The Great Illusion

January 23, 1995|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- A reader has challenged my recent remark that it is cant to hold that democracies do not go to war with one another. He says, instead, that this is an ''empirically verified'' truth and a major discovery of political science.

The issue is significant because the idea that democracies do not fight one another not only is taken for granted in Washington but provides such guiding intellectual principle as can be discerned in the foreign policy of the Clinton administration.

It is the reason Washington continues even now to back Boris Yeltsin in Russia. He is believed, on no great evidence, to be a democrat, hence his presidency of Russia is thought to be a guarantee of peace -- at least of peace with other democracies, although certainly not of peace with dissident or separatist elements inside Russia's frontiers.

My critic -- Nicholas Beim, who writes from Oxford, England -- quotes Immanuel Kant as having argued that liberal democracies form a gradually expanding union of peace, and Michael Doyle, whom I presume to be a political scientist, as having, ''in 1983 . . . demonstrated that no two liberal democracies had ever taken up arms against each other. This discovery is a major one . . . in the world of political science.''

I would think it self-evident that democracies tend toward peaceful relations with other countries because of the general disinclination in most circumstances of ordinary people to go to war, which in a democracy can find political expression. Democracies tend in particular toward peaceful relations with other democracies, with whom they share not only values but a myriad of material as well as moral relationships. I would not think it necessary for political science to have ''discovered'' this.

On the other hand the curse of the 20th century has been the democratization of war and political struggle, which thereby gained an intensity, intolerance and intransigence that would have appalled the civilized monarch of a pre-democratic age, for whom war was a limited and professionalized instrument of political or dynastic interest.

This development was the result of the French Revolution, meant to install democracy in France, which to defend itself called the entire people to arms, creating mass popular armies which in the years that followed overran the professional armies of the European monarchies.

Revolutionary France was certainly not a liberal democracy. Nonetheless political struggle was ideologized and democratized there, mobilizing the population, providing a precedent for both the totalitarian systems and the mass democracies of the 20th century. The French Revolution democratized war. The world has never since been the same. As the Italian historian Guglielmo Ferrero has written, ''Restrictive warfare . . . can only thrive in an aristocratic and qualitative civilization. We are no longer capable of it.''

Was the United States a liberal democracy in 1860? It certainly went to war with itself that year in great determination and self-righteousness, launching what became a model for industrialized total war, whose sequel arrived with the First World War.

Were the states which then went to war democracies? Certainly war was the popular will in most of Western powers. France was a liberal democracy, which went to war because it was attacked, but which did so in passionate enthusiasm to recover Alsace-Lorraine. The United States later went enthusiastically to war without being attacked, to make the world ''safe for democracy.''

Britain's was a constitutional monarchy with representative government by restricted suffrage, but Parliament cheered the ultimatum to Germany which made war inevitable. Italy, a liberal constitutional monarchy, declared war in 1916 with parliamentary endorsement despite divided or hostile popular opinion.

Germany was also a constitutional monarchy, in which the Kaiser had a great deal more power than his British or Italian counterparts, but nonetheless could not easily override the Reichstag, and on the question of war in 1914 he did not need to do so. Deputies ''would have been trampled to death before the Brandenburg Gate'' had they voted against war, according to a contemporary observer.

The point I wish to make is that representative or democratic government is not automatically an obstacle to war, even with other representative governments. Wars sometimes have been demanded by the people. Wars can be popular -- at least when they start. The relationship between democratic government and total war, democratized war, is complex and dangerous.

The idea that democracies do not go to war is intellectually impoverished, a kind of slogan. It disregards the rich and threatening complexity of the relationship between popular opinion and war. It resembles an idea extremely influential before the First World War, that the financial and industrial interrelationships among modern nations had made war impossible because it would be unprofitable.

Norman Angell ''proved'' this in a book called ''The Great Illusion,'' published in 1910. It was translated into 11 languages and had a great influence in Britain, the United States and elsewhere. Angell was right that war would prove unprofitable. He was wrong in concluding that there would therefore be peace.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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