Why Democracies Go To War Against Other Democracies

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Amidst the electoral ascendancy of Islamists in the Middle East and the apprehension it inspires, the saving grace is a faith in Immanuel Kant’s thesis of a democratic peace.  Whatever concerns an Islamist president in Egypt may stoke in the West or Israel, many observers will assert the long term prospects for a global peace are only enhanced by the addition of yet another democracy.  While not yet tested, the historical record of democracies does indeed show a remarkable recourse to peaceful resolution of conflicts.  (Dictatorships may suffer at the hand of democratic war machines and intelligence machinations, but few liberated populations are lamenting the belligerence of democracies.)  Fledgling democracies do present a challenge in their susceptibility to populists and chauvinists, but again the instances of outright war have been minimal.  In the end, the prospects for global peace only grows, correct?  Well, just as the post-Cold War wave of democratization begins impacting the Middle East, the phenomenon of globalization exposes a critical shortcoming of the democratic peace proposition.  “Failed states” and “non-state actors” have become part of a nation’s threat matrix, but they have never been accorded the parity they are beginning to merit.  In the post-Westphalian era, states must now share space with non-state actors, specifically global corporations, whose resources and influence can exceed that of states.  Suddenly, a conflict between democracies, aligned with opposing corporate interests, becomes conceivable.

Corporate Climbing...

The ascendancy of corporations and the influence they exercise is not new.  The British East India Company was the vehicle for British domination of the Indian subcontinent.  Cecil Rhodes’ diamond ventures provided the foundation for his conquest of South Africa (again for Britain).  What is new is their capabilities vis-a-vis mature states.

In Power Inc., American scholar David Rothkopf outlines the dyad of ExxonMobil and Sweden; the latter was a onetime European major power and is now the touchstone for liberal democracy, but the former, a consequence of American antitrust action against John D. Rockefeller's oil empire, easily prevails:

  1. Sweden’s GDP in 2009 was $406 billion. Exxon’s annual sales that year were $442 billion.
  2. Sweden has nine million inhabitants. While Exxon has 83,600 employees, that accounts for directly supporting perhaps half a million lives. Add in its global network of 175,000 supplier companies and ten million customers and the reach grows. Exxon has 2.5 million shareholders, of which two thousand are institutional and represent the retirement savings of millions who are thereby also linked to the company’s fate.
  3. In 2006, Exxon’s budgeted expenditures exceeded $400 billion. Sweden’s were less than one-third of that amount.
  4. Sweden’s budget is heavily dominated by entitlement spending, over which its government has little control. Exxon spent $66 billion on operating costs alone and $20 billion on capital projects— several times what Sweden could afford.
  5. While Sweden has embassies in about thirty countries, Exxon operates in almost every country worldwide, with product and marketing offices in more than eighty countries and more than a hundred exploration and production sites in thirty countries internationally.

(Rothkopf, David (2012-02-28). Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government--and the Reckoning That Lies Ahead (p. 314). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.)

On a global matter like climate change, Rothkopf notes Sweden, which persuaded 173 countries to sign onto the Kyoto Treaty, was thwarted by an opposition led by corporate interests, including ExxonMobil, which succeeded in persuading the United States against joining.  Rothkopf concluded, “Sweden had a vote and used its leverage cannily. But ExxonMobil, as it turned out, had a veto.”

In time, corporations will recognize the power to deter can be complemented by the capacity to compel, and military capabilities outside the purview of sovereign governments have already matured -- and are available for hire.

Lessons Learned Just This Decade

In June 2012, the United States Joint Staff released a study synthesizing the findings of preceding studies reviewing the past ten years of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq into eleven strategic themes.  The fourth theme, Transitions (e.g. from Phase III to Phase IV, the Coalition Provisional Authority to an Iraqi government), focused on the “[f]ailure to adequately plan and resource strategic and operational transitions endangered accomplishment of the overall mission.”  

The study noted the United States had meticulously planned and trained extensively for major combat operations, while neglecting preparation for contingency or stability operations.  Moreover, as decision-makers recognized the need for capabilities, adequate resources were rarely provided. The study acknowledges DOD later established training for stability operations, but conveniently omits how the capability gap was mitigated in the interim.

The reliance on contractors has been derided but, indeed, private security companies have developed and possessed skill sets in environments where modern militaries are reluctant to commit.  Their deployment in the past decade in post-combat Phase IV operations was critical.  Similarly, private security companies have also been integral to fulfilling pre-combat “Phase 0” operations -- preventing conflict in the first place, again another task modern militaries are hesitant to undertake.

As submitted by American scholar (and one-time practitioner) Dr. Sean McFate, the value of successfully prosecuting major combat operations (e.g. Phase III) has diminished and the importance of preventing conflict or ensuring stability has risen.  However, the United States has signaled the intent to avoid such engagements; as such, private security companies will become increasingly relied upon to prevent conflict or ensure stability.

Major global energy corporations, such as ExxonMobil, already rely on private security companies around the world to safeguard corporate property and assets.  

If major corporations do identify the need to prevent conflict or ensure stability, then the subsequent decision to employ private military capabilities could increase the prospect for conflict, even unprecedented ones between democracies.  Consider the following speculative scenario. (As a Senior Analyst with Wikistrat, the author developed the below while participating in a simulation examining the durability of the "democratic peace" thesis in the future.)

Southeast Asia, The Near Future

Present-day Indonesia and Malaysia are the result of the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

(Acknowledged, Malaysia is a “partly free” country, as determined by Freedom House; more pointedly, the organization states “Malaysia is not an electoral democracy.”  Nonetheless, the citizens are practiced in elections and possess de jure rights, suggesting a population acclimated to democratic customs could accomplish a transition.)

While each endured significant political transitions, each nation remained committed to modernization and competing in the global economy.  Modernization, however, entails foreign direct investment, which in turn requires a secure environment.

If Indonesia and Malaysia welcome substantial investment from global energy providers, their presence could entail the use of private security companies as well.  The aggregate investment could well form a constituency prepared to seek influence and lobby the prevailing governments to favor its agenda, even at the risk of interstate conflict.

Indonesia, as the most impacted, has learned the most and resurrected itself; indeed, subsequent to the 2008 collapse, Indonesia’s growth accelerated and is “the commodity economy that works.”  By contrast, Malaysia remains committed to central planning and has not sufficiently diversified its economy.  

Indonesia was a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) from 1962 to 2009.  However, in 2004, the country became a net oil importer and, in 2009, suspended its OPEC membership. Since becoming an oil importer, Indonesia has focused on securing energy sources for its domestic market.

Malaysia is focused on efforts to enhance output from existing oil and natural gas fields and to advance exploration in deepwater areas.  Malaysia’s oil sector is dominated by the nation’s oil and gas company, Petroliam Nasional Berhad (Petronas).  The company holds exclusive ownership rights to all oil and gas exploration and production projects in the country and is the single largest contributor of Malaysian government revenues (over 40 percent in 2010).  Foreign companies are permitted to invest, provided minimum equity is extended to Petronas; as such, ExxonMobil, Shell, and Murphy Oil are the largest foreign oil companies by production volume.

In the near future, both Indonesia and Malaysia could conclude greater foreign direct investment in its indigenous oil sectors would be beneficial to development.  Indonesia has coped with ethnic unrest in the past and may have to do so in the future; Malaysia is concerned about piracy in neighboring waters and has committed resources to combat it.  As neither country may possess ample military resources nor be inclined to expend significant resources protecting foreign corporate assets, investing corporations might enlist private security companies to provide or augment local military support.

Maybe the energy-security ventures are near each other geographically (perhaps in the Celebes basin where the area is in dispute between the two countries or the Dumai oil refinery where Indonesia oil is transported via pipeline to Malaysian refineries) but neither the host country or corporate leadership has communicated on appropriate rules of engagement.  

In the event of any accusations of encroachment, the chance for outside independent confirmation may be minimal.  

In the event of subsequent encounters, each side may allege the other side used force.

Unable to clear the matter via inter-corporate negotiations, the energy-security ventures may decide to lobby their host nations for military support, warning any failure to support would result in divestment.  

Amidst increased news reporting, coupled with sensationalist rumors, some local political leaders may support the call for military force.  Components of the national leadership, some with connections to the investments in question, may too support the use of force.  

As momentum comes to a head, Indonesian and Malaysia militaries engage each other; news of bloodshed deepens the crisis and two nations, once at peace, now confront each other militarily on the basis of hostilities between opposing energy-security ventures.


Since the end of the Cold War, American foreign policy has been erratic but an underlying constant has been its evangelism on behalf of democratization.  The means have varied and the results have been mixed, but the democracy's advance, however slow, has redeemed (mostly) redeemed American undertakings.  Unfortunately, the combination of fruitless nation-building in Afghanistan and a stagnant economy at home have left American decision-makers searching for ways to satisfy the impulse to champion beseiged democrats while avoiding undue (read military) intervention.  

Complicating the matter has been the fate of the American economy.  

Fantasy ideologies like fascism, communism, and reactionary theocracies have been unable to supplant liberal democracy as the most effective mode of sovereign governance, but its fellow sibling, Anglo-Saxon capitalism, has been less fortunate.  

Indeed, Rothkopf declares the international arena now features "competing capitalisms" -- the original Anglo-Saxon laissez faire capitalism, the authoritarian mercantilist version, and the "country as corporation" variant.  Such heterogeneity has already confounded one aspect of U.S. foreign policy (e.g. the PRC, "partner or peer competitor?") and with the conceivability of war between democracies increasingly possible, how long can the U.S. persist in pursuing democratization before realizing global peace may still be elusive?

Perhaps instead of democracy, American foreign policy can focus on facilitating modernization instead, albeit on two important criteria.  American scholar Parag Khanna has concluded globalization's challenges and dynamics elevate the importance of "governance" and "rule of law".  

Why?  Because contemporary challenges are no longer the domain of states or solvable by states alone, even if one of the states is the greatest combination of economic and military power history has ever seen.  The multiplicity of actors and the speed at which they can effect change globally means sovereign power need not be superior militarily or economically, just good enough to facilitate an actor's capacity to act in concert with other like-minded actors.

Shifting emphasis from democracy to governance and rule of law would shift attention and resources from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, newly emergent from civil war and poised to flourish.  The Legatum Prosperity Index, which measures countries in terms of wealth and well-being, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Indonesia rank 63rd, 43rd, and 70th, respectively, and ahead of Turkey (75) and India (91).  The shift would benefit American diplomatic and commercial interests in the Indo-Pacific far more than patrolling the Afghan frontier.

America will still be a stalwart defender of democracy, it must simply recognize that helping struggling democrats modernizing their country sometimes deserve help before besieged democrats receive it.  Without good governance or the rule of law, the above scenario may demonstrate why democracy may not be the panacea Kant anticipated.

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