Democracies won’t go to war, but nationalists will
Democracies do not fight with each other. This theory stems from the fact or the assumption that democracies are committed to justice and non-violent means of conflict resolution. It is also assumed that democratic leaders feel they are accountable to their people for starting wars, war losses and the misery brought upon the nation. The propensity to subject a bilateral dispute to international arbitration is higher among democracies than among dictatorships or totalitarian regimes.
The 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, said the people in a democracy were apprehensive of the enormous cost of the war, the high death toll and the destruction and therefore would act as a counterforce to forces that drag the country towards all-out war.
American political theorist Thomas Paine argued that kings would go to war out of pride in situations where republics would not.
In 2004, the United States’ war president, George W. Bush, outlining his vision for peace in the Middle East, also said “democracies don’t go to war with each other.” President Bill Clinton said the same in his State of the Union address in 1994.
Proponents of this theory try to stress that democracy is a great means of disarmament and conflict resolution. However, some political analysts challenge this theory, pointing to wars between democracies. They cite the United States’ war on Mexico in the 19th century, Britain’s declaration of war against Finland in 1941 and the perpetual war-like tension between India and Pakistan as examples.
But the theory of democratic pacifism has held up to the test of time in Europe as the seven-decades of relative post-war peace in the continent indicates. The forty-year cold war tension in the continent is, of course, totally another matter. It was a conflict between democracies and dictatorships in the West and communist authoritarian or revolutionary regimes in the East.
Though democracies do not go to war with each other, they go to war with dictatorships, pseudo-democracies and authoritarian regimes. Although accountability factors prevent leaders of a democracy from waging war against another democracy, no such factors prevent a war between a democracy and dictatorship. This is because the people of a democracy consider morally correct their leaders’ decision to go to war against a dictatorship. In other words, the morally superior position of democracies over dictatorships is a factor that promotes war. This assumption takes a dangerous turn when democracies fall prey to nationalism. At times of war, many democracies promote a kind of hyper-nationalism which eventually leads to fascism.
In the recent past, we saw how the whipping up of patriotism dragged the world’s oldest democracy, the United States, towards fascism. Under the guise of waging a war on terror, the US violated human rights, encouraged torture, carried out extrajudicial killings, and brought in draconian laws such as the Nazi-sounding Patriot Act that denied the citizens their right to privacy and restricted civil liberty.
With nationalism making monsters of democracies, fears are running high that World War III could begin in the East China Sea. Didn’t Serbian nationalism spark World War I and German nationalism World War II?
Recent developments surrounding the dispute between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea show that provocations by both sides are dangerously close to trigger a conflict with worldwide implications. What is adding to the worries of peace activists is the rise of nationalistic politics both in China, a communist regime, and Japan, a democracy. This is more so, after the election of Shinzo Abe as prime minister of Japan and Xi Jinping – who will be assuming office next month -- as China’s new leader.
Writing to the prestigious Foreign Policy journal, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says: “There are no ordinary times in East Asia. With tensions rising from conflicting territorial claims in the East China and South China seas, the region increasingly resembles a 21st century maritime redux of the Balkans a century ago — a tinderbox on water. Nationalist sentiment is surging across the region, reducing the domestic political space for less confrontation approaches... In security terms, the region is more brittle than at any time since the fall of Saigon in 1975.”
At the centre of the dispute is what China calls Diaoyu islands and Japan calls Senkaku. Brinkmanship is on open display in the waters surrounding the oil-and-natural-gas-rich islets -- with both countries sending military vessels and aircraft and resorting to other provocations. The dispute took a turn for the worse when Japan in September last year nationalised the islets saying that it had bought them from the title-deed holder, a Japanese citizen. China on the other hand insists that the islets belong to it, pointing to pre-communist era maps that show the islets coming within China’s maritime boundary. Japan, however, shows its own old maps and claims that under the Law of the Sea principles, the islets are the rightful property of Japan.
Last week, Japan accused China of using hi-tech weapons to lock the radars of a destroyer and a helicopter near the disputed islands. Abe demanded that China apologise. China rejected the demand saying Japan’s charge was a figment of its imagination. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party won Japan’s elections in December on a campaign pledge that it would take tougher line with China.
“The Japanese side’s remarks were against the facts. Japan unilaterally made public untrue information to the media and senior Japanese government officials made irresponsible remarks that hyped up the so-called ’China threat’…. Tokyo had recklessly created tension and misled international public opinion. …. Japan’s remarks are completely making something out of nothing. We hope Japan will renounce its petty tricks,” Chinese statements said.
In China, television chat shows and newspaper analyses whip up nationalistic feelings, not only by asserting China’s right to the disputed islands but also by reminding the people about how cruel the Japanese occupation of Manchuria had been.
“The holy territory of China is not for sale” is the refrain of Chinese leaders and analysts. Burning the Japanese flag and staging protests outside Japanese plants and business premises are common in China.
The war of words has been upping the tension in the region for the past two years. The situation is so precarious that even optimists who say that neither country is naïve enough to go to war will, in the same breath, refuse to rule out a conflict.
Adding to the powder-keg situation is the subtle but rapid build-up of the US military presence in the region. It was only last year that the Barack Obama administration espoused its ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy that stresses the importance of security and freedom of navigation in the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions. As part of its military build-up in the region, the US has set up a new base in Darwin, Australia, expanded the base in Guam, modified the existing bases and facilities in Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, conducts joint military exercises with ASEAN nations and sells sophisticated weapons to China’s neighbours, including Vietnam and India, two countries that have gone to war with the Communist giant, which is today the world’s second economic power after the US.
Some analysts say the US is fishing in the troubled waters and profiteering from the tension.
An Inter-Press Service article by Richard Javad Heydarian says, “Facing a stubborn economic downturn at home, the dramatic boost in US defence sales to the region underlines Washington’s growing emphasis on a primarily military-oriented (as opposed to trade-and-investment-driven) approach to re-asserting its position as an ‘anchor of peace and stability’ in the region.
“Among the biggest beneficiaries of growing US military commitment to the region is the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), a massive trade group that includes top Pentagon suppliers such as Lockheed Martin Corp, Boeing Co and Northrop Grumman Corp. It underscores the extent to which the US ‘pivot’ has energised the American industrial-military complex, further dimming the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the ongoing disputes.”
This week’s nuclear test by North Korea also gives the United States an excuse to boost its military sales and presence in the region. President Obama during his State of the Union address on Tuesday did not fail to warn the reclusive regime, which is China’s only strategic partner in the hostile neighbourhood. The US is also greatly worried about predictions that by 2030 it would not be a superpower. Power is not meant to be let go. It needs to be acquired, protected and enhanced. That’s political realism.
Despite the United States’ trade and economic dependency on China, a cold war between the two is widening, with countries in the region either aligning or seen to be aligning with either of the super powers. In South Asia, Sri Lanka is seen to be tilting towards China, while India is strengthening its military cooperation with the United States. If the current dispute between China and Japan sparks a war, the entry of the United States in defence of Japan is inevitable. It is only a matter of time before other regional countries – and who knows, even India – will be drawn into the conflict. Sri Lanka is also vulnerable. One cannot rule out Russia’s involvement on the side of China. It was only last week that Japan accused Russia of sending war planes over its territory. Japan and Russia have been embroiled in a bitter dispute over ownership of the Kurile Islands.
Besides trade interdependence, the only deterrent that prevents such a world war is the fear of the use of nuclear weapons. Like democracies do not go to war with each other, nuclear powers also do not. Will wars be fought on an understanding that belligerents won’t use nuclear weapons? Is Diaoyu/Senkaku worth a world war? It is not, but China’s sense of insecurity is. China is worried about the reality of being surrounded by hostile nations and powers. If this feeling of being insecure reaches the critical mass, that is the trigger for the next world war.