central American War||1955||Nicaragua vs. Costa Rica||1|
|6||Suez Crisis||1956||Egypt vs. Israel, UK, France||3|
|7||Hungarian Revolt||1956||Hungary vs. USSR||10|
|8||Central American War||1957||Nicaragua vs. Honduras||1|
|9||Sino-Indian War||1962||India vs. China||2|
|10||Indonesian Confrontation||1962-65||Indonesia vs. Malaysia, UK, Australia, New Zealand||0.7|
|11||Somalian Border||1963-67||Somalia vs. Kenya||4|
|12||2nd Indo-Pak War||1965||India vs. Pakistan||7|
|13||2nd Indochina War||1965-73||North Vietnam vs. South Vietnam, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Phillipines, South Korea, Thailand||1200|
|14||Six-Day War||1967||Egypt, Syria, Jordan vs. Israel||20|
|15||Czechoslovakia||1968||Czechoslovakia vs. USSR, Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, Poland||0.1|
|16||Soccer War||1969||El Salvador vs. Honduras||4|
|17||Sino-Soviet War||1969||USSR vs. China||3|
|18||Bengali War of Independence||1971||India vs. Pakistan||11|
|19||Yom Kippur War||1973||Egypt, Syria vs. Israel||14|
|20||Cyprus||1974||Turkey vs. Cyprus||5|
|21||Angola||1975-1988||Angola, Cuba vs. South Africa||500|
|22||Lebanon||1976-2000||Israel, USA, France vs. Lebanon, Syria (in various combinations)||150|
|23||Ogaden War||1977-78||Ethiopia, Cuba vs. Somalia||35|
|24||Ugandan War||1978-79||Tanzania vs. Uganda||3|
|25||3rd Indochina War||1978-89||Cambodia vs. Vietnam||75|
|26||Sino-Vietnamese||1979||China vs. Vietnam||20|
|27||1st Gulf War||1980-88||Iran vs. Iraq||800|
|28||Falklands War||1982||Argentina vs. UK||1.2|
|29||Chad||1982-87||Chad, France vs. Libya||35|
|31||Grenada||1983||USA vs. Grenada||0.1|
|32||Panama||1989||USA vs. Panama||0.9|
|33||Nagorno-Karabakh||1991-95||Armenia vs. Azerbaijan||20|
|34||2nd Gulf War||1991-98||Iraq vs. Kuwait, USA, Saudi Arabia||5|
|35||Ecuador-Peru||1995||Ecuador vs. Peru||0.1|
|36||Kosovo||1999||NATO vs. Yugoslavia||6|
|37||Eritrean War||1998-2000||Ethiopia vs. Eritrea||60|
|38||Kashmir||1989-||India vs. Pakistan||25|
|39||Congolese Civil War||1998-||Congo-Kinshasa, Zimbabwe, Angola, Sudan vs. Uganda, Rwanda||200|
Please keep in mind that our definition of "international war" only includes wars in which governments fight each other, not where several governments band together to fight rebels. Thus the war which Americans generally call "The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan" is not an international war because the two governments involved were allies, not foes.
Naturally, we can quibble over specific wars.
However, even shuffling the dubious cases (adding some, subtracting some), the pattern holds up. Between 1945 and 2000, there were fewer international wars than there were years.
Also, keep in mind that some of these conflicts are rather small -- often mere blips on the world radar -- so if we impose a minimum death toll we could lose several of them. (And remember -- as we reduce the number of valid wars under consideration, it becomes less surprising that few, if any, were between democracies.)
In the context at hand, we can trim the list even more. If the believers in Democratic Peace want to weed out wars between democratic regimes that are less than 3 years old, then the believers in Democratic War get to ignore wars involving any regime that's less than three years old. If the Franco-Roman War of 1848 is cut because the governments involved were too young, then we have to cut Korea, Tibet, the Iran-Iraq War and at least a couple of the Arab-Israeli or Indo-Pak Wars because they too involve the impetuous youth of immature regimes -- in this case, however, the immature bullies of the world. (It can easily be argued that even the most brutal totalitarian regimes mellow with age. Notice that Red China's wars get smaller and fewer as time goes by.)
So just taking a quick look at the raw numbers here, what do we see?
Of the 39 international wars between WW2 and Y2K, 6 might have been between democracies.
That's 15% -- one out of six and a half. That's not much, is it? In an era where somewhere between a quarter and a half of all the world's countries are democracies, it doesn't seem like a lot, right?
By pure mathematics, we wouldn't expect too many interdemocratic wars anyway. The odds of an event happening (flipping heads on a coin; a democracy going to war) are considerably higher than the odds of that same event happening twice (flipping heads on a coin twice; two democracies going to war).
In the case of flipping heads, the probability is 1/2 on one flip, 1/4 on two flips [1/2*1/2], 1/8 on three flips [1/2*1/2*1/2]. (We all remember our high school algebra, don't we?) What then is the baseline probability for any two types of government going to war? That is, if we were to grab two random countries to fight a war, what would be the odds that we would grab two democracies?
THE MATH: In 1967 (just to pick a year) there were 126 sovereign nations big enough to show up on a world map, among them 33 democracies of the same minimum size [n.4]. That's 26%. Therefore if we were to stage random, one-on-one wars between all the world's visible nations at that time, 6.8% (or 26%*26%) of these wars would pit democracies against democracies, 38.7% (or 74%*26%*2) would see democracies fighting non-democracies and 54.5% (or 74%*74%) would be exclusively between non-democracies.
Now, 1967 is just a single year, but I've spent a good deal of this Atlas counting democracies. I can state with reasonable certainty that 44.5% of mapable sovereignties during the WW2-Y2K Era were full democracies. This calculates out to...
This means that among the 39 international wars during the WW2-Y2K Era, we would only expect to find 8 inter-democratic wars anyway.
And we've found 6 instead -- maybe. What does this tell us?
It tells me that when you're calculating the odds of a rare type of country (democracy) performing a rare act (fighting an international war), the sample is too small to draw any valid conclusion. The difference between 6 and 8 falls easily within any reasonable margin of error.
Although there is no undisputed case of two democracies at war, the evidence certainly casts doubt on the thesis. In fact, the thesis is not nearly as strong as the statement that no two countries with a McDonald's Restaurant have ever gone to war with one another, so why do you never hear distinguished international diplomats expound on the need to sell more beef patties in the world? [n.5]
At first, this McDonald's factoid seems enormously trivial; however, when you stop and think about it, the McDonald's Peace Formula can be quite interesting. It seems to indicate that as countries are incorporated into the global economy by trans-national corporations, they stop waging war on one another (although it might be vice versa). Unfortunately, no one wants to go around saying that the best way to assure peace is to surrender your national economy to large heartless corporations. It makes a much better campaign slogan to say that democracy is the best path to peace. This is why we see so many people claiming that democracies never fight each other, and relatively few people outside of McDonald's Corporate Headquarters claiming the geopolitical virtues of burger bars.
More to the point, it should remind us that McDonald's (like democracy) is most common among rich countries, while war is most common among poor countries, so the apparent peace between democracies may stem independently from economic causes, rather than as direct cause and effect. [n.7]
The Universal Democracy Peace Formula has been around a long time -- since the days of Immanuel Kant and his 1795 essay Perpetual Peace, in fact. It dates back to an era when democracies were more often hypothetical rather than real, and political philosophers were trying to sell democracy as a path to peace by prophesying that no one really likes war, so if we granted our cannon fodder the chance to decide their fates for themselves, they'd say no, thank you. In fact, it almost sounds like that old adage spouted by monarchs, fascists and dictators for centuries -- Democracies don't have the stomach for war -- and it seems to forget that it doesn't take much to whip a mob into an angry frenzy.
[15 July 2005]
(This is not really vital to the main essay, and it tends to be horribly mathematical, so I won't be at all offended if you just want to skip down to the hyperlinks and check out some related sites, or maybe even go out and enjoy this lovely day. Class dismissed.)
You sometimes hear about precise, professional statistical studies that determine that none of the 2,000 or so wars fought over the past 200 years were between democracies. These numbers are usually quite impressive and, if true, a strong argument in favor of the proposition. If we've really seen 2,000 wars in two hundred years, wouldn't it be reasonable to expect a few between democracies? How about 10%? That's reasonable, right? But where are those 200 interdemocratic wars? I mean, even if it's only 2%, we should still have seen 40 wars between democracies -- unless democracies simply will not go to war with each other. Period.
However, on the Correlates of War website, they list three categories of war. As I mentioned earlier, we can't count civil wars -- what they call intra-state wars -- because these don't involve multiple, recognized governments fighting each other. Nor can we count what they call extra-state wars, because one side in these wars is either a colony or tribe -- not a government. In fact, the Correlates of War Project lists only 79 inter-state wars between functioning, identifiable governments between 1816 and 1997. (Personally, I think the American Civil War is a prime example of democracies at war, but the supporters of DPT would shoot down this example by demanding that only stable, sovereign democracies count, so let's hold them to that standard for all governments at war, otherwise we're not measuring the relative belligerence of democratic and non-democratic governments, but rather the relative belligerence of unstable and mature governments.)
Freedom House lists exactly no democracies in the world in 1900. Now, assuming that the world didn't lose any democracies in the previous century, that means that it was simply, ontologically impossible for any of the 30 interstate wars from 1816-1899 to have been between strictly defined democracies. We don't need fancy political theories to explain this. (Loosely defined democracies, as everyone points out, have fought plenty of wars.)
By 1950, the number of countries fitting Freedom House's definition of democracy had risen to 22 out of 80 sovereign nations. As this represents the total after democracy had beaten fascism and was on the upswing, let's average this 27.5% with the 0% from 1900 to represent democracy's share of the world's nations for the first half of the 20th Century. Of the 28 interstate wars listed by the Correlates of War Project, we would only expect random matching to have produced 0.5 inter-democratic wars -- or to put it more realistically, you'd probably need twice as many wars to produce one random inter-democratic war anyway.
[The calculation goes: .275 + 0 / 2 ^ 2 * 28 = .53]
If we take Freedom House's count of democracy in 2000 (120 Ds out of 190 nations, or 63%) and average it with 1950, we can estimate that some 45% of nations were democracies during the 2nd half of the 20th Century. Of the 21 wars between governments during this period, random pairing would ideally produce only 4 inter-democratic wars.
[The calculation goes: .275 + .63 / 2 ^ 2 * 21 = 4.3]
The upshot is that the critics of the Democratic Peace Theory don't have to explain why there haven't been 200 interdemocratic wars. They only have to explain why there haven't been 4, and I've offered a few candidates at the top of the page. If you don't like those, the gap between the number of interdemocratic wars we'd expect (4) and the number we've seen (<4) can perhaps be partially explained by, yes, the tendency of democracies to respect each other and negotiate, but it's more likely that we're seeing the results of double standards, slippery definitions, the bipolar nuclear standoff, the Pax Americana, international trade relations, random happenstance and the fact that rich countries have little to gain and a lot to lose by attacking each other.
So how do the DPTists get 2000 wars out of 79? It's simple. They don't count wars. They count dyadic conflicts.
A dyad is just a fancy name for a pair of things that have a relationship to each other.
For example, the 1991 Gulf War saw 34 countries lined up against Iraq. To you and me, that's one war, but to political scientists, that's 34 belligerent dyads -- the US against Iraq, the UK against Iraq, France against Iraq, Saudi Arabia against Iraq, etc. During World War One, all the countries followed the quaint diplomatic procedure of issuing formal declarations of war, and eventually 54 were issued -- that's 54 dyads. The Second World War, the biggest war in history, produced 189 declarations of war. Note how three wars have expanded into 277 dyads.
If you prefer dyadic analysis, fine. I see it mostly as a judgement call, like arguing about whether to abolish the Electoral College, but I also see a few problems:
(Like my word isn't good enough for you.)
[n.1] "...margin of 59% to 38%"
See Election Watch http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_democracy/ election_watch/v009/index.html
[n.2] "... according to CNN ..."
See http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/asiapcf/9907/06/kashmir.o2/ for CNN's story. Also, try 23 July 1999 Asiaweek or 7 June 1999 Time.
[n.3] "... 1960 and 1972 presidential elections ..."
I wrote this paragraph mere weeks before the 2000 elections gave us yet another example of a tainted American election that would look mighty suspicious if the same events had occurred under a Third World strongman. The sad truth is that three of the last eleven presidential elections (that's 27%) were uncomfortably corrupted.
[n.4] "... 33 democracies"
Australia, Austria, Belgium, Botswana, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Denmark, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany (W), Guyana, Iceland, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Madagascar, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Venezuela, Zambia
[n.5] "... beef patties in the world?"
FAQ: Until the end of the 20th Century, the most commonly suggested exception to the rule was the Falklands War (2 April to 14 June, 1982). This, however, was flat out wrong. The first McDonald's did not open in Argentina until November 1986.
Unfortunately for world peace, the Big Mac Attack Rule finally broke down in 1999. On 24 March 1999, NATO began its air attack on Yugoslavia. Faced with angry nationalism, vandalism and boycotts, all the McDonalds in Yugoslavia shut their doors on 26 March. This means that for two full days, McDonaldland was wrenched asunder by its first intramural war ever. When McD finally reopened on 17 April, it was an occassion of public celebration almost matching the end of the Kosovo War itself.
P.S. (20 April 2003): I've just been informed that McDonald's opened in Panama in 1971, so the 1989 war with the US would be another, earlier exception.
Another suggested exception would be the 1995 war between Ecuador and Peru, but the McD first opened in Lima in 16 Oct. 1996, and in Ecuador (I think, but can't confirm) in 1997, so this is wrong.
While poking around, confirming these suggestions, I discovered the Kargil Exception: Pakistan's McD opened in Karachi on 19 Sept. 1998, while India's opened on 13 Oct 1996. Thus, yet again, the 1999 Kargil War is making a mockery out of all our truisms.
Anyway, as this means there are now three exceptions to the McDonald's peace formula, let's just forget I even brought this up, okay?
PPS (20 March 2004): I picked up this idea as a free-floating meme in Usenet ca. 1997, but to give (belated) credit where credit is due, The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention originated with Tom Friedman, NY Times, 1996.
[n.6] "... less likely candidates."
PS (14 April 2005): I sometimes see suggested counterexamples that are less likely to count as proper democracies, so I don't want to clutter my main list with them. Some of these governments actually had cabinet ministers, rival factions, noisy opposition newspapers and parliaments of some form, but I'm still going to leave these out.
[n.7] "... from economic causes ..."
PS (11 August 2005): Now that the Golden Arches Theory has been shot down (see Footnote 5), the paradigm has shifted to the Greens Peace Theory, which states that golf-playing countries never fight each other. What no one seems to notice (or at least, they don't discuss it in front of the servants) is that these three suggested agents of world peace (democracy, McDonald's, golf) are all characteristics of rich countries. A simpler (and far less silly) theory might calculate a more basic measure of wealth and point out that no two countries with more than 160 cars per 1000 people have ever gone to war with each other either. There are, at the last count, some 33 countries that fall into that category, and none have fought each other since they passed this vital milestone. All of them, by the way, are clearly and inarguably democratic, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, #33, with 166 cars/1000.
But why don't rich countries go to war with each other? I suspect it's for purely practical reasons:
I'm not saying that these reasons make rich countries peaceful in all situations. I'm saying that when two rich countries get into a dispute (for example, when Saudi terrorists attack the United States), these reasons push a military solution toward the bottom of the list of options and encourage both sides to negotiate, but when a rich country and a poor country have a dispute (for example, if Afghanistan gives sanctuary to terrorists who have attacked the USA), there are fewer reasons not to fight it out. These reasons count for even less in a dispute between poor countries like Senegal or Mauretania, who can easily fight a small border war without serious economic consequences.
The main problem that people have with this theory is that it sounds suspiciously Marxist.
I specifically drew the line at 160 cars per 1000 people to exclude some notable close calls of recent history: the 1981 Falklands War of Britain (267 cars/1000 at the time) against Argentina (ca. 107 cars/1000 according to the 1982 World Almanac), and the 1999 Kosovo War of NATO (average ca. 300 cars/1000) against Serbia (150 cars/1000). This means that if you find an exception to my rule, I can easily raise the bar again -- just like the advocates of the Democratic Peace Theory.
[n.8] "... Mexico... Russia... South Africa..."
I wrote this in 2000, and obviously the relentless march of history has made some of these comments outdated, but the point is still worth making. By waiting for the first transfer of power, we create a bizarre contradiction where a country's first democratically elected leader (George Washington, Nelson Mandela, Boris Yeltsin, etc.) is, by definition, not the leader of a democracy. [23 Sept. 2005]
[n.9] "... the British bombed Finland..."
Yes, the British air raid was against Germans in Finland, but the UK didn't attack Germans in other countries, like Portugal or Sweden, because attacking a country is an act of war, and they weren't at war with them, but they were at war with Finland and attacked it. As for the Finnish shipping sunk outside the Baltic -- I can't definitely say that the UK/US sank them, but it was outside the Soviet operational zone and in the British operational zone, so it's worth looking into.
Well, let's see if anyone actually looks at this page:
1st version posted: 1 March 1998
Revised (2nd) version posted: 14 October 2000
Footnote 3 added: 30 December 2000
Quote added to "Greek Wars": 5 Nov. 2003
Notes 6, 7 & 8 and Appendix 1 added in mid-2005.
Copyright © 1998-2005 Matthew White
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