Mon, 31 Oct 1994

The controversy over democracy and peace

By Jonathan Power

OXFORD, England (JP): The U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, was here recently delivering a lecture to his old alma mater, where his fellow Rhodes scholar, now the president of the United States, organized anti-war protests, and he himself started on the road that earned him his first journalistic accolades with the discovery and translation of the Khrushchev diaries. It was a robust speech on the theme that since democracies don't go to war with each other, more democracy must be the primary aim of this administration's foreign policy. He made a great play of the unanimous United Nations Security Council vote that gave the legal foundation for America's intervention in Haiti. This is the first time, he argued, that the world has accepted that the overthrow of democracy is a threat to peace. And, he suggested, we're going to see more of this. It is, indeed, quite remarkable that the Security Council sanctioned this American interpretation of the threat to peace, usually reserved for such contingencies as Iraq invading Kuwait, or total mayhem and the breakdown of government in Somalia. But, if there is a consensus on this in the Security Council (albeit delicate, with China abstaining) there is certainly not one in the American foreign policy intellectual community. After the meeting, I asked Talbott if he'd read the sharp attack on his concept that "democracies don't go to war with each other," (first spelled out in the Clinton inaugural), in the current issue of Harvard University's quarterly magazine, International Security. He hadn't, but jotted down the reference in his notebook. So now we can all sweat through the rather interesting arguments together. Christopher Layne tears at the Clinton/Talbott thesis by means of historical exegesis. He presents four cases in which democratic powers almost did come to blows -- the U.S. and Britain in 1861 and 1895, France and Britain in 1898, and France and Germany in 1923. Layne believes he demonstrates from the record that the reason they didn't, in the end, go to war was less because of the influence of shared democratic values but because of what he describes as "realism" -- that is, these states were democratic only because they were not living in a high-threat environment and thus had less to fight over and found it easier to compromise when there was a clash. In other words, a country only becomes deeply democratic when it is out of the danger zone. This leads Layne to question the tilt of American foreign policy at the moment which, he believes, if continued will lead paradoxically to "disastrous military adventures abroad," more war, not less, as America with Haiti, tries to export democracy. He sees Clinton's greatest danger in central Europe, where Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are being considered as future candidates for membership of NATO on the grounds that these new democracies, if secure, will guarantee peace in central Europe. Democracy, Layne says, will not, as supposed, ensure peace when its roots are so shallow. The region will remain highly volatile, even if NATO decides to incorporate it. All it will do is embroil the U.S. in some future regional conflict which could involve Germany, the Ukraine and Russia. None of this persuades the next contributor, John Owen. It is a question, he says, of how mature the democracy is. So we're not talking, for example, about the Kaiser's Germany, or even, presumably, about these relatively new democracies of eastern Europe. If a democracy is mature, it is, by definition, liberal with an articulate and free-speaking educated elite that keeps it on a non-warlike track. Liberalism puts a premium economically on well-being and open trade, politically on freedom and toleration and socially on self-preservation (not allowing old men to casually send their young men off to fight their battles.) Ideologically, liberals trust those states they consider fellow liberals and see no reason to fight them. Liberals will only go to war with illiberal regimes (which after all they do often enough). Even when liberals are out of power in a democracy, because there is free speech and regular elections, liberal elites compel the illiberal leaders of democracy to follow liberal ideology. You may differ but I say the ayes have it. I am convinced of the general direction of the democracy-is-peace school. That doesn't mean America or anyone else has to spread democracy by the sword, as some in the Clinton Administration may believe. But that is a debate for another day.