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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 November, 2004, 11:33 GMT
Do democracies fight each other?
Adolf Hitler in Paris
Hitler was elected but then ruled by decree
When outlining his vision for peace in the Middle East, President George Bush said "democracies don't go to war with each other". Is it true?

The president's comments echoed those made in the 1994 State of the Union address by his predecessor Bill Clinton.

They share a belief that the solution to ending war is the spread of democracy. But does history support them?

A quick think over recent years tends to support Bush. Both Gulf Wars were against dictatorships, ditto Afghanistan and Kosovo.

Wars in Korea and Vietnam were against communist regimes and although Hitler was elected he wielded absolute power.

But ultimately it's not so simple and the answer depends on your definition of democracy.

In his essay for Peace magazine in 1999, Rudolph J Rummel made the same point as Bush and went further to say "democracy is a general cure for political or collective violence of any kind".

To help his argument, he put forward a rigorous definition of the term:

  • regular elections for the most powerful government positions
  • competitive political parties
  • near universal franchise
  • secret balloting
  • civil liberties and political rights (human rights)

This meant that Germany, for instance, was not a democracy in World War I, according to Rummel. And Britain was not a full democracy in 1812-1815 in the Anglo-American War.

He also defined an international war as a military engagement in which 1,000 or more people were killed.

353 pairs of nations engaged in wars between 1816-1991
None was between two democracies
155 pairs involved a democracy and a non-democracy
198 involved two non-democracies fighting each other
The average length of war between states was 35 months, average battle deaths was 15,069
For more, see internet links

Rummel's response when asked why he believed democracies didn't fight was to recall Immanuel Kant's Perpetual Peace, published in 1795.

Kant's theory is that democratic leaders are restrained by the resistance of their people to bearing the costs and deaths of war. And a democratic culture of negotiation and conciliation, plus the hurdles to taking swift action, favours peace.

But many historians disagree. Thomas Schwartz and Kiron Skinner, writing in the New York Times, attacked the theory of "democratic pacifism", using examples such as the US and Mexico in 1848, the American Civil War, the Boer War and World War I.

"Democratic pacifism is not the first doctrine to come into vogue among intellectuals, though logic and history point away.

If we can't manage the diplomacy of fish, how can we manage nukes, human rights, or terrorism
John Baden
Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment
"Its initial appeal is understandable: if true, it reconciles principle and prudence, gratifying the soft of heart and hard of head in one fell swoop. But true it is not."

A complex issue then, but a more straightforward conclusion is put forward by John Baden, chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment.

"The exception that makes even established democracies take up arms against one another is fish," he says.

Disputes between Canada, the US, Britain, Norway, Iceland, Spain and Portugal have escalated into violence, sometimes involving naval gunfire, he says.

Baden thinks one of the reasons is that fishing crosses borders and national jurisdictions, and "too many fishermen chase too few fish".

"If we can't manage the diplomacy of fish, how can we manage nukes, human rights, or terrorism?"

Some of your comments appear below. You can add your thoughts on the form at the foot of the page.

Face it: democracies are selfish, introspective creatures, who can rarely be bothered to fight on principle unless they are galvanised by some kind of threat.
Paul Tyrrell, UK

So does this mean that, given that Bush won and didn't steal the presidency this time, the war in Iraq will end?
Edwin Weiss, UK

When was this great Anglo-Canadian fish war exactly? How many millions died? How many refugees fled? Democracies argue and squabble, but they don't engage in mass genocide the way that theological and ideological states do.
Alex, England

The notion that democracies don't fight each other is nonsense. India and Pakistan are at war more often than not!
a, uk

True democracies may well refrain from warmongering, but isn't it stretching the meaning of the word democracy to include the current US political system within its reach? The people get a choice between two billionaires, both heavily indebted to powerful bodies, both committed to US military action regardless of what that global democratic forum the UN says about it.
Peter Moore, Scotland

Rummel's theory relies on dodgy definitions so as to exclude the following example: Britain declared war on Finland in December 1941. Both countries were parliamentary democracies at the time but hostilities were not started.
George Davies, UK

Let the FishFinger wars begin! If this is the best that can be come up with I don't think the problem of warring democracies should lose anyone any sleep.
Hugh Fidgen, UK

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