World History Revisited, (part I?)

Posted: August 19, 2011 in analysis

We return to World Net Daily yet again, but this time, it is the writings of Vox Day we are considering.  In this column, he said this.

As the military history of democracies from Athens to the United States of America will show, democracies are actually more aggressively militant than most non-democracies. In fact, there has never been a more democratically legitimate leader than Adolf Hitler, who, unlike the unelected neo-fascists of the present European Union, went to the people no less than four times to confirm public support for his actions.

Again, the conclusion of this statement is uninteresting, but the premise demands further analysis.  It is a very broad, sweeping statement, covering both ancient and modern politics, and making a bold claim counter to common wisdom.  So, lets try to figure out if there is any support for it.

Modern Times

First, consider the modern case.  Our threshold for what counts as a democracy, is, apparently, Nazi Germany.  This means the bar is very, very, very low.  In fact, I am having difficulty finding countries in the modern world that are less democratic than Nazi Germany was.  From my own knowledge of the world, I can only think of four countries that, right now, are less democratic than Nazi Germany.  They are Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Swaziland.

But, my own knowledge is incomplete.  Fortunately, the Polity IV project has been studying and measuring democracies around the world in depth and has a comprehensive database of all countries stretching back to 1800.  Germany, from 1933 to 1944, scores as -9 on this scale (0 of 10 points for democracy, minus 9 of 10 points for autocracy).   For 2010, the only countries with a -9 or -10 score are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Swaziland, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and North Korea (the -9s may not even belong on this list, since they are not strictly worse than Germany, but I am including them for the benefit of the doubt on the assumption that the scale is too granular).  The list is slightly different from mine, but the point remains that very very few countries are on it.  This is a somewhat recent development, however.  In 1979, there were 24 countries with a -9 or worse polity score.  More, but not enough to base any conclusions on.

So, I think it’s clear that the original supposition has to be modified to get anything useful out of it.  Very well.  Since we have a polity score for every country (population > 500,000) in the world, for every year, we can simply check, for all the wars we wish, what the polity score was of the aggressor and the aggressee.

The only problem remaining is how to define a war of aggression, and who the aggressor is in that case.  Since Mr. Day’s argument is ultimately about Afghanistan and Iraq, the US must count as the aggressor in those wars.  So, we’ll go with a fairly broad definition of “the guy doing the invading” and ignore any justification or nonmilitary provocation.  We won’t include rebellions or civil wars, unless there is a way to consider it  state-vs-state conflict (usually because of strong foreign support of one or both sides).  Each war is considered to only have two combatants, an aggressor and an aggressee, which are the most directly involved state entities on each side.

Since World War II, there have been 49 conflicts that meet these criteria.  The more democratic state was the aggressor 19 times, the less democratic state was the aggressor 24 times, and the states polity scores were tied 6 times.  The mean difference, however, was 0.44 (the aggressor was, on average, slightly more democratic than the aggressee).  This discrepancy is caused primarily by the United States (and its multinational coalition allies, at times), which as been the aggressor 7 times with an average polity difference of 17.

So by this analysis, even with the US, it’s hard to say that democracies are much more aggressive than non-democracies.  But, perhaps this isn’t the right way to consider the data.  Rather than the difference, perhaps we should be considering the degree of democracy in aggressive countries as an absolute.  The mean polity rating of an aggressor is -3, equivalent to a country like Egypt or Jordan in 2010.

A better way of looking at the characteristics of aggressive nations is to look at a histogram that shows how often nations of each polity score have been the aggressor in wars.  Remember, -10 is a completely undemocratic country, and +10 is a completely democratic one.

Histogram of aggression counts of different polity countries.

That pretty clearly puts to rest the idea that in the modern era, democracies have been more aggressive than non-democracies.

Ancient Times

Well, after such a satisfying analysis of modern times, I’m not really sure how to do something equivalent for ancient times.  So I will leave this for now, but if an approach presents itself, I may return.

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