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Democracy and the Preparation and Conduct of War

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 October 2021


In Ethics, Security, and the War-Machine, Ned Dobos highlights several negative consequences the preparation for war has for individuals and states. But he misses what I consider perhaps the most significant consequence of military mobilization for states, especially democracies: how war and the preparation for it affect deliberative politics. While many argue that all states, including democracies, require strong militaries—and there is some evidence that long wars can build democracies and states—I focus on the other effects of militarization and war on democratic states. War and militarism are antipodal to democracy and undermine it. Their normative bases are conflicting—democracy takes force off the table, whereas force is legitimate in war. Thus, while militarism and militarization can sometimes yield liberalization and the expansion of civil rights, they are arguably more likely to undermine democratic norms and practices.

Book Symposium: Ethics, Security, and the War-Machine
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

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I thank Matthew Evangelista, Peter Balint, and Ned Dobos for commenting on an earlier draft of this essay.


1 Dobos, Ned, Ethics, Security, and the War-Machine: The True Cost of the Military (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), p. 3CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Johnson, James Turner, Morality and Contemporary Warfare (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999)Google Scholar; and Johnson, James Turner, “The Right to Use Armed Force: Sovereignty, Responsibility, and the Common Good,” in Lang, Anthony F. Jr., O'Driscoll, Cian, and Williams, John, eds., Just War: Authority, Tradition, and Practice (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2013), pp. 1934Google Scholar.

3 Other questions include when, if ever, democratization is a legitimate or just cause for war and whether democratization can be accomplished by war.

4 Kier, Elizabeth and Krebs, Ronald R., “Introduction: War and Democracy in Comparative Perspective,” in Kier, Elizabeth and Krebs, Ronald R., eds., In War's Wake: International Conflict and the Fate of Liberal Democracy (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 120CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at p. 1.

5 Leaders of democratic states, autocrats, and authoritarians often use war as a rationale to bolster their control, and this often works, at least in the short term.

6 Kennedy, Paul, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Random House, 1984)Google Scholar.

7 Tilly, Charles, Coercion, Capital and European States: AD 990–1990 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990)Google Scholar.

8 Skocpol, Theda, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Skowronek, Stephen, Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877–1920 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Katznelson, Ira and Shefter, Martin, eds., Shaped by War and Trade: International Influences on American Political Development (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Paul Starr, “Dodging a Bullet: Democracy's Gains in Modern War,” in Kier and Krebs, In War's Wake, pp. 50–66, at p. 55.

10 See Elizabeth Kier, “War and Reform: Gaining Labor's Compliance on the Homefront,” in Kier and Krebs, In War's Wake, pp. 139–61.

11 Neta C. Crawford and Audie Klotz, eds., How Sanctions Work: Lessons from South Africa (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999); and Neta C. Crawford, “The Domestic Sources and Consequences of Aggressive Foreign Policies: The Folly of South Africa's ‘Total Strategy’” (Working Paper No. 41, Centre for Southern African Studies, University of the Western Cape, Bellville, South Africa, 1995).

12 Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992).

13 And, war arguably builds character and virtuous citizens, molding those who take up arms into supercitizens and heroes.

14 Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder, “Does War Influence Democratization?,” in Kier and Krebs, In War's Wake, pp. 23–49, at p. 45.

15 Ian Morris, War! What is it Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), p. 319.

16 I do not have room here to cite the entire democratic peace literature. For a start, see Michael Doyle, “Liberalism and World Politics,” American Political Science Review 80, no. 4 (December 1986), pp. 1151–69.

17 Francisco de Vitoria, quoted in Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 3rd ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2000), p. 39.

18 Immanuel Kant, “The Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch (1795),” in Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, trans. Ted Humphrey (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983), p. 113.

19 Gil Merom, How Democracies Lose Small Wars: State, Society, and the Failures of France in Algeria, Israel in Lebanon, and the United States in Vietnam (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 15.

20 Donald Trump, quoted in Jeremy Diamond and Kevin Liptak, “Trump Claims US Could ‘Win’ War in Afghanistan in a Week during a Meeting with Pakistani PM,” CNN, updated July 22, 2019,

21 Randall Caroline Watson Forsberg, Toward a Theory of Peace: The Role of Moral Beliefs, ed. and intro. Matthew Evangelista and Neta C. Crawford (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2019), p. 139.

22 Ibid., p. 24.

23 Ibid., p. 139.

24 Does the behavior toward civilians differ depending on who a state is fighting? In other words, does the race or religion of opponents influence the way a military treats enemy civilians? Has this changed over time? See John W. Dower, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon, 1986). In my work on the U.S. military, I found that the treatment of enemy civilians depends on how those people are understood; specifically, on whether the people are part of a civilization that the United States military respects.

25 Forsberg, Toward a Theory of Peace, p. 140.

26 Neta C. Crawford, Argument and Change in World Politics: Ethics, Decolonization, and Humanitarian Intervention (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002). See also Forsberg, Toward a Theory of Peace.

27 Dobos, Ethics, Security, and the War-Machine, pp. 14–39.

28 James Madison, quoted in Chalmers Johnson, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (New York: Henry Holt, 2007), p. 18.

29 George Washington, “George Washington, September 17, 1796, Farewell Address,’” Library of Congress,

30 Harold D. Lasswell, “The Garrison State,” American Journal of Sociology 46, no. 4 (January 1941), pp. 455–68, at p. 455.

31 Ibid., p. 461.

32 Ibid., p. 462.

33 Harold D. Lasswell, “Does the Garrison State Threaten Civil Rights?,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 275 (May 1951), pp. 111–16, at p. 111.

34 Aaron L. Friedberg, “Why Didn't the United States Become a Garrison State?,” International Security 16, no. 4 (Spring 1992), pp. 109–42.

35 Ibid., p. 142.

36 President of the United States, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, D.C.: Executive Office of the President, September 2002), p. 15, 2009–

37 Ibid., p. 6.

38 Ibid., p. 2.

39 George Bush, “President Bush Delivers Graduation Speech at West Point” (speech, United States Military Academy, West Point, New York, June 1, 2002),

40 John Yoo, The Powers of War and Peace: The Constitution and Foreign Affairs after 9/11 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

41 Lasswell, “Does the Garrison State Threaten Civil Rights?,” p. 111.

42 See Michael Brenes, For Right and Might: Cold War Defense Spending and the Remaking of American Democracy (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2020); and Rosella Cappella Zielinski, “U.S. Wars Abroad Increase Inequality at Home: Who Foots the Bill for American Hegemony?,” Foreign Affairs, October 5, 2018,

43 Neta C. Crawford, “War ‘In Our Name’ and the Responsibility to Protest: Ordinary Citizens, Civil Society, and Prospective Moral Responsibility,” in Peter French and Howard K. Wettstein, eds., Forward-Looking Collective Responsibility, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 38 (Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2014), pp. 138–70; and Karl Jaspers, The Question of German Guilt (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000).

44 Neta C. Crawford, “Institutionalizing Passion in World Politics: Fear and Empathy,” International Theory 6, no. 3 (November 2014), pp. 535–57.

45 See, for example, Dower, War without Mercy; Lifton, Robert Jay, The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat (New York: Basic Books, 1990)Google Scholar; and Staub, Ervin, The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999)Google Scholar.

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