Democracies have an edge in fighting wars
Senior Fellow Allan Stam contends those advantages will help them fight diseases, too
People have long assumed that autocrats and dictators have an advantage in waging war. Today, as the novel coronavirus sweeps across the globe, there is some speculation that autocracies have an edge in fighting that war, too. Autocrats can potentially enforce shelter-in-place orders more effectively and use their surveillance abilities to better engage in contact tracing.
These concerns are without foundation. Contrary to popular beliefs, democracies are more effective in responding to various crises. Our political science research found that democracies are more likely than autocracies to win their wars. From 1816 to 1987, democracies won about 76 percent of their wars, while nondemocracies won about 46 percent of their wars. Even more striking, democracies rarely lose when they start wars, winning 93 percent of the time.
[O]nce the tenth coronavirus case was reported, democracies were faster than dictatorships to close schools.
What is true of wars against armies is also true of a campaign against disease. Past studies have found that citizens in democracies are healthier than citizens living under tyranny and that democracies suffer lower mortality rates than dictatorships in epidemics. Analyses of responses to the current pandemic have already found that once the tenth coronavirus case was reported, democracies were faster than dictatorships to close schools. There is good reason to think that the attributes that make democracies perform better in wars—especially accountable leaders and superior information flows—make them more effective in fighting the coronavirus as well.
WINNING THE BATTLE
In our research, we found that democracies win wars in part because of the reelection anxiety of their leaders. Democratically elected leaders are motivated to avoid waging losing wars because they know that unpopular policies often lead to their removal from office: U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, for example, both took steps to limit troop involvement in Syria for this reason. True, sometimes elected leaders start or escalate wars that turn out poorly, as did President Lyndon B. Johnson in Vietnam and President George W. Bush in Iraq. But the eventual decline of these leaders’ political fortunes serves as an enduring recommendation for caution to their successors.
As a result, elected leaders start ill-conceived wars less often than other leaders. Dictators do not have such reelection anxieties, and they are more confident that they can repress popular opposition in order to stay in office. They are thus more likely to start risky wars they might not win. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, for instance, was able to crush domestic opposition after his disastrous 1980 invasion of Iran and 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Elected leaders start ill-conceived wars less often than other leaders.
Superior information flows also help democracies win wars. Democratic leaders make better choices about wars because independent news media facilitate open debate, exposing bad ideas and promoting good ones.