TURES COLUMN: Why Democracies beat autocracies

Published 10:30 am Wednesday, April 6, 2022

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Throughout modern politics, there is a certain romanticization of autocracy, where its adherents presume that “the leader” can do no wrong. At the same time, democracies are scorned by the same crowd as “weak,” and “divided,” a less efficient sort of government that’s easy prey for the one wielding the iron fist. Yet as Ukraine shows, republics are tougher than they look. And scholarly evidence shows that it is democracies who are more likely to win wars than the tyrants.

Emory University Political Science Professor Dan Reiter and Allan C. Stam III from Yale University are two professors who tested this exact argument: Which type of government wins? 

“The authors test their propositions on a comprehensive set of major battles from 1800 to 1982, using data compiled by the Historical Evaluation and Research Organization,” they write in an article for the Journal of Conflict Resolution. “The authors find the armies of democratic states tend to fight with marginally better logistics, substantially better initiative, and superior leadership.” (Democracy and Battlefield Military Effectiveness (sagepub.com))

On paper, Russia should have walked all over Ukraine from the start. Look at the size of the Russian Army and its voluminous military assets. Armchair “pundit-generals” on some networks insisted we even throw in our lot with Russia, seeing them as the superior force.

But the truth is hard to cover up. While Russian conscripts are forced into battle with World War II-era weaponry in some cases, oligarchs from the new government try to hide their armada of yachts and sizable bank accounts from those seeking to impose sanctions. There is little to prevent an authoritarian regime from becoming a kleptocracy.

Reiter and Stam recently reprised their research in a media article, writing “With slow decision-making, volunteer armies and polarized public opinion, democracies might seem at a disadvantage.” So why do democracies win 80% of the wars they fight, as the authors find?

(Why democracies win more wars than autocracies | Miller Center)

Here’s another reason. It’s not just the corruption. It’s the decision making as well.

Democracies are a lot smarter about choosing the wars they fight, because they have to be. They can be held accountable by the press, opposition parties, and most importantly, the public. 

Because they steal less from the people, they have higher levels of legitimacy, and supporters more willing to fight for their regime, because it is their own.

For Democracies, those in the fight are more likely to be part of the plan. They can even have a greater level of initiative. Compare that to Russia’s forces, who frequently do not know what they are doing, or why. They are conscripted into service, often against their will, and are reluctant to die for someone else’s profit.

And military leaders in an undemocratic government are often too scared to tell their tyrant the truth for fear of punishment, leaving the “genius” to make spectacular mistakes.

Even now, we have those begging for “An American Caesar” to take charge. Though they remain a tiny minority, there are those who chant Putin’s name, who take to the airwaves to support him, and still others who wish for Russia’s leader, or one who adopts his ways, to seize control of the United States. Should this happen, we would find ourselves much like Russia today, a land of poisoning, pilfering, and pathetic rulers, humbled on the battlefield by their neighbors.