AFTER US THE FLOOD
Nations which, abhorring bloodshed, are not willing to shed flesh and blood,
relying on the weapons they create with high tech all ignore
the fact that they are destined to become the flotsam of a major flood
in which they'll drown with all the ideology that they adore.
"Après nous le déluge" said Madame de Pompadour,
and sadly she won't be the last to say this, I am sure.
Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University, reviewing Gorged Through Fire bya John Feerjohn & Frances McCall Rosenbluth, writes in “Democracy is Dependent on War” (WSJ, 1/6/16):
Some books should come stamped with a surgeon general’s warning: “Likely to cause discomfort,” perhaps, or “Not suitable for romantics.” The political scientists John Ferejohn and Frances McCall Rosenbluth have written such a book: “Forged Through Fire: War, Peace and the Democratic Bargain” is not for the faint of heart.
It begins with a paradox. “Humans have inflicted untold horrors on each other through wars,” Mr. Ferejohn and Ms. Rosenbluth write, but these wars have also been responsible for fostering one of our “most cherished human values”: modern democracy, with its unique combination of universal suffrage and property rights.
This isn’t the story we’re taught in high-school civics. But it’s a compelling one, powerfully told by two scholars with mastery of their subject. The authors walk the reader through 2,500 bloody years of Western history, from the Peloponnesian wars to the war in Vietnam, highlighting, again and again, a brutal trade-off: The emergence and consolidation of democracy depends on warfare, and a particular kind of warfare, at that.
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Here’s the logic: The rich and powerful prefer to remain that way, and are, as a general rule, disinclined to share either wealth or political power with the poor. Only when elites are faced with external military threats do the poor become valuable to the rich. This is so because armies have traditionally required bodies—and plenty of them.
This, the authors argue, is the awful “alchemy of iron and blood” that produces democracy. Manpower-intensive forms of warfare require the large-scale mobilization of the population, which forces elites facing external threats to grant political concessions to the common man. Mr. Ferejohn and Ms. Rosenbluth are not the first to chart the linkages between warfare and the evolution of the modern democratic state, but their magisterial volume makes the case in persuasive and explicit detail.
We begin in Athens, where the shift from aristocracy to democracy was driven by the need to defend the city against foreign invasion. In 508 B.C., Cleisthenes “promised to turn political power over to the Athenian public in exchange for their help in repelling Spartan intervention,” and the great age of Athenian democracy was born.
It might soon have died, too, but for the existence of near-continuous external threats during the Peloponnesian and Persian wars, and the fact that Athenian naval supremacy soon came to require the active participation of tens of thousands of ordinary men. “Whether they liked it or not,” note the authors, “Athens’ wealthy and conservative citizens seem to have understood that the city’s survival rested in the hands of thousands of commoners who rowed the triremes.”
Similar dynamics led Rome’s elites to grant freedom, land, citizenship and the franchise to an expanding body of commoners and ultimately to residents of far-flung colonial outposts. As in Athens, “Roman military accomplishments rested on wide manpower mobilization rewarded by . . . political voice.”
But not all wars produce democracy. In medieval Europe, feudal lords were able to rely mainly on small forces of heavy cavalry to sustain their power, not on large-scale mobilization of the poor, and this mostly eliminated the need to offer political concessions to the masses in exchange for military service.
Later, in early modern Europe, “the effective use of gunpowder decisively tipped the balance away from the cavalry-dominated militaries of the previous 500 years and in favor of mass armies . . . shifting political power upward to leaders who could finance and maintain such large armies.” Even so, for a time most European governments were able to finance armies with plunder from the New World, “or, where necessary, through exchanges of favors with merchants that were less destabilizing than the bargains [monarchs] would otherwise have had to strike with the poor.” As a result, pressures to democratize remained minimal and episodic. “As long as monarchies could buy armies with money, blood did not buy voting rights, as it had in Athens and Rome,” the authors write.
It was only in the 19th and 20th centuries, Mr. Ferejohn and Ms. Rosenbluth observe, that conditions once again became favorable for the widespread expansion of democracy. The French Republic’s levée en masse set the stage: Mass mobilizations required both an effective administrative state and eventually a more egalitarian approach to politics. By the end of the 19th century, both France and Germany had “enormous standing armies” and “both had adopted representative government,” with universal suffrage placating the masses, counterbalanced by protections for property rights to assuage the concerns of the wealthy.
In much of Europe, however, the interests of the wealthy and the working class remained at odds. It “took the white-hot wars of the twentieth century, which required both money and manpower, to hinge them into a single coalition in favor of representative democracy,” the authors write.
When it happened, it happened quickly. Norway and Sweden initiated universal military conscription at the beginning of the 20th century; within a decade, both had also granted universal male suffrage. In Britain, conscription did not begin until 1916; by 1918, universal male suffrage had also been granted. By the end of World War II, 60 million people were dead, but democracy had become the norm throughout the West.
“Forged Through Fire” is full of grim lessons. One lesson: warfare, as the authors of this book soberly remind us, has been a near-constant throughout human history. Those inclined to take solace in the post World War II decline of interstate wars might pause to consider that 70 years is, in the grand scheme of things, not a very long time. Another lesson: Those with power have rarely been inclined to relinquish it voluntarily. Only fear and threat have driven the rich and powerful to share—grudgingly—with history’s have-nots.
A third lesson—perhaps the hardest to swallow—is that our most cherished modern liberal political values would likely never have triumphed without war and its multiple horrors, and even the democratic gains produced by centuries of war were “neither easy nor inevitable.” Democracy depended upon a unique combination of circumstances: technologies favoring manpower-intensive forms of warfare; the lack of external sources of wealth that might have enabled governing elites to purchase military power, rather than coax it from their citizens; and so on. Even with all these conditions present, coercion and propaganda were sometimes sufficient to thwart the development of democracy. Russia and China, for instance, have managed, so far, to buck the trend.
All this leads to an uncomfortable question. Wealthy modern states can once again increasingly outsource their security to private contractors, and in any case, the emergence of new military technologies is again reducing the need for mass armies. Drones, surveillance technologies and cyber-warfare make it possible for states to achieve war’s traditional ends without much need to mobilize their citizens, shifting the balance of power away from ordinary citizens and back towards governing elites.
“When armies no longer need flesh and blood,” wonder Mr. Ferejohn and Ms. Rosenbluth, “what can take their place to stabilize democracy?” In other words: forged through war, can democracy survive peace?