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Power and Military Effectiveness

The Fallacy of Democratic Triumphalism

Michael C. Desch

Publication Year: 2008

Since 1815 democratic states have emerged victorious from most wars, leading many scholars to conclude that democracies are better equipped to triumph in armed conflict with autocratic and other non-representative governments. Political scientist Michael C. Desch argues that the evidence and logic of that supposition, which he terms “democratic triumphalism,” are as flawed as the arguments for the long-held and opposite belief that democracies are inherently disadvantaged in international relations. Through comprehensive statistical analysis, a thorough review of two millennia of international relations thought, and in-depth case studies of modern-era military conflicts, Desch finds that the problems that persist in prosecuting wars—from building up and maintaining public support to holding the military and foreign policy elites in check—remain constant regardless of any given state’s form of government. In assessing the record, he finds that military effectiveness is almost wholly reliant on the material assets that a state possesses and is able to mobilize. Power and Military Effectiveness is an instructive reassessment of the increasingly popular belief that military success is one of democracy’s many virtues. International relations scholars, policy makers, and military minds will be well served by its lessons.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

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pp. ix-x

This book began as an article in International Security and a subsequent exchange with a number of scholars whose work I critiqued, including Ajin Choi, David Lake, Dani Reiter, and Allan Stam. For extremely helpful comments on parts of earlier drafts of this book I thank them, as well as Alexander Downes, Jeffrey Engel, James Galbraith, Eugene Gholz, Douglass Gibler, Hein Goemans, Samuel Huntington, Stuart Kaufman, Edward Mansfield, Daniel Markey, John ...

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pp. 1-7

One of the most significant developments in world politics in the later half of the twentieth century has been the spread of democracy around the globe. In 1942 fewer than 20 percent of the states of the world were democratic; by 1990 almost half were, according to data assembled by political scientist Samuel Huntington. 1 Indeed, the march of democracy seemed so inexorable that former State Department official Francis Fukuyama famously declared that we had ...

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1 Democracy and Victory: Why Democracy Is Not a Liability

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pp. 8-24

In this chapter, after summarizing the long-standing debate about democracy and foreign policy, I turn to a subset of that larger issue: the relationship between democracy and military effectiveness. Although the conventional wisdom holds that democracy is a liability in the successful conduct of war, I suggest three reasons for doubting this view: first, the theoretical propositions of ...

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2 Democracy and Victory: Why Regime Type Hardly Matters

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pp. 25-69

Democratic triumphalists point out that an examination of all wars since 1815 reveals that the more democratic states have been on the winning side in the overwhelming majority of cases.1 From this correlation between the level of democracy and the likelihood of victory, they infer that there is a causal link between the two. “There is something about democratic regimes,” Dan Reiter and Allan Stam triumphalists suggest, “that makes it easier for them to generate ...

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3 Democracy and the Russo-Polish War

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pp. 70-94

At first glance, the Russo-Polish War of 1920 seems like a strong case for the triumphalists’ proposition that democracies have a significant advantage over nondemocracies in the wise selection and successful conduct of war. Poland was a democracy, and it launched a successful war. Historian Norman Davies characterized Poland as a parliamentary democracy and the POLITY dataset gives Poland an impressive democracy score of 8, which places it squarely in the “high ...

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4 Democracy and Israel’s Military Effectiveness

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pp. 95-143

Israel seems to be a perfect illustration of how democracy helps states wisely select and effectively prosecute wars. Clearly anticipating later triumphalist arguments, Israeli leaders boasted of the military virtues of their political system. For example, Yigal Allon, the commander of the Palmach, maintained that the fact that Israel was a democracy gave it a number of wartime advantages over the Arabs: ...

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5 Democracy and Britain’s Victory in the Falklands War

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pp. 144-168

The 1982 Falklands War seems to offer strong support for the triumphalists’ view that democracies enjoy an advantage over nondemocracies when they meet on the battlefield. On April 2, 1982, the Argentine military junta sent its armed forces to invade the Islas Malvinas in an effort to assert Argentine sovereignty. But by June 6, 1982, the Argentine garrison on the islands surrendered to a British task force sent to retake the Falkland Islands. The democratic United Kingdom, with ...

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6 If Not Democracy, Then What?

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pp. 169-183

Democratic defeatists maintain that democracy is a decided disadvantage for states in the preparation for and conduct of war. This long-standing argument— stretching from Thucydides in 406 B.C. to twentieth-century classical realists— has been very influential among scholars and policymakers. It suffers, however, from serious defects in both its logic and evidence. ...


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pp. 185-225


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pp. 227-232

E-ISBN-13: 9780801896835
E-ISBN-10: 0801896835
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801888014
Print-ISBN-10: 0801888018

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 3 line drawings, 7 maps
Publication Year: 2008

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Military policy.
  • Military readiness.
  • Democracy.
  • War.
  • Strategy.
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