Red Herrings, Split Hairs, and Small Wars

In my view, the Democratic Peace (DP) is not an interesting or useful frame for thinking about the international relations of democracy and war during the Cold War, particularly with respect to what was known at the time as the Third World. Inquiry and debate becomes wrapped up in the categories of the DP, in “reconciling” them with the historical record. Empiricist scholarship purporting to apply across time and place privileges its terms of analysis. It necessarily takes an “objectivist” stance towards historical questions: was this or that state really democratic? Was this or that conflict really a war? At the same time, this “objectivism” is politically loaded, for liberalism defines the terms.

This liberal empiricism is why Michael Poznansky (2015) gets into questions of whether or not the perceptions of policymakers were objectively justified. He argues that it is possible to ground the beliefs of decision makers in “observable developments”, such that “threat perceptions” have a “firm basis in objective, endogenous events” (Poznansky 2015:3). Only in this way can he make general claims about the conditions under which certain elected regimes were “treated as non-democracies” (Poznansky 2015a). Were communists, or communist sympathizers, reasonably seen as threats to democracy at the time? His liberal epistemology forces him to take a position on the Cold War, and he duly does so. The perceptions of US officials that ‘pink’ regimes might backslide into authoritarianism were justified by the historical record. “Communism as an ideology was not only threatening geopolitically but the United States also saw it as inherently anti-democratic” (Poznansky 2015:5). Accordingly, to prosecute the Cold War was to avert threats to democracy; to save democracy from its communist geopolitical and ideological opponents. This is the sense in which US officials believed they were “saving democracy” in Iran in 1953, or in other places they intervened in during the Cold War. There is no red herring here, only the split hair between anti-communism and democracy promotion that I identified in my critique (2015).

In his response, Poznansky asks what I mean by democracy as a project of popular rule. For me to question procedural definitions which take elections as the sine qua non of democracy is evidence that I might possibly be a supporter of the People’s Republic of China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela or Fidel Castro’s Cuba. For good measure, he reminds us of Allende’s communist connections. Could I provide any better example of the politics that underpin Poznansky’s work than this HUAC-style line of reasoning?

Democracy as a project of popular rule refers to the struggles through which the many acquire rights and privileges from the few. That is the correct definition of democracy, in my view, and I am interested in having one. Such struggles made electoral democracy historically possible by expanding the franchise. What constitutes democratic struggle varies in time and place, from anti-colonial movements to that for the civil rights of African Americans; from demands for the rights of women to those for the five day working week. In the Third World of the Cold War, the United States arrayed its power against many popular struggles. The US backed authoritarians and oligarchs in Latin America, as it had been doing for decades (Grandin 2007); it sought to bolster declining European empires in Asia and Africa in exchange for an anti-communist alliance in Europe (Leffler 1992:92-94); and the US developed new forms of patron-client relations which involved arming regimes against their own populations (Barkawi 2011). This is the actual historic context in which left-wing elected regimes promising reform were seen as potentially communist (“treated as non-democracies”) and overthrown. Great contortions and distortions are necessary to reconcile such policies and events with the idea that democracies do not wage war on other democracies.

Poznansky closes his reply by asking for evidence and citations to support the claim that US covert operations were intended to be kept secret from the US public and from Congress. In one combination or another, that is what made them covert by definition. I make no claims about whether domestic political considerations were the main reasons for choosing covert instrumentalities; only that these instrumentalities were in fact covert. In an era when intelligence agencies collect metadata on citizens’ email, Poznansky suggests that, because of Vietnam-era reforms, all is more or less well with the secret state and American democracy (2015a). But like the CIA’s covert action arm in its Cold War heyday, drones, special forces, and other forms of hybrid warfare work around prevailing legal and democratic norms. That is what makes them attractive instruments for the executive branch of an imperial republic seeking to avoid the entanglements of “small wars.”

Taking out jihadi leaders with missile fire offers a seemingly cheap tool in respect of the expenditure of blood, treasure, and political capital. But what are the long term consequences of such decapitation strategies? The covert actions of the early Cold War produced unintended consequences. Many on the left decided electoral politics offered little hope of change. They went underground, or out into the bush, and reappeared as armed guerrilla or revolutionary movements. In this new incarnation, they were far more expensive to defeat and sometimes, as in Vietnam and Iran, they could not be defeated. Elsewhere, as in Guatemala, decades of blood-letting ensued. The US shapes its enemies through the weapons it uses against them. ISIS is in part an effect of the way in which the US has prosecuted the War on Terror. Decapitate al-Qaeda, lose wars of occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq, and you get a jihadi pirate haven amid the wreckage of the Middle East states-system. If anything, militant Islam is even more popular worldwide than it was in the wake of 9/11, while its leaders are younger, more radical and more violent.

Balancing “small wars” to maintain international hierarchies against domestic democratic considerations has long proved challenging for imperial republics. Such wars often involve placing imperial power in opposition to popular forces abroad, while cloaking it from democracy at home. These are the kinds of questions, among others, that inquiry into the international relations of democracy and war might pursue were it not so hamstrung proving and disproving the Democratic Peace again and again and again.

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