Emory Report

February 16, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 21

Domestic politics determine
victors in war, says Reiter

As the Clinton administration readies armed forces for a possible military strike against Iraq, Dan Reiter's research on domestic politics and war outcomes offers an interesting glimpse into the less-than-ideological reasons wars are fought. The Emory political scientist's research encompasses six papers and a book he is writing with a Yale colleague, and helped him secure a $4,000 University Research Committee award last summer.

Most of Reiter's research extends back to 1815-the end of the Napoleonic wars and what some believe to be the beginning of the modern era in international relations. "If you look at all the wars since 1815, there's only one example of a democracy starting a war that it goes on to lose," he said.

The fact that democracies win wars is a puzzle "because some people think democracies tend to be more peace-loving," Reiter said. "So why is it that this political system, which is allegedly more peace-loving, is also more effective at the art of war?"

His papers and book examine potential answers. One possibility is because democratic leaders fear being kicked out of office if they lose wars and only start wars they're confident of winning. "A good example of this was the Clinton administration's hesitancy towards becoming involved in Bosnia for several years until the conditions were exactly right," Reiter noted.

One of Reiter's theories that proved true is: "Soldiers fight harder for democracies than they do for other states because they're more motivated to die in the battlefield for a popular government." But his research did not support the idea that democracies band together when one is threatened or that democracies win because they have stronger economies than other kinds of governments.

"People say the primary American contribution to the victorious allied war effort [during World War II] was that we were the arsenal democracy, and we produced a lot of war goods and materials," Reiter said. "However, our research finds in general that's not the case-democracies don't win because their economies are bigger."

Another theory Reiter examined is that battlefield soldiers are more likely to surrender to a democracy than to an authoritarian or dictatorial state. "Democracies are more likely to honor international treaties protecting the rights of prisoners of war," explained Reiter.

Reiter's research suggested democracies adopt different kinds of military strategies than other kinds of states, especially strategies based on mobility and maneuver rather than the application of large amounts of force. "Democracies are especially motivated to fight wars that are short, low in casualties and victorious," he said, noting maneuver-based strategies promise to accomplish these objectives. He addressed this idea in a paper he wrote with Curtis Meek, a PhD student in political science.

"What we're trying to do is examine more closely some of the assumptions that are driving an important part of American foreign policy," said Reiter. In the 1990s, American foreign policy strongly emphasized spreading democracy throughout the world. "And that has led to the United States giving lots of economic aid to formerly communist countries that want to become democratic and to movement towards the expansion of NATO to include formerly communist countries."

Those policies have been based principally around the assumption that democracies are more likely to be peaceful, Reiter said. "What we're trying to do is build a more sophisticated understanding of the connection between democracy and conflict." A completely democratic world may see a "different kind of dynamic or different kind of environment-rather than just peace around the world," he said.

-Linda Klein

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