Power and Military Effectiveness: The Fallacy of Democratic Triumphalism

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Power and Military Effectiveness: The Fallacy of Democratic Triumphalism

By Michael C. Desch
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008
248 pp. $45.00

One explanation for the wrong turns taken in the academic study of international relations might be the Correlates of War project, now based at Penn State. By offering massive data sets on war, it has encouraged efforts to come up with grand theories about the causes and consequences of conflicts, with claims to be truly scientific. Most attempts to draw statistically significant inferences from this data (beyond the banal) have failed, as variations in the historical and geographic contexts undermine the explanatory value of apparent correlations. The project serves as a major distraction and leads to propositions that are superficially attractive but do not withstand close scrutiny. Desch's short book takes on one such proposition: that democracies, with their legitimacy and capacity for strategic common sense, tend to defeat autocracies. Desch also takes on the opposite assertion: that the softness and dithering of democracies render them vulnerable to defeat. He has the methodological prowess that the faux scientism of contemporary international studies requires and easily demonstrates that the statistics prove little -- other than that correlations are weak and that much depends on what is meant by basic concepts such as democracy and victory. Desch does all this very well and convincingly, but one is left wondering whether this is the best use of his considerable talents.

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