Democratic Peace but Warlike Democracy
Written by
Categories: Ancient, Not an expert

Democratic Peace but Warlike Democracy

When I was growing up a fashionable big idea stated that two democracies almost never go to war with one another. The exceptions tend to be very old (like Athens vs. Syracuse or Rome vs. Carthage) or very small (such as the Western Allies v. Finland in 1941-1944 and some armed fishing disputes after 1945). This democratic peace theory fit the mood in the 1990s because it said we could put an end to war just by changing political systems and not tedious negotiations about arms control and international law. My amateur understanding is that its not a bad theory as long as you treat it as a rule of thumb not an absolute (both ‘war’ and ‘democracy’ are vague enough that advocates and critics can interpret things the way they want). But there is another observation that democracies are often more warlike (and put more resources into war) than kingdoms or oligarchies or one-party states or military rule. I was reminded of this by Raimund Schulz’ article on the Persian Wars in the Journal of Ancient Civilizations.

Warlike democracy theory starts from the observation that many of the world’s most violent states have been democracies (such as Classical Athens and Republican Rome and the post-1942 United States) or relatively liberal (such as Venice or 18th/19th century England). Moreover, these states put an impressive amount of the whole society’s resources into wars. Ancient historians such as Michael J. Taylor, Christopher W. Jones, and Bret Devereaux have looked at Greek and Roman examples and suspect that widening the rights of ordinary farmers and shopkeepers made it easier to call on them for military service, and that elected officials competed for favour by launching aggressive campaigns and scattering around the booty. Because ordinary Athenians and Romans had a lot to gain from the empire, they were willing to fight or send their sons to fight. Athenians became much less willing to fight themselves in the fourth century BCE when they no longer had an empire bringing in large sums of silver as long as they were the greatest naval power in the Aegean. Colin Powell used the same principle to rebuild the US military after Vietnam: his US military was a place where visible minorities could rise without too much racial prejudice, and where veterans had access to benefits such as free education which were very attractive to poor young people.

Whereas moralists accuse citizens of becoming unwilling to sacrifice their bodies for the state, warlike democracy theorists suspect that if you have a recruiting problem, your recruits are not convince that service will reward them or their families.

Warlike democracy theory never got as much attention as democratic peace theory. It did not suit British and US ideology about being peaceful and righteous and only fighting when provoked. It absolutely did not suit the reactionaries in the USA who quote Juvenal on bread and circuses and are always sure that the enemy of the week is about to triumph. I don’t know if it warlike democracy theory is stated by a single famous researcher in a single famous book. I have trouble figuring out which big ideas are real and which are plausible lies. But if I ever have a chance to talk to the advocates in person, I would like to learn more.

Further Reading:

Schulz, Raimund (2022) “New Perspectives on the Persian Wars,” Journal of Ancient Civilizations, Vol. 37, No. 2, pp. 193-224

Michael E. Smith, “Ramses II vs. Pericles, or Darth Vader vs. the Rebel Alliance”

Michael J. Taylor, “Generals and judges: command, constitution and the fate of Carthage,” Libyan Studies (2023), pp. 1-8

One group of references to sort for material

  • Josiah Ober, Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens (2008)
  • David M. Pritchard, Athenian Democracy at War (2019)
  • Michael Taylor’s Soldiers and Silver (2020) (he is working on an article on the Carthaginian constitution and war) PS. Taylor’s book is on sale for only USD 33 in July 2023!

Schulz cites the following to support his view on Athens before the Persian Wars:

  • Davies, J.K. 2013. “Corridors, Cleruchies, Commodities, and Coins: The Pre-History of the Athenian Empire.” In A. Slawisch (ed.), Handels- und Finanzgebaren in der Ägais im 5. Jh. v. Chr. Byzas 18. Istanbul: Ege Yayinlari, 43-66.
  • Rausch, M. 1999. Isonomia in Athen. Veränderungen des öffentlichen Lebens vom Sturtz der Tyrannis bis zur zweiten Perserabwehr. Frankfurt am Main: P. Lang.
  • Siewert, P. 1982. Das Trittyen Attikas und die Heeresreformen des Kleisthenes. Munich: C.H. Beck.
  • van Effentere, H. 1976. “Clisthène et les mesures de mobilisation.” Revue des Études Grecques 89 pp. 1-17
  • van Wees’ Ships and Silver (2013) pp. 55-61

The blogs or web magazines War on the Rocks and Angry Staff Officer have thoughtful essays on the struggle to make the US military less racist than the average US institution, and how the military’s problems at any one time might not be what you expect.

(scheduled 5 May 2023)

Edit: my post War and Culture (2017) talks about the debates on how Arab dictatorships or Arabic society have caused many Arab armies since 1945 to perform poorly in combat s/Greek and Roman Historians/Ancient historians;

Edit 2023-08-10: added Taylor 2023

paypal logo
patreon logo

2 thoughts on “Democratic Peace but Warlike Democracy

  1. Douglas Knight says:

    Bruce Bueno de Mesquita claims that democracies are slow to war, but when they do go to war marshal many resources and are slow to peace, whereas dictators make small, opportunistic wars and cut their losses. That’s two different versions of “democracies are more warlike.”

    I believe he makes this empirical assertion in the Dictator’s Handbook (2011) with Alastair Smith, but I don’t know where the data is. That is a popularization of the Logic of Political Survival (2003) with also Morrow and Siverson, but that’s mainly theoretical, not empirical.

    1. Sean says:

      Humh, I suspect you can find versions of this idea all over and in fields like political science as well as ancient history! So as often happens half the battle is finding them and getting them to talk to each other.

      US history is full of small wars and operations other than war for grubby aims, although the Army’s new military history textbook for West Point plays them down to focus on the Revolution, ACW, and the two World Wars. (It may use the idea that the period after 1865 was an insurgency in the South which the federal government and the Black population lost).

Write a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.