What has happened to democracies at war?

Democratic nations used to avoid wars - but when they did engage, as in the two world wars and the Cold War, they usually emerged victorious. Now, however, democracies are mixed up in wars everywhere, and they will win few of them. Democracy is the problem, and the problem is getting worse.

Historically, when democracies decided to fight, they would bring more allies and larger economies. Thus, they fought fewer wars but won more often.

Those rules no longer hold true. Today, most democracies are militarily engaged against one threat or another almost all the time. Democracies have embraced many types of war outside of their borders: peacekeeping, military assistance, counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency and even pre-emptive wars. Within their own borders, democracies face significant terrorism, insurgency or separatism threats and have militarized their domestic security in uncomfortable ways.

Democracies have mobilized for these fights. Yet in almost all cases, they have failed to win them, at least in the traditional meaning of military victory. Peacekeeping became unpopular by the end of the 1990s; now the successor term, "stabilization operations," is equally loaded. The ongoing, American-led military interventions into Afghanistan and Iraq were the most international and ambitious interventions since the more successful but under-ambitious Gulf War. All these interventions have failed to bring independent stability or democracy in their target countries (the peacekeeping operations of the 1990s seem most successful today).

The "war on terror" - whose righteousness, scope and scale were once compared with the two world wars - will soon last longer than both of them put together. Yet terrorist and insurgent attacks are more frequent and deadly today than before.

These events betray uncomfortable truths about democracies at war. Peaceful toward each other, democracies are belligerent with nondemocracies - but inept at fighting them. Wary of casualties and nominally defensive, democratic politicians favor a defensive posture during peacetime but expensive defensive capabilities (such as fighter aircraft and missile defense shields) are not very useful when taking the offensive against low-tech autocrats and nonstate actors.

When democracies procure offensive capabilities, they prefer remote or long-range weapons, such as carrier-borne aircraft, stand-off missiles and heavy artillery. Gradually, democracies must reorient to less blunt instruments and ground troops. This reorientation takes years.

Even during the Second World War, most of the democratic participants were defeated by autocracies fewer in number and weaker in resources. The surviving democracies were the wealthiest and the remotest.

In Afghanistan, Iraq and the wider "war on terror," the democratic armies were reinforced, restructured and re-equipped far too late. They will withdraw everywhere after declaring some sort of victory - but without eradicating terrorism, insurgency, illiberalism or autocracy anywhere (not even at home).

The uncomfortable truth is that democracies are not better fighters. Rather, they tend to avoid wars they cannot win, withdraw from wars they are going to lose, or wait for their material power (particularly their naval and air power) to triumph in a long or wide and inefficient war.

What is the solution? Political accountability. Many observers have deduced that democratic politicians need incentives to fight more efficiently; otherwise they would be punished by the electorate. Yet these incentives apply only if democratic politicians are held to account for their military decisions.

Executives in democracies were strengthened during the Second World War and the Cold War and now enjoy greater latitude to make war and less accountability for how they fight. Forget "government by the people"; the people vote rarely and indirectly. In an era of increasing issue linkage and nonmilitary crises, voters cannot pin down a politician on military performance alone.

Meanwhile, governments have learned to better control information, collude with political opponents and promote consensus. Finally, societies are more pluralistic and dislocated, pulling government policy in contradictory directions while failing to punish governmental duplicity and failure. Democracies with strong executives and traditions of national security consensus (such as America) or an ambiguous constitution (such as Britain) have proven themselves among the most belligerent and inefficient in the last decade. With most countries professing to democracy but looking for ways to circumvent it, we will see more wars between nominal democracies (like Russia and Georgia in 2008).

Unfortunately, popular disgust with democratic leaders has led more to apathy than to agitation for reform. Democracies, one fears, will take us into more dissatisfying wars before we reverse the trend.

Bruce Newsome is a lecturer in international relations at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of "Made, Not Born: Why Some Soldiers are Better than Others." His e-mail is brucen@sas.upenn.e du.

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