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Why Are Democratic Alliances so Sluggish? (And a Proposed Solution)

(The 50th G7 summit in Apulia, Italy.)

The democratic form of government is persistently incompetent at preparing for its own defense, despite fair warnings.”

It is taking an exceptionally long time to organize democracies for cooperation after two years of war in Ukraine, and in the deterrence of China from attacking Taiwan, both of which depend on demonstrated military capabilities. President Joe Biden, currently at the G-7 summit in Italy, announced that the world is at aninflection point.” However, it is unclear if the major democracies will take this opportunity to begin serious rearmament or whether they will collude in adopting only cautious half-measures. This is because Western leaders and constituents are unsure whether the Russian war in Ukraine, the Chinese harassment sorties around Taiwan, and the Iranian volleys against Israel, are independent crises provoked by anachronistic and declining elites in Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran, or whether we are looking at the opening stages of the next world war. Most worrying, as Geoffrey Blainey, Australia’s eminent historian of war, has observed, states isolating their people and inuring them to warlike confrontation is often an indicator of coming conflict. 

This democratic pathology of delayed reaction to foreign policy crises can be attributed in part to the origins of the politicians, predominantly business types and their lawyers, whose experience in negotiating with unions and shareholders does not translate well into the ruthless world of diplomacy. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain came from a family whose business at its peak supplied two-thirds of metal screws made in England. Major power conflict was often unthinkable in the commercial age between 1815 to 1914 (though European powers still fought each other on scales smaller than the First World War) because war was thought irrationally costly and bad for business. Business lawyers often deceive themselves about the ease of making a deal when it comes to indivisibles like identity and national aspirations. Elected politicians often do not know their own history. 

The advantage of a prompt and early defense is that it avoids a major war that is exceptionally expensive. Winners typically lose five to seven years of economic growth, whereas losers suffer developmental delays of between 21 and 25 years, according to calculations by A.F.K. Organski and Jacek Kugler. Small losing states that remain economically isolated after a major war, like East Germany, never recover. Rarely do wars unlock untapped economic and human potential. According to Robert Higgs, the reduction in American unemployment resulting from rearmament in the United States in anticipation of the Second World War matched the number of citizens put into uniform: Who would trade the unemployment line for the horrors of assaulting a beach? On rare occasions, such as the Second Boer War (1899-1902), war is profitable for a narrow group of speculators and investors. 

Deterrence will cost perhaps twice what is currently being spent by states unprepared for war, like Canada, Taiwan, and Japan. Failed deterrence resulting in a victorious war will cost a hundred times current defense expenditures. A victory that escalates to the local use of nuclear weapons will trigger global proliferation, and a continental nuclear war will cost a thousand times more than failed deterrence. The impact of even a regional nuclear exchange will inflict greater costs on human health than climate change: flooding the atmosphere with Iodine-131 and Strontium-90, which will injure a generation of children.

The democratic form of government is persistently incompetent at preparing for its own defense, despite fair warnings. In 1667, the British parliament, in history’s worst example of an attempt to save money, mothballed nearly the entire Royal Navy at Medway, and, in June of that year, a hostile Dutch fleet seized and burned nearly the entire flotilla, ending the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667) in the Netherlands’ favor. This battle is still regarded as the single worst British military defeat. During the nearly two decades of European resistance against Bonapartism, the British government of Pitt the Younger was briefly supplanted by the Prime Ministership of Henry Addington, whose policy of peace at-any-cost with Napoleon, resulted in the 1802 Treaty of Amiens, during which respite Napoleon was able to  prepare for an invasion of England. It took the alarming destruction of the Turkish fleet at Sinope by the Russians in 1853, to trigger an Anglo-French alliance, almost too late, to block the spread of Russian imperialism beyond Crimea.

In the lead-up to the First World War, Great Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, failed to recognize the seriousness of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and dithered in making an explicit and public deterrent threat anticipating Germany’s march through Belgium, which could have averted that disastrous conflict. As is typical, the London cabinet was distracted by a domestic crisis, with far greater electoral implications, in Northern Ireland. Grey, like many peacetime politicians, was obsessed by the fear of inadvertent tension and escalation to war, without realizing that the lesson of history is that weakness invites predators.

Democracies are often mired in divisive domestic politics, which severely delay the organization of a coherent defense policy. Class warfare split France and its National Assembly during the 1930s, neutralizing Paris’ strategy of uniting Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia against a resurgent Nazi Germany, with catastrophic consequences, even worse than the First World War. The inaction by British Prime Ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain over the repeated Nazi violations of the Treaty of Versailles, particularly Germany’s large-scale rearmament, and the British refusal to back French attempts at cementing their Polish-Romanian-Czechoslovak bloc, culminating in the Munich Crisis of 1938, are well known. 

The lead up to the Second World War is an extreme example of timid democrats, distracted by domestic concerns, the trauma of the First World War, pacifism, and the fake yet widespread legitimation of Nazism for having overcome the Great Depression. There should have been no surprise, though. Adolf Hitler conveniently wrote a manifesto of his strategic plans, in Mein Kampf, available to be read by all foreign ministers, but seemingly only read by the political outcast, Winston Churchill. 

The United States’ insular distractions, peculiar for a great trading state, set the conditions for the surprising Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, Singapore, and the Philippines were entirely deterrable. President Harry S. Truman’s abandonment of the Nationalist cause in the Chinese Civil War, ostensibly due to the perception of their corruption in the eyes of the American electorate, is the foundation of the Communist threat now asserting itself from the East Asian littoral. President Truman’s myopic disregard of foreign affairs in Asia a second time set the permissive conditions for the outbreak of the North Korean invasion of the South in 1950. Democratic disregard of foreign affairs during times of domestic crisis also partially explains American policy tragedies in Vietnam, Iran in 1979, and Afghanistan in 2021.

According to Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, democratic alliances, though difficult to organize, are the principal source of democratic power. Most anti-democratic coalitions are organized by narrow nationalist authoritarian states, who are no less capable in manufacturing, combat performance, or technology. Nazi Germany demonstrated exceptional battlefield competence; Japan developed advanced technologies applicable to naval warfare; and the Soviet Union manufactured armaments on an immense scale under extremely unfavorable circumstances. However, authoritarian states distrust each other and largely rely on each other to distract their common enemies. Germany ultimately invaded its Soviet ally. Germany did not announce this attack to its ally Japan, and only near the end of the war did Germany concede to Japanese requests to provide radioactive materials for its nuclear weapons program. Japan did not announce its attack on Pearl Harbor to its German ally and would not interfere with American supplies carried by Soviet ships off the Japanese coast to Vladivostok.

Rationally speaking, most authoritarian alliances are minimum winning coalitions, in the sense that countries commit the least effort in exchange for the maximum gain. Authoritarian alliances tend to be small. But democracies, because they are more often inspired by explicit demands for human rights and justice as expressed by international organizations, pursue overwhelming coalitions that bring much greater resources. In these contests of attrition, democracies win because they aggregate better, not because of better technology or superior fighting skills. 

Unfortunately, most democratic alliances do not become fully formed until after the outbreak of hostilities. Attempts to establish an equivalent to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Asia will be undermined by the historically benign hegemony of China, Beijing’s tributary rather than territorial assertiveness, the divisive nature of any alliance that includes Japan (given recent memories of the Second World War), and the success of China’s diplomatic bilateralization of issues. Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), a Cold War equivalent attempt to NATO in Southeast Asia, largely faded and expired on these rocks. 

Democratic alliances are often mobilized in response to strategically traumatic events. More often, though, politically skillful leaders are required to shape public opinion through media and strategic incitement of their often reluctant or preoccupied electorates. President Woodrow Wilson applied the skills and resources of electoral campaigning to shift American sentiment toward entry into the First World War. The fall of France in June of 1940 led American President Franklin D. Roosevelt to initiate steps to entangle the American military into a common fate with its intended allies. President Roosevelt ordered American ships into waters intended to increase contact with German U-boats, as well as increasing American support to volunteers fighting the Japanese invasion of China.

It is not at all clear whether the present leaders of the United States, Japan, Germany, France, or the United Kingdom possess the quality of leadership needed to galvanize a democratic coalition. But a first step would be to reemphasize substantially the linking of trade penalties to human rights violations in Russia, China, Iran, and their allies, as well as highlighting other insults to democratic principles. Then, in the same manner that President Roosevelt deployed troops to Greenland and Iceland during the Second World War, democratic countries should deploy tripwire forces (consisting mostly of American but also British, Canadian, French, Italian, and German land units), in key potentially conflict locations, such as on the Omani islands of the Straits of Hormuz, on Pratas Island in the South China Sea, Odessa airport, the Penghu Islands of Taiwan, Georgia, and in Finland (opposite Murmansk). This framework would be a solid first step in the creation of a deterrent or wartime coalition.

Julian Spencer-Churchill is an associate professor of international relations at Concordia University, author of the 2007 book Militarization and War and of the 2014 book Strategic Nuclear Sharing. He was also a former Operations Officer, 3 Field Engineer Regiment. He has published extensively on Pakistan, where he conducted fieldwork for over ten years, as well as in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and Egypt.

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