Democracy vs. Democracy

This was originally a comment I left in response to another comment on Sunday’s Linkzookery. I’ve tweaked it a bit for posting on its own, but the original is still in the comments section of Linkzookery.

The original comment was in response to my “How many wars have we ever fought against France?” snarkiness when discussing how free democracies don’t make war on each other. What I said was that even though democracies can elect governments unfriendly toward the United States, we don’t fight them militarily. And I tossed out France as a non-friendly democracy that, despite glaring differences of opinion on some pretty major issues, we are in no danger of going to war with.

The original comment:

How many wars has the USA fought against France? Well, I only know of the one, World War II. The first US soldiers killed in action outside the Pacific theatre were actually killed by Vichy French in North Africa. Saying that wasn’t democratic is a no-true-Scotsman argument (google for it). The Vichy government was as democratically elected as Britain’s wartime coalition government.

More generally, unless you use such a narrow definition of democracy as to exclude everything not fitting 20th century concepts (also a no-true-Scotsman argument), there have been lots of wars between democracies, the British-American War in the early 19th century for instance, or the conflicts between Holland and Belgium.

Yes, the “No democracies have EVER fought a war against each other” isn’t as 100% waterproof as some claim, though the argument is usually made from a 20th Century-onward point of view, so the War of 1812, US Civil War, etc., are really from “an earlier era” and so on. Free, true democracy as we know it has only come into being over the past century. Before that it was so new and untried in the modern global world that it’s hard to make meaningful comparisons.

I believe that the effort to set up a free democracy in Iraq is, in and of itself, a noble goal. But not for simply altruistic reasons. It is in our national interest that the people of Iraq are free and in control of their own destinies. Now, I’m on record saying that a large part of our reason for invading Iraq is the military basing and protection of the flow of oil. And I am not wavering from that position one bit. But that doesn’t change the fact that democracy in Iraq, even a democracy that is not terribly friendly to America, is in America’s best interest and is worth the effort.

Many that I read and talk to aren’t buying the “democracies don’t fight each other” theory. The two examples from the industrialized world I always get are Nazi Germany (“Hitler was elected, you know…”) and Vichy France.

So it comes down to defining “democracy”. If someone’s going to argue that Nazi Germany was a free democratic nation, there’s not much to say. (I realize that no one here has put that argument forward, but I’m just pointing it out because I’ve heard it many times and I want to head it off now…)

That leaves Vichy France.

Yep, freely elected. Yep, Vichy troops fired on Americans in North Africa. Therefore, the argument seems to go, America fought Vichy France in World War 2 and, since WW2 was the biggest of them all, that proves that democracies sometimes do fight each other.

This, I believe, is overstating things a wee bit.

Call me simple-minded, but wasn’t Vichy France basically a power grab by anti-Republicans who then proceeded to collaborate pretty heavily with the conquerors of their nation? The Free French Forces opposed Vichy, which has been considered to be an illegal government run by traitors to France. Democracy is more than elections, and just because Saddam Hussein got 100% of the vote in 2002 didn’t make Iraq a free democratic nation.

Regardless of the legality or true authority of Vichy during WW2, the US didn’t invade North Africa to fight against Vichy France. Indeed, we were hoping for a warm welcome, not hot lead. (Not the first time we misjudged the local reaction to troops marching in, and not to be the last.)

We weren’t making war on Vichy. We were there to fight the Germans, establish a beachhead from which further operations against our enemies could be conducted, secure strategic presence in the region, and aid an ally who basically was standing alone against the foe. It wasn’t the conflict of our government with that of Vichy that resulted in the decision to invade, and the conquest or destruction of Vichy was not an American goal even after the reception we received wasn’t what we wanted.

So I don’t really buy the argument that Vichy France disproves the entire “democracies don’t war on each other” rule of thumb. And even if it does, that ain’t much of a leg to stand on for those who don’t think democracies help foster peace or that the effort to establish democracy will at least help stabilize things.

And if you look at the reasons we went into Africa in 1942 I think you’ll see many parallels with our decision to go into Iraq in 2003. Including the ally who stands alone, a subject that not many seem willing to discuss.

Of course, what happened in Vichy could very well happen in Iraq. It’s perhaps even likely to happen. It certainly will be there to an extent. Shiites sympathetic to, say, Iran, will be elected to power and then will try to sell their nation up the river to the mullahs.

I’m not arguing that democracy is the end-all answer. I’m arguing that historically it’s been a major building-block of peaceful relations between nations and that even when the peace is strained warfare isn’t a likely outcome. We don’t know what the end-all answer is, though I strongly suspect that free democracy is the foundation upon which it rests.


  1. Isn’t it usually stated that ‘liberal’ democracies don’t fight each other? Using the political science meaning of liberal (i.e. democracies where liberty is an important component) not the liberal vs conservative meaning. Plenty of dictators were elected. The communist system of hierarchical committees is also a democracy of sorts, but only in the same vein as the ‘elected’ dictators.

  2. I think democracies don’t make war on each other when an evil dictatorship (like the old Spanish Empire, or Soviet Russia) is breathing down their necks. But when that threat is gone, old disagreements take on new importance.

  3. You are right, Chuck. I shy away from using ‘liberal’ in its true form because too many people *just*don’t*get*it*, so I used ‘free democracy’ instead. But when you point out that democracy is ‘good’ you often get a whole load of examples of bad (and un-free/liberal) democracies piled on you, and that’s the ‘definition of ‘democracy” that I noted. The thing that gets me is that the darling of the anti-warish types, the draft which creates a military that is a perfect cross-section of the population and is all-inclusive, is strikingly similar to the idea that free democracies don’t fight each other. Pro-Draft theory: Everyone’s kids are at risk and the politicians have skin in the game, so no one wants to fight a war and they’ll work for a peaceful resolution. Compare to Pro-Democracy theory: Everyone’s interests are at risk and the voters have skin in the game, so no one wants to fight a war and they’ll work for a peaceful resolution. The point where they differ is that if the enemy is a democracy, the same rules apply to them as well as to you, and even though you may be enemies in many ways it’s not in your best interest to fight. Even if we had an all-draft military we would still be at risk from non-democracies. It might take two to fight, but it only takes one to attack. But believers in the draft theory don’t seem to buy the democracy theory. I don’t get it. (I don’t really argue with the draft theory, I just don’t think it would change the fact that we’d need to fight. And that our military would suck when we needed it.)

  4. Mike: Totally. But, even then, I doubt we’d really consider military action against, say, France. No matter what France did to pixx us off. If 9/11 doesn’t happen and the terrorist threat kept laying low, we’d have no common enemy but we’d also have no invasion of Iraq to bring our differences out into such sharp relief. No matter what happens with the EU, I don’t see a ever war with them unless they really go over to the socialist/communist side in a big way. And then it wouldn’t be free democracies fighting anyway. That being said, America could be the one to get away from being a free democracy, too…

  5. Don’t forget the economic argument. Wealthy nations with interconnected economies would be committing suicide by going to war. Better to work out your differences through other means. Note that historically ‘wealthy nations with interconnected economies’ and ‘liberal/free democracies’ are almost synonymous. Exceptions are Germany and Japan, as rising economic powers before WWII. There, the fascist dictatorships cemented their power under severe economic conditions, and then started wars not long after economic conditions rebounded to the level where people don’t put up with dictators anymore. (As soon as people get wealthy enough to stop thinking about feeding their family, they start thinking about their lack of freedom.) Keep in mind, though, that this doesn’t mean an end of disagreement between free/liberal democracies, just that we use economic threats instead of military ones. One thing I will never understand about the anti-war crowd is what they think we will use for diplomatic leverage if war is not an option and economic sanctions aren’t working. Diplomacy without leverage is just empty words.

  6. Right you are, Chuck. (Isn’t it fun when we all just agree and pat each other on the back for being so right?) I believe that property rights/freedom go right along with personal rights/freedom and that capitalism-ish freedom is central to true personal freedom. That being said, interconnected economies are also what prevented the First World War, and what caused it to end within weeks once it did start…

  7. The U.S. fought an undeclared naval war against France during John Adams’ presidency. As has been noted many times, Hitler was elected. The fact that he proceeded to dismantle the democracy should not have surprised anyone who was paying attention.

  8. Interesting (to me) mental exercise: how could Germany’s pre-WW2 democracy have been modified so that Hitler couldn’t have done what he did? Could it? I’d love to hear what people think. Did anyone in Germany oppose his dismantling of the democracy at the time? (surely they must have!)

  9. Germany did not have much experience at the time with democracy. Many people remembered much happier times under the Kaisers so too few resisted the destruction of the Democracy. Hitler and his cronies played rough so it would have taken some serious convictions and guts to resist.