Of War and Peace


Part three.  Representative democracy – a neglected piece of the peace jigsaw.


Two inventions, one of the late 18th century and one of the 20th, when taken together, offered for the first time in history the prospect of a world without war.  The 20th century invention was that of collective security, mentioned last month.  That of the 18th century was representative democracy, the importance of which can hardly be overemphasised.  On the face of it, representative democracy was a huge improvement on previous methods of organising society.  In contrast to earlier regimes where total power was centralised in single individuals or small groups, democracy offered the pleasant prospect of equal rights, personal freedom and the possibility of peace.

Democracy was seen as power devolved towards the people, and so inaccessible to would-be tyrants of the Genghis Khan type.  It has often been observed that the idea of a pre-emptive war does not originate from, or even occur to, the mass of the people, farmers, teachers, workers of all kinds, who are nevertheless always the first to suffer from war.  In a democracy such as was envisaged just over two hundred years ago when the New World broke away from the control of the Old and aspired to create a new form of government of the people, for the people, by the people, the chances of such a nation initiating a war were very much reduced.  The spread of such democracies world-wide, coupled with an effective organisation dedicated to collective security, would clearly greatly improve the chances of a world-wide peace – a peace that might become so well-established as to become normal and permanent.  This real possibility inspired thinkers of the time.

Each invention was incomplete without the other.  A system of cooperative security would always be at risk when it depended upon the compliance of a few powerful autocratic individuals who, for any one of a dozen personal reasons, could not be relied on to keep to the bargain they had signed.  In addition, being human, they would die from time to time, and a new, untried individual would emerge from a fierce leadership contest to take the place of the late signatory.  His name, perhaps, might be Genghis Khan.  And without a reliable system of cooperative security, representative democracies could never safely settle down to enjoy peace and the prosperity that comes with peace.

The two mutually-reinforcing inventions, together offering a real chance of permanent peace, did not come a moment too soon.  Another 20th century invention was to make the solution to the longstanding problem of war extremely urgent. Suddenly, with the invention of first the atom bomb, and then the H-bomb, war had changed its nature.  Castles, moats and even great armies were rendered obsolete overnight.  The awesome military power now available could not be left in the hands of unaccountable individuals.

Desirable as they may be, the two inventions do not come cost-free.  To opt for cooperative security, all ideas of empire must be given up.  Genghis Khan is finally to give way to the Song.  In future, the measure of a nation’s greatness will be found in the kind of society it has created, and the heights reached by its culture and its science, rather than the extra acreage it has won in battle.  And as for democracy, the cost of a thoroughgoing democracy involves giving up our predisposition for leader-worship.  This is not as easy a renunciation as it sounds to be.  You have only to look at today’s incomplete democracies to realise that the cult of personality has taken a strong hold.  The choice of a strong, charismatic leader is considered to be of the utmost importance (think, for instance, of a modern United States’ presidential election campaign, or of the intense media interest generated by party leadership contests in Britain). 

Modern leaders of democracies have much more power than their 18th century counterparts – there has been in operation a tendency towards centralised power that is in tune with our need for a hero to worship, but quite contrary to the spirit and soul of democracy. In our heads we may choose democracy, with its emphasis on equality, but in our hearts we seem to abandon notions of equality and long for surrogate gods, powerful leaders whom we can look up to and who characteristically are very willing to take decisions for us.

Progress towards an ideal state of affairs has been scarcely perceptible.  Though recent history shows that democracies can be led into a pre-emptive war, the pessimistic deduction that democracies must therefore be as bad as any other form of society is not necessarily true.  Maybe modern democracies are just not democratic enough!  Certainly the early proposals for democratic government which inspired so many at the time describe a society where power is in the hands of the people’s representatives:  the idea of an autocratic leader capable of taking the nation to war single-handedly was far from the original conception.

A true autocrat can identify with Napoleon’s famous statement: ‘A man such as I am is not much concerned over the lives of a million men’. At the present time the great democracies of the United States and Britain have both elected rather extreme autocrats.  George Bush once declared at a meeting that God had instructed him to invade Iraq, and has described his ‘war on terror’ as ‘a crusade’.  Tony Blair, who is at present attracting criticism for the way he has taken Britain to war, is credited with describing a possible Conservative win at the next election as ‘not just a defeat for Labour, but for me personally’. 

When things go wrong, it is fashionable to blame the man, and not the voters who elected him:  furthermore, the system in place that allows autocrats such enormous power within modern democracies usually escapes criticism altogether.  Perhaps in our hearts we do not want too much democracy, a society where no one man has dictatorial power, nor do we seek protection from warlike leaders. On the contrary, we generally see it as a virtue in leaders to be ‘strong’, and so less likely to value consultation with their parliamentary colleagues.

Next month.  Of war and peace.  Charismatic leaders: the last remaining obstacle.