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We have to keep a sense of
proportion about war




Jonathan Power

March 5, 2003

LONDON - We are all in danger of becoming terribly glum. War is nearly upon us. A particularly dangerous war that, as John Major, the former Conservative prime minister of Britain just warned, may create an "Armageddon" in the Middle East. Yet much of the world remains as it was before. Saddam Hussein and George Bush provoked each other into stirring up this particularly rabid hornets' nest: it is a better place.

Michael Mandelbaum writes in his very learned new book, "The Ideas That Conquered The World", in a delightfully unlearned way, that "In the last decade of the twentieth century social scientists found a strong relationship between democratic politics at home and peaceful conduct abroad. For the politicians and citizens of the democratic Western core this finding had a double attraction. It was flattering, for it meant the more the world reproduced their own political arrangements the more tranquil it would be; and it posited that their form of government, which they valued and promoted for its own sake, had an additional, unexpected benefit- as if a cherry-topped cheesecake had turned out to be not only tasty but nutritious".

This rosy view of the world we live in is difficult to challenge. Democratic countries seldom if ever go to war with each other. This conclusion, almost irrefutably established, shows us immediately the way most of us want to go. Expand democracy and its concomitant respect for individual freedom and human rights and the virus of war will be as isolated and as antiquated as smallpox- maybe lurking in some laboratory here or there, but effectively under wraps. Even when democracies practice war, as they might with Iraq before next month is out, it seems regrettable and distasteful and at least half the population does not want it. (The vote on going to war against Iraq in 1991 was won by a mere 3 votes in the U.S. Senate.)

"The devaluation of war", concludes Mandlebaum "is as important a feature of the twenty-first century as the rise of the market". And indeed the two cannot be separated from each other. I have to admit this is music to my ears as I argued the same thesis is my own recent book, "Like Water on Stone" (Penguin 2002). There is clearly a tight connection between economic freedom and the development of democracy and the practice of human rights. And once democracy and free markets have spread to a large enough number of countries, as it has over the last two decades, then the pool of countries that has a vested interest in not going to war with each other becomes quite large. Indeed this "pool" has begun to ferment a culture of peace that is visibly advancing step by step through the entire world. It began with countries like Sweden and Brazil which over a century and a half ago in effect decided never to go to war again, despite or perhaps because of their bloody past. After the twin horror of two World Wars, Europe decided to build its Union which has abolished war in what has been for many centuries the most volatile and war prone corner of the planet. And Japan, with its post war pacifist constitution born out of trauma of American nuclear bombardment, has also renounced war. South American countries have not had a real all out war with each other for centuries.

The clever development in the West has been to get the business interests on the side of democracy, because that has put most of them on the side of peace. It has been in the works for a long time, but often has been undermined by the military-industrial complex, a relatively small lobby group in relationship to the entire economic and political pie, but one formidably well organised. But its power is fading. Particularly noteworthy was a study carried out by a conservative think tank, Freedom House, that published a report in 2001 observing that "there is a high and significant correlation between the level of political freedom and economic freedom as measured by the Wall Street Journal/Heritage Foundation survey". This study effectively answered the old conundrum of whether the large number of prosperous countries is political free as a consequence of their prosperity and development or whether prosperity is a consequence of basic political and civic freedoms. Economic growth is certainly possible in an unfree political culture, but political freedom accelerates it. Repressive, militaristic, countries with high and sustained growth rates, such as China, are an exception rather than the rule.

We can now see that the mature democracies are living with a social fact of consequence, what Mandlebaum calls "debellicization". What has happened to the status and legitimacy of war in Western society is comparable to the fate of religious faith and the acceptance of political and social inequality. At the beginning of the last century they were still robust. At the beginning of this they are all but eroded. Where as war once seemed to be a normal instrument of statecraft it now seems suspect at best. The recent unprecedented turn out in the marches of two weeks ago is but one more confirmation of this.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2003 By JONATHAN POWER


Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the

40th Anniversary of Amnesty International

"Like Water on Stone - The Story of Amnesty International"






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