Do democracies start wars?

It is often said that democracies do not wage war on one-another.  The idea is that populations as a whole are justly wary of war  -- because it is they who die in them --  so a democratic government can only get popular consent to a war if the country is attacked by an external enemy -- presumably a despot of some kind.

Students of ancient history will immediately recall the Athenian attack on Syracuse as a counter-example but Athens was not much like democracies as we know them today (only a minority of Athenians had a vote, for instance) so that does not take us very far.

I have recently come across what could be seen as a confirmation of the usual claim:  The Austro-Hungarian democracy at the onset of WWI.  The Austro-Hungarian empire (Germany's great Southern ally) WAS a democracy but it was a greatly decayed democracy.  The Austrian Reichsrat (parliament) had degenerated to complete unworkability.  Filibusters were common and disruptions by deliberate noise were routine.  Parties that were not getting their way would shout, blow whistles, blow toy trumpets, bang drums and generally deploy so much noise that speeches could not be heard and very little work could be done.

It was such a spectacle that ordinary Viennese  -- including Hitler -- would go to the vistor's gallery overlooking parliament just for the entertainment.  Hitler started out with a considerable respect for democracy, particularly British democracy,  but his observations of the Reichsrat considerably eroded that.

So Austria entered the war solely in the power of the bureaucracy, the military and the Emperor.  It is conceivable that a mature democracy might have produced a leader who told the emperor firmly that a dead Archduke was insufficient to justify hostilities with Serbia.  So WWI could  perhaps have been avoided if Austria had been a functioning democracy.

As it happens, even the German Kaiser thought that war with Serbia was unnecessary -- but Austria had declared war before the Kaiser had got to make his views known.  But once war had been declared, treaty obligations ruled subsequent events.

But the big hole in the conventional case is Imperial Germany.  The German empire was thoroughly democratic and the formal powers of the Kaiser were little different from the powers of the British monarch.  The Kaiser was certainly influential for a time and often expressed views that were widely held in Germany but nothing much could be done without parliamentary consent.

Wikipedia has a reasonable short summary of the German parliament of the time:  "The Reichstag had no formal right to appoint or dismiss governments, but by contemporary standards it was considered a highly modern and progressive parliament. All German men over 25 years of age were eligible to vote, and members of the Reichstag were elected by general, universal and secret suffrage. Members were elected in single-member constituencies by majority vote."

And Germany's predecessor State, Prussia, is an interesting example of the role of the German parliament:  The King could not get the Prussian parliament to vote him the funds he wanted for his army so he commissioned Chancellor Bismarck to bypass parliament and rule solely in the King's name.  Bismarck carried it off with the aid of an obedient Prussian bureaucracy and parliament was ignored for four years.  But parliament did not flinch and, after four years, Bismarck had to apologize to the parliament and reinstate it authority.  So even in Prussia, parliament was the ultimate authority.

And in  Germany of the Edwardian era, it was parliament's power of the purse that regulated and limited what the Kaiser and his ministers could do.  So it is no good blaming the Kaiser for WWI.  He was largely a figurehead for the will of the German people as expressed in their Reichstag.  It was essentially the whole of the German democracy that went into WWI.

And the U.S. democracy has its own history of initiating war. Robert Kagan of the Brookings institution has an extensive historical survey which shows both that the America people are isolationist and that American leaders repeatedly talk them out of that.  On some occasions, where America has been attacked, as with the 9/11 atrocity, retaliation is completely reasonable but on others the pretext used to initiate war was very thin.  For starters, the alleged attack in 1898 on the battleship "Maine" in Havana harbour was a very thin reason for the invasion of Cuba by TR and his cohorts.  To this day there is no clarity on what sank the "Maine".

But even the "Maine" episode shows that American declarations of war have to be dressed up as defensive or retaliatory.  But finding such garb has not been difficult for at least the Democrat side of American politics.  Isolationism was from the earliest days the stance of American conservatives but with their insatiable lust for meddling in other people's affairs, liberals have been very keen to involve America in wars abroad.  It may be noted that TR was the founder of the "Progressive" party (popularly known as the "Bull Moose" party) when the Republicans became too wishy washy for him.

So when WWI broke out it was a great frustration for Democrat President Wilson that he was not part of the councils of war.  So peace-minded were the American people that it actually took him years to find a pretext for declaring war  -- the main pretext being the "Lusitania" sinking.  The loss of the liner and her people was an undoubted tragedy but Germany had posted warning advertisements in NY newspapers prior to the sailing which warned people not to sail on the "Lusitania".  It was thought to be carrying munitions to Britain -- which it was  -- making it a prime target.  So accusations of German perfidy or barbarity were simply wrong.

And FDR in WWII was just as bad.  His sanctions against Japan had pushed Japan into economic crisis and desperate Japanese attempts to open negotiations were repeatedly rebuffed.  So, against much of their own expert advice, the Pearl Harbor attack was planned by the Japanese leadership to break through American opposition.  That was essentially what FDR wanted and he made no attempt to stop it.  Both Britain and the U.S. had cracked the Japanese naval code so Japanese ship movements were known.  But not a whisper of any of the intelligence concerned was transmitted to Pearl Harbor.  FDR did however make sure that his carriers were not in port when the Japanese attacked.

And so FDR got his "date that will live in infamy".  "A date that will live in hypocrisy" would be more apt.  Robert Kagan  is also of the view that FDR was itching for war.

And as for Bill Clinton's attack on the Christian Serbs on behalf of Muslims....

So democracies do start wars  -- but they usually have to be a bit sneaky about it.

UPDATE  -- A point of clarification about WWI:

It could be argued that I have undermined my own argument by pointing to Austria as undemocratic.  It could be argued that the war was started by Austria's attack on Serbia and since Austria was a failed democracy, the events there show that democracies do not start wars.

My main point was however the role of Germany.  If Germany had not mobilized there would have been no WWI.  The Austrians were not much concerned by the prospect of a Russian invasion and they were probably right about that.  Given the backward and chaotic Russian military and the large modern forces available to Austria, only a minor punch-up would probably have resulted from the Tsar's actions.  Austria might even have gained some territory.

So it was Germany's move that started the big war.  And Germany was democratic.  So why did Germany get involved?  Because they wanted to.  And there were several reasons why.  See here

UPDATE 2  -- about the Lusitania

A reader has pointed out that my graphic above is a collage. The Lusitania sailing details and the embassy warning did not originally occur side-by-side.  So why did I say that passengers on the Lusitania specifically were warned?  Because the Lusitania was the ONLY liner left on that route.  Other liners had been grabbed by the British government for war use.

I can't resist mentioning WHY the government did not use the Lusitania:  Because as a large fast ship it would use heaps of coal -- and the admiralty wanted to conserve its stocks! -- JR

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