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Is war good for democracy?

Guest Blogger

You’d have to have a very short memory to forget that many Americans hollered loudly that the Bush administration’s march into Afghanistan and Iraq – and its execution of the war on terror – posed a serious threat to our democracy. Wars often expand executive power and limit civil liberties, but the longer-term effects are often more complex than first perceived. Elizabeth Kier of the University of Washington and Ronald Krebs of the University of Minnesota have edited a collection of essays, “In War’s Wake: International Conflict and the Fate of Liberal Democracy,” published recently by Cambridge University Press, that shows the impact of war is far from simple. The essays raise some surprising notions about the evolution of liberal democracies in the aftermath of war.

By Elizabeth Kier and Ronald Krebs

War is bloody and destructive -- certainly for those who fight, and fall, on the battlefield, but also for those at home, where democratic principles come under assault.

Free expression suffered in a war to make the world “safe for democracy.” Japanese Americans were stripped of their rights and shipped to concentration camps in a war for the Four Freedoms.

As recent events have cynically and repeatedly shown, American presidents often exploit the alleged exigencies of war to justify the expansion of unchecked executive authority and to trample on due process. These concerns multiply when a threat seems never-ending, as in “the long war” against terrorism.

It’s a familiar story -- that among the casualties of war abroad is democracy at home.

But it is also probably wrong.

War defies such simple characterizations. Yes, it has undermined liberal democracy, but it has also sustained and deepened liberal democracy. The challenge is to figure out when and why one or the other outcome has obtained.

This story is not completely new. The late political sociologist Charles Tilly famously argued that European states established representative parliaments to persuade their people to relinquish the resources they needed to wage war. And the same basic logic of bargaining between state and society was at work during the world wars, as states broadened the franchise, extended political rights to women, and undertook social and economic reform.

Total wars often have large unanticipated effects, sometimes to democracies’ benefit. The pointlessness of trench warfare along the Western Front led many of its veterans to a new vision of human rights and thus to a broader conception of democracy.

Mobilization during World War II strengthened postwar civic engagement, even among the losers, as a careful study of Japan shows. How states organized their war efforts, and the lessons people drew from those experiences, affected how open they were to a large state role in postwar economic management and to the deepening of the welfare state. None of these processes had much to do with wartime bargaining over resources.

Even limited wars have had substantial effects, at times deepening and strengthening their combatants’ democracies. Democracies that emerge during or after armed conflict tend to be more durable than those that emerge in peacetime. The Vietnam War prompted Congress and civil society to try to roll back the Cold War imperial presidency and reestablish a system of checks and balances.

Let there be no confusion: the balance sheet is not positive. No advance in democracy could compensate for World War I’s mindless slaughter or excuse the Bush administration’s embrace of torture. And whether war’s silver linings in the past have much relevance to the future of war and democracy, or whether successive crises promote a race to the democratic bottom, is an open question.

By Steven E. Levingston  | October 19, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags:  war and democracy; war civil liberties; effects of war  
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