Democratic societies are less likely to make war than dictatorships. What is the evidence?


Thor May
Brisbane 2013



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D fears the insurrection of my eyebrows;

Blow us away, my storm trooper of the army of dreams,

Lay us out in rows to moulder.

Who will be left in this Valhalla of brave poses

To wash the dishes, comrade,

When the moon sets over the crimson grass ?


[from the poem, Firepower, by Thor]





Discussion Notes (i.e. my take on this)


1. There is no uniform pattern defining what a “democratic society” is. Therefore blanket statements about the relationship between “democratic societies” and war are incoherent.


2. Executive presidents with authority to declare war may be less constrained in some cases than prime ministers answerable to a cabinet and parliament. A current example: the British Prime Minister put aside his personal preference for attack on Syria after a vote in the British Parliament rejected it. The French President was not so constrained. The American President, feeling moral but not legal constraint, sought a Congressional vote. He was saved from humiliation through mediation by a less than democratic President of Russia. This current paradigm has been almost unique. Australia, Britain, Canada etc. have a record of following USA into wars of aggression with little parliamentary dissent.


3. With the exception of two world wars, most wars wages by colonial powers in the 20th and 21st Centuries were proxy wars which did not threatened home populations. Even two world wars did not threaten home populations in the United States (which may partly account for that nation’s sense of aggressive impunity). In other words, even where populations in these states voted for, or at least acquiesced in, wars waged by their governments, there was not a sense of personal risk, except amongst soldiers and conscripts. Very often there were indirect rewards in terms of employment (especially in US). Serious opposition only arose, as in the Vietnam war, where military and conscript casualties became significant.


4. All wars, without fail and throughout history, have been characterized by the deployment of “weapons of mass deception”. That is, the leadership on both sides invariably claims to have God, Fate, Luck, righteousness, history, economic or political necessity .. and every available virtue on their side. It is hardly ever the case that any of this is the real engine for war, but is usually mobilizes enough public support to enable leaders to prosecute war without immediate revolt (though that may come later).


5. “Modern warfare” has been a phenomenon not only of mass-extinction weapons, but also of mass communications. Until recently, both the weapons and the communications were largely the property of elites who abused them with impunity. The worldwide panic of elites about “security” is really code for their realization that both weapons and communications have passed beyond state monopoly. That is, there is are new elements of anarchy at work which both dictators and elected leaders fear.


6. Hand to hand fighting and murder is not a natural activity for most sober men and women (even in the testosterone-driven 16-30 age range). Any “vote for war” rapidly dissipates amongst these people when faced with the reality. As a result, every army always has a bleak way of dealing with deserters. Under existential conditions (e.g. your country invaded) desertion is often punished by execution, and a threat of mass desertion may be discouraged by a second army (military police) in the rear to coerce front line troops and shoot those who desert. In proxy wars, such as those to maintain the American economic empire, it is more likely to be a jail term, or for the lucky even dishonourable discharge. Troops may also be drugged prior to facing danger (e.g. America extensively doses GIs with Prozac). The continued face to face murder of enemy players (civilian and military) only becomes psychologically possible by reframing them as sub-human. In practice a toxic mix of cognitive dissonance and fear leads to very high levels of mental breakdown on both sides. In a larger frame, it also usually causes grotesque abuses of human rights, especially on civilian populations, negating the claimed political aims of war (e.g. “liberation”) which becomes unattainable on the ground (a major reason for repeated failure in America’s wars).


7. Technological warfare at a distance really started with aerial bombing, has advanced to drones, and in the next major conflict will advance to infrastructure devastation on cities through electronic aggression. This process reduces conflict to electronic game playing without direct pain or responsibility for the perpetrators, and usually without even minimal understanding by these persons of the cultures they are attacking. The results we have seen so far, as with drone warfare in Pakistan, is the radicalization of whole victim populations into lifelong enmity for the aggressors – Americans in the Pakistani case. The choice for this kind of warfare is politically easy in the short term since approval by aggressors from home populations is rarely required. The blowback is likely to be formidable and long lasting (e.g. America has now really lost any economic and political prospects in Pakistan and Afghanistan to China).


8. The wet dream of “full spectrum dominance” in military control is fatal to states which achieve anything like it, either internally (as in North Korea) or externally (as in the United States of America). The fatality of it is generated from internal hubris, ossification, corruption and decay. As in business, full spectrum competition in ‘defense’ is the only paradigm which can ensure both mutual respect and a refinement of systems.


9. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) from nuclear missiles has receded from the headlines, and is probably beyond the knowledge of younger generations. That is dangerous. MAD was supposed to ensure a balance of terror between major powers, regardless of politics, and the acquisition of Weapons of Mass Destruction by smaller unstable states is claimed to drive punitive sanctions against nuclear candidates like North Korea and (allegedly) Iran. However Pakistan, which is an unstable failed state, already possesses the weapon and Israel secretly (?) retains nuclear weapons as a deterrent. In fact the MAD threat is still ever-present from all players, not least USA which is the only state to have ever used atomic bombs (against an already defeated Japan). It has just become generally known (Reuters, September 2013 below) that in January 1961 America came within seconds of self-destructing from a hydrogen bomb which fell out of a breaking-up B52 bomber over North Carolina. Only a single, primitive switch saved the nation. The US East Coast would have been destroyed and world power structures changed forever. In 1961 I was in my last year of high school in Sydney. I recall that my feelings and those of many contemporaries at that time were that we would be unlikely to survive a decade. It certainly had a major effect on my own life choices then. For example, it seemed irresponsible, to even think of starting a family, or taking a career seriously.


10. Aggression seems to be a constant in human psychology, and mass aggression is especially popular amongst the kinds of people who seek power. Moral suasion has been historically ineffective in this context, except as a post-rationalization when the battle is over. The most effective brakes on war have always been cost (especially bankruptcy), exhaustion and displacement. By displacement I mean redirected aggression: notably sport for the masses, and business for the elites.





Here are some links on the War topic. This is a work in progress (September 2013) – other suggested references are welcome.




Benhold, Katrin (15 October 2013) "An IRA Killer Reflects on What Drove Kenyan Gunmen". Brisbane Times, online @

Burg, Avraham (2012) “ Israel’s Fading Democracy”. New York Times. online @


Englehardt, Tom (26 September 2013) "Eight Exceptional(ly Dumb) American Achievements of the 21st Century". Huffington Post online @


Falk, Richard (31 August 2013). “Syria: U.S. War Making at the Expense of Democracy”. online @  


Fergusson, Leopoldo and Juan F. Vargas (May, 2013) “Don’t make war, make elections”. Inter-American Development Bank, online @


Goodman, Peter (2013) “After 9/11, Americans Undermined National Security”. Huffington Post online @ (n.d.). “Quotes about Democracy”. Online @


Greenwald, Glen and Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill (September 12, 2013). "NASA shares raw intelligence, including Americans' data with Israel". The Guardian, London. online @


Ianus (Jan 29, 2006). “Democracies do make war on each other”. online comment from the blog of Daniel Piper. online @

Putin, Vladimir (September 11, 2013) "A Plea for Caution from Russia". New York Times. online @

Reuters Newsagency (20 September 2013) "Atom Bomb Almost Exploded Over North Carolina in 1961". Huffington Post. online @  

Rozeff, Michael S. (July 17, 2012)”Forget Democracy”. online @


Rummel, Rudolph J. (May-June 1999). “Democracies Don't Fight Democracies”. Peace Magazine. online @


SBS Australia (October 30, 2012) "Insight looks at the tensions brewing in Australia's Syrian community as violence escalates back in their home country". Youtube video, online @ [This high tension online forum between individuals caught in a civil war gives more context to the meaning of war than any abstract discussion]


Shah, Anup  (January 28, 2012). “Democracy”. Global Issues journal. online @


Spritzler, John (October 10, 2002). “A War To Make Iraq Democratic?” . New Democracy World. online @


Weart, Spencer R. (n.d.) “Never at War. Why Democracies Will Not Fight One Another”. New York Times, online @


Weinberger, Eliot (3 February, 2005) "What I Heard about Iraq". London Review of Books, Vol.27 No.3. Online @


White, Matthew (1998, 2005) “Democracies Do Not Make War on One Another. ...or Do They?” online @


Wikipedia (2013) “Democratic Peace Theory”. online @


Wikipedia (2013) “Never at War”. [analysis of the original article] online @


Wikipedia (2013) “War”.


Wroe, David (21 September 2012) "War Footing: Minister Eyes Next Hotspot". The Brisbane Times. online @ [comment: Here is Australia's newly elected (2013) Minister for 'Defence' actually looking for conflict on Australia's behalf ... ]





Democratic societies are less likely to make war than dictatorships. What is the evidence? (c) Thor May 2013


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