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Do democracies wage wars of choice?

Published on 12 January 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

The historian Andrew J. BACHEVIC has revisited the issue of democracies and wars of choice in his recent book.[1]

The argument that democracies do not wage wars of choice goes roughly as follows: [2] War is a negative lottery: many gain, a few lose grievously. No rational person would accept such a lottery – unless the danger to the community was so imminent and enormous[3] as to make individual risk-taking acceptable.

In the past, the democratic US only had the draft in times of war. The drat remained after WWII. At the end of the Vietnam War, the US President eliminated this “lottery,” and replaced citizen-soldiers with professionals. A warrior “caste” ensued. In a professional army, volunteers take on the risk of death, sparing ordinary citizens the ordeal and the risk of participating in the lottery. Once risk is separated from gain, so Bachevic, the citizenry is likely to embrace (or at least acquiesce in) wars of choice fought in distant lands. In so doing, it accepts unthinkingly the drift toward an imperial democracy. Revert to the draft, concludes Bachevic, and the imperial ambitions will be reduced accordingly.

A quick historical survey points to the fact that the UK indeed built his empire on a professional army[4] and only introduced the draft in 1916. Republican France kept the draft throughout the XIXth century and beyond, but was imperialist nevertheless (it was less lucky, but that is another story). Italy had a draft, and was imperialistic anyway.[5] Russia outsourced its expansion to the Stroganoff traders.[6] We need to look closer at the context, it would seem.

Ideally, democracies rely on production and exchange for wealth generation. They do not extract it from neighbors. Hence they need not wage wars of conquest or domination. Levée en masse – citizens-in-arms – will defend it from aggression (should it eventuate). Levées en masse are spasmodic affairs. They cannot be sustained for long. The pitched battle of the Greeks set the obligate pattern: a civilian population does not leave its occupation unattended for long.[7]

Sustained and prolonged containment over time changes the nature of citizens’ involvement in wars. After Salamis, Athens and its alleys maintained a fleet as dissuasion force against the Persians: Athens silently transformed itself into an imperial democracy. Rome needed to contain the marauding Celts over decades – it developed a professional army to do so, which led to imperial ambitions. The Chinese Empire relied on passive containment of nomads (the Long Wall), settlements of semi-barbarous populations in buffer zones, and armies manned by convicts. The draft was abolished around 32 AD, and the civilian population was left to do what it did best: produce the resources to feed its armies.

A citizen-army (and fleet)-in-being will dissuade low level and opportunistic aggression, where the aggressor is led by benefit/cost considerations. These defense instruments can rely on the draft: in “normal” circumstances the draftees do not risk death – though they will be bored. The dissuasive role can also be taken on by natural defenses: the sea has protected the UK and even more the US from incursions.


Suvorov points out that the globe within the emblem has no borders – an indication, according to him, of global ambitions of Communism

Totalitarian ideologies of the XXth century put paid to this model. Both Nazism and Communism were intent on global domination.[8] Cost of expansion no longer was dissuading. For a democracy thus threatened, relentless containment[9] was inevitable. An arms race was on, demanding ever faster and appropriate (read sophisticated) responses.[10] A citizen-army was not credible in this role – and Vietnam proved it. Relentless containment rang the death-knell of the citizens-army.

From relentless containment, the transforming steps to peace-as-dominion were logical: preventive war, or may be “shock-and awe,” became the way to achieve full-scope security (the latter has the advantage of inducing compliant behavior well beyond the point of shock). The goal was a victory in the field, followed by peace-as-dominion. An “imperial” democracy had emerged.

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were not a success. Dominance could not be established, so stalemate ensued. Withdrawal left shattered societies. War-lordism[11] and metastasizing centers of private violence ensued. “Light” versions of preventive wars are being tried out – high tech-drones, 360° surveillance, and special operations.

This approach comes at a cost:

  • Wars are wars, and in a democracy they demand direct involvement of the highest authorities. “Micro-wars” just as full-scale wars represent an enormous distraction from the task of governing a democracy.
  • Professional armies and preventive wars are exceedingly expensive.[12] What cannot be assessed are the opportunity costs of setting a democracy permanently on a military footing, rather than letting it evolve naturally. Also, unforeseeable at this point are the political and economic consequences of having funded much of the last two wars extra-territorially. Finally, professional armies can be destructive of the very fabric of a society.[13]
  • Strategically, preventive wars are self-weakening. In a multi-polar world, the aim of war is to increase relative power within the concert of nations: the US achieved dominance after WWII mainly by outsourcing to Russia the fight against Germany. In Iraq and Afghanistan the US has expended itself and in this way lost power relative to other main participants (China and Russia) more than happy to watch the US bleed.

In this sketch, the relentless character of the military stance drove professionalization: abolishing the draft was just a logical step along the way. Inverting course on the draft issue will not automatically void the policy of preventive wars. In any case: the Humpty-Dumpty of “the citizens-army” cannot be put together again (not unless there is a massive threat at the nation’s doorstep). The only way is moving forward through an assessment of the context.

Peace-as-victory has become unattainable – the destruction of society it entails makes it pointless (to achieve victory in WWII Germany and Japan had to be destroyed. Today the destruction was be far more radical). Peace-as-end-of conflict (as in Korea and in a sense Vietnam) is the only possible outcome. Armies hardly fight for such an outcome, even less citizen-armies.

Peace-as-dominion may yield even extended stalemate at the regional or local level – Israel is a case in point (whether this equilibrium is sustainable is another matter). At the global level, peace-as-dominion has little or no chance. First-tier countries (but even second-tier ones) will not stay cowered for long. The reason is that engineering regime-change through violence no longer is an option: too destructive of the target society (Germany and Japan after WWII).

Of course, wishful thinking helps. Stalin thought that conquered countries would spontaneously follow the Soviet Union to communist eutopia. Ironically, the neo-cons believed that “shock and awe” could unleash freedom and democracy in the Middle East.

Peace-as-convergence[14] is the only possible solution ahead. It yields a dynamic equilibrium of self-domestication. It evolves by adaptation – over time it yields silent transformations. Peace-as-convergence rests, not on an ideal, but on the stark recognition that conquest, or even dominance, are no longer possible.

Peace-as-convergence relies of many facets: growth, trade, reciprocal investments – and of course culture, silent and otherwise. Peace-as-convergence is only possible if participant countries eschew projecting dominance or aspiring to hegemony. The two policies cannot be pursued in parallel. Hegemonic stances and peace-as-dominion are perceived as unequal exchanges, which have no place in complex and modern societies, but are a throw-back to extractive empires. The fact that hegemony is no longer feasible – or let’s say more prudently, reasonable – should facilitate changing strategies to incorporate this reality.

According to Weber, a state is a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” In a sense, Weber has it backward. A human community eschewing the use of force in its exchanges will want to police this founding commitment and, if necessary, restore it. The monopoly of physical force is not a precondition for the emergence of a society; a free society resting on trust will however entrust an impartial structure with the task of policing the voluntary commitment. Commitment to voluntary cooperation secures trust; trust is the mainstay of the state. Informal social verification as well overt policing is just a fitting adjunct to trust, not its source.

[1] Andrew J. BACEVICH (2013): Breach of trust. How Americans failed their soldiers and their country. Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & C., New York.

[2] Though the democratic peace theory was not rigorously or scientifically studied until the 1960s, the basic principles of the concept had been argued as early as the 1700s in the works of philosopher Immanuel Kant and political theorist Thomas Paine. Kant foreshadowed the theory in his essay Perpetual Peace written in 1795, although he thought that a world with only constitutional republics was only one of several necessary conditions for a perpetual peace. Kant’s theory was that a majority of the people would never vote to go to war, unless in self-defense. Therefore, if all nations were republics, it would end war, because there would be no aggressors. In earlier but less cited works, Thomas Paine made similar or stronger claims about the peaceful nature of republics. Paine wrote in “Common Sense” in 1776: “The Republics of Europe are all (and we may say always) in peace.” Paine argued that kings would go to war out of pride in situations where republics would not.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democratic_peace_theory

[3] This is not always a rational calculation, of course. “Better dead than Red” is a good example of hysteric over-simplification (not that I would have liked trying it out).

[4] For a century, British governmental policy and public opinion was against conscription for foreign wars. At the start of World War I, the British Army consisted of six divison and one cavalry division in the United Kingdom, and four divisions overseas. 14 Territorial Force divisions also existed, and 300,000 in the Reserve Armay. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recruitment_to_the_British_Army_during_the_First_World_War

[5] Italy promised its soldiers landless soldiers settlement in the occupied territories. It was a throwback to the “Roman Empire”.

[6] As the Russian Empire expanded eastward under Ivan IV, in addition to overthrowing the Volga Khanates. Moscow’s forces also crossed the Urals for the first time, taking the Khanate of Sibir as a tributary. In 1571, the Khan stopped sending tribute, and the Russian ambassador who went to investigate in 1572 was killed. A somewhat haphazard response followed, one that was initially mostly a private endeavor, but one which had a charter from the imperial government.

One force behind the expansion was likely the Stroganoff family, who for two centuries had built their wealth trading food, salt, metals, and fur. The Tsar was both one of their biggest customers, and also a borrower of the Stroganoff fortune. In 1574, the family was awarded a trading monopoly east of the Urals (in Sibir territory and beyond). In the same era, a Cossack named Yermak began to lead punitive expeditions following trade routes into the region, in 1580-84 sacking a number places in Sibir.

[7] See: Victor David HANSON (1989): The Western way of wat. Infantry battle in classical Greece. Hodder & Stoughton, London.

[8] Whether the Soviet Union intended to spread Communism world-wide is a debated question. Following Viktor SUVOROV (2008): The chief culprit. Stalin’s grand design to start World War II. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, I’d like to suspect that he did. He certainly did not believe in “peaceful coexistence,” and history has proven him right on this point.

[9] NSC 68 (approved in 1951) sets the strategy from the US point of view. I’ll leave it to specialists to decide whether it entailed pure containment, balance of terror, coercive containment, roll-back, or even preventive war. The formulations probably were vague – the words had not been tested against contect.

[10] For this evolutionary path see e.g. Andrew J. BACHEVIC (2010): Washington rules: America’s path to permanent war. Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & C., New York.

[11] Osama bin Ladin can been re-conceptualized as war-lord. See: Erhard EPPLER (2002): Vom Gewaltmonopol zum Gewaltmarkt? Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt a. M.

[12] Joseph STIGLTZ ha calculated, in 2008 that the Iraq war was going to cost over 3 trillion US$. See: Joseph STIGLITZ – Linda BILMES (2008): The three trillion dollar war: the true cost of the Iraq conflict. Allen Lane, New York; the figure is disputed, but the order of magnitude is not far-fetched.

[13] One might argue that the Islamic civilization has failed to developed because, from the outset, it used professional armies. See: Hugh KENNEDY (2001): The armies of the Caliphs. Military and society in the early Islamic state. Rotledge, London.

[14] Bachevic uses the term “harmony.” I do not use it here, for it somehow points to a “desirable” state. It is not. It is simply the point of intersection between stability and change, and the place from which evolution can progress.

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