Delusions of Dominance
Biden Can’t Restore American Primacy—and Shouldn’t Try
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.
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.
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. This environment of open debate also increases the likelihood that democratic leaders will inherit and choose qualified advisers and military officers—even sometimes rivals—who in turn provide better advice. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, for example, prudently deferred attacking Pakistan in 1971 until she had a very promising (and ultimately successful) military plan and the weather was favorable. And U.S. President George H. W. Bush held extensive debates among his advisers in 1990 planning for war against Iraq, which produced one of the most decisive victories in military history.
Dictators are more opposed to open discussion because they fear internal political threats. They are more likely to appoint and promote yes men, who are unmotivated to provide their leaders with the unvarnished truth and/or unqualified to provide insightful advice. Arab attacks by Syria, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq on Israel in 1948, 1969, and 1973 all ended in defeat. The poorly conceived Soviet attack on Finland in 1939 is a perfect example of a pyrrhic victory, leaving more than 100,000 Soviet dead and only a few scraps of Finnish tundra to show for it. And although Americans bemoan the long war in Afghanistan, the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan turned out far worse for Moscow, with perhaps 15,000 dead and absolutely no gains.
The same characteristics that help democracies win wars can help them tackle challenges such as the pandemic. Democratic leaders who mishandle a pandemic can expect to be at greater risk of being tossed out of office and are thus more likely to take effective action.
Dictators are more likely to survive botched crisis responses and therefore do not face pressure to reform their strategies. This can have a devastating effect during health crises. In the current outbreak, Iran has suffered an estimated 900,000 cases of the virus because the Iranian government has made such poor policy choices. But the government’s botched coronavirus response will not threaten the regime because Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has substantial tools at his disposal to repress threats to his power. Similarly, should the coronavirus crisis stimulate unrest in China, President Xi Jinping will tighten his control even further.
The strict controls dictatorships have over information flows have also impeded their response to the pandemic. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has censored information about the virus, even arresting or intimidating individuals who speak out about it: Russian police assaulted and arrested one doctor who posted videos describing authorities concealing the severity of the pandemic. China, the first country to confront COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, squelched information about the source and characteristics of the virus: the regime arrested doctors in Wuhan in late December for sounding the alarm, allowed a banquet of 40,000 families in Wuhan to occur in early February, refused help from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hampered distribution of data on how the virus spreads among those infected who show no symptoms, and underreported the number of cases by a factor of four. Although the Chinese government reports success in combating the virus, doubts about China’s progress persist, given the country’s lack of transparency. These patterns are not new; China’s heavy clampdown on information substantially interfered with its efforts to battle the SARS outbreak in 2002–3.
Open societies have generated a flood of important information about the virus.
Open information flows in democracies, by comparison, have helped fight the outbreak. Democracies such as the United States and Germany have created policy laboratories that have helped to explore innovative approaches. But more important, open societies have generated a flood of important information about the virus, advancing public understanding and helping policymakers and citizens develop and distribute protective measures. And open channels of information have identified and exposed fake news, conspiracy theories, and quack cures, limiting their domination of public discourse on the coronavirus.
Unlike wars, however, information sharing during a pandemic is not limited to the individual liberal societies coming up with winning policy ideas. Rather, scientists, doctors, policymakers, and journalists around the globe have embraced the liberal norm of sharing ideas and information, creating an open and expansive community of knowledge. Chinese scientists substantially advanced progress toward testing, vaccine, and cure development after publishing the complete genome sequence of the coronavirus in January (although their Shanghai lab was subsequently shut down by Chinese government authorities). Meanwhile, hundreds if not thousands of other research labs around the world are racing to perfect tests, vaccines, and cures, rapidly publishing and sharing scientific papers. The health company Kinsa publishes data from its Web-linked home thermometers to forecast novel coronavirus clusters accurately and rapidly. And Google helps distribute information on social distancing, possible new symptoms, and other important developments.
Several democracies have made substantial progress in avoiding or containing outbreaks, including South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, Australia and New Zealand, Denmark, and Israel. The United States’ response to the coronavirus, however, has seemingly challenged the notion that democracies are better at fighting pandemics. President Trump has come under severe criticism for his handling of the crisis, downplaying early warnings of potential death tolls and moving slowly to initiate widespread testing. Despite his early performance, however, Trump’s response to the virus illustrates how democracies excel in containing disease: recognizing that the outcomes of the November elections will turn on his handling of the pandemic, Trump has begun to take the crisis more seriously, imposing travel restrictions, supporting massive economic relief, and using the Defense Production Act to boost the manufacture of testing materials. Unlike dictators, who can squelch opposition, democratically elected leaders such as Trump are pressured to respond to criticism, which ultimately can yield more effective containment measures.
No one can predict with certainty the course of this pandemic. But our research on democracy and war suggests that there are critical actions both policymakers and individuals should take to fight the virus. Voters should continue to hold their elected leaders’ feet to the fire to motivate them to fight the virus as effectively as possible and to respond flexibly to changing conditions. Democracies should nurture information flows inside and outside of government to spur open debate about the best path forward.
As in wartime, the looming challenge for democracies will be expanding the power of the state without undermining democracy itself. South Korea, for instance, stifled the coronavirus by collecting widespread personal information about patients and informing individuals who came into contact with victims. The U.S. government may need to direct mass production of critical goods such as ventilators and control prices to prevent gouging. This can be a difficult balance—witness, for example, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s power grab in Hungary or the Israeli government’s concerning expansion of data collection powers. But democracies have managed this balance before, winning wars without destroying freedom, and it can do the same in fighting the novel coronavirus. As in wars, democracy will be a source of strength in fighting the virus, not a source of weakness.
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