Book review: Democracies at War, by Dan Reiter and Allan C. Stam III, 2002.

Is is true that democracies do not come to the rescue of other democracies? Are democracies more likely to win wars? Are democracies better administrators of resources than non-democracies in times of armed conflict?

Overall, this D. Reiter & A. Stamm III’s book is an “interesting” one. Nevertheless, a couple of affirmations significantly damaged my faith in this work: 1. The Vietnam war was a “draw” for the U.S. and 2. The Schlieffen plan was an attrition and not a maneuver strategy. These are wrong affirmations.

Democracies at War focus on outcomes, but it does not approach causes, nor consequences, nor possible solutions; it does not contribute to avoid armed conflict; the main argument of this book is that democracies are more likely to win wars, which implies that democracies should pick their conflicts better, suggesting that there are political, economic, and social gains for decisions’ makers in the state apparatus of democracies; i.e. This book does not show reasons (correlation) for going to war.

By explaining how initial decisions in conflictual situations among the states, and military operations affect the outcome, the authors show in which aspects democracies (and non-democracies) should direct their attention to succeed in war.

Some democratic leaders doubt about the capacity of democracies for waging wars. The theory of the book contradicts what key decision makers of democratic regimes, such as John F. Kennedy during the 1962 Missiles Cuban Crisis or Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War, have expressed about the probabilities of losing an armed conflict, because of the restraints that a democratic regime imposes on the decision makers, which implies that the theory of these authors explains the phenomenon (of democracies winning wars) only to a certain extent. The theory and arguments of this book do not match practice, at least not completely.

The theory of “selection effects” (P. 11) introduced in this work does not thoroughly support the obtained results, more information would be needed to make it effective. This is explained by the fact that the research method is not comprehensive, as a consequence results are partial; the empirical findings they use show that democratic victory can be measured when applying variables are valid, however, they use only some of them (alliances, terrain, strategy, etc.), during a given period; this limits the efficiency of the findings.

The theory “democracies win wars” doesn’t show a correlation between outcomes and information held by leaders at the moment of taking decisions (who, what, when, how, why), which would variables to explain differences, not only in the outcome, but also in the initiation of hostilities.

The work is repetitive, e.g. the authors explain (at least) twice, in the same way, two theories: the “selection effects” and the “war-fighting explanation”. The authors waste the attention of the reader that is pointed towards the verification of the theory by going back to the same points.

The research doesn’t show in which ways pursued goals by democracies, otherwise achieved by the means of military intervention, could be gained without armed intervention; e.g. the 1962 Cuban Missiles Crisis, and in particular Black Saturday, October 27th (considered being the most dangerous hours lived in history) which had a positive outcome, avoiding military conflict between a democracy and two non-democratic states, cannot be tested by Reiter and Stam III’s theory.

Another problem in the book is that it does not consider that if leaders decide to fight -exceptions considered- it is because they think they can win in each case that they have gone into military intervention mode; under these circumstances, the founding argument of this book, the “selection effects” idea, loses validity (to a degree, at least).

The proposition that leaders of democratic nations can estimate the outcomes of a war in advance goes beyond what the authors suggest; more correlated data is needed to validate the idea that selection of armed conflicts, wins wars.

According to Reiter and Stam III, the Vietnam war was a case of “draw”

The two arguments that Reitman and Stam III use to affirm that democracies win wars cannot be sustained; first they propose that democracies fight better, which could be in itself a contradictory proposition, i.e. if it is so (democracies perform better in the battlefield), why do they need to estimate their chances? (they always would win when facing non-democratic enemies, which historically has not always been the case). This argument needs more sustain to hold; in particular, it should consider specific cases and circumstances to show when, where, and how this has happened. “Combat is not merely a grim reaper’s arithmetic of men and munitions” (p. 195) is a proposition that contradicts what the authors propose in this work since they reduce their conclusions to a statistical analysis that comes down to men and their circumstances and their resources at the moment they go to fight. The second idea, democracies are more likely to win wars because of the nature of democracy itself (what they call the “skeleton of democracy”), is also general, more poetical than practical; institutions differ from state to state; the authors could study particular, similar, and different cases to approach an operational theory of this second idea.

Another flawed affirmation of the authors is that democracies do not come to the rescue of other democracies. History and facts show otherwise; democratic alliances and their consequences are all over around us. Transgovernmentalism is all around us and it is the outcome of democracies coming to the rescue of other democracies; i.e. in the political arena, the United Nations (and all of its multiple branches), in the military one, NATO, the North American Defence Agreement, The Five Eyes intelligence alliance, etc. in the financial one, the World Bank (and its multiple branches), the IMF, they all show that even if the method of the authors translate into the denial of this phenomenon, it exists, and it is explained by the proposition that they attempt to destroy.

Other factors considered by the authors, such as economic or military power as useless, show in practice that they do matter when a democratic regime goes to war (multiple examples in this regard can be used); the authors could have separated the cases and circumstances in which such elements matter; that would be a different proposition.

Another problematic argument: democracies are more likely to win wars because they manage “better” their resources. The authors do not clarify in which sense and cases democracies do this, neither explain the precise meaning of their proposition; it is vague. i.e. are the democracies better at managing symbolic, material and/or human resources? Which ones are strategic, which ones are tactical, which ones are peripheric? These are questions not tackled. Then, not all democracies are better administrators of their resources; historic military, democratic disasters show otherwise.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: