Do Democracies Declare War On Each Other?

It is a truth universally expounded by advocates of democracy as a system of government that “democracies do not declare war on each other”. It is under this pretext, among others, that the Western World has advocated the spread of democracy to all corners of the world. Recently television in the UK aired an episode of QI, a show that centres around obscure facts. In this episode the panel discussed the Continuation War (in which the two democracies at war were Finland and the United Kingdom) as the only example of democracy fighting democracy, a war in which there were no direct casualties. However, history it would seem is littered with examples of democracies fighting each other.

The earliest examples of democracies declaring war on each other come from ancient Greece. The clearest example comes in the form of the Sicilian expedition when that great beacon of democracy, Athens, invaded the city-state of Syracuse which was also a democracy. Another example from the ancient world would be the Punic wars between the Roman Republic and Carthage, whose system of government was described by Aristotle as a mixture of oligarchy and democracy (as many might choose to see modern Russia).

Moving closer in history to our modern world and an obvious example would be the period surrounding the Napoleonic wars (democratic Britain declaring war on republican France). The war of 1812 between the United States of America and Great Britain was a very bloody affair, from the ashes of which the Americans would get their national anthem. Britain even went so far as to burn Washington to the ground in 1814. Another great example from the 19th century is the American Civil War itself between the United States and the Confederate States which, despite supporting slavery, was still a republic.

Examples of wars between democracies exists all the way into the 21st century when the Russian Federation invaded the Republic of Georgia. Of course it is possible to dispute nearly every single one of the conflicts listed below by introducing factors such as universal suffrage or commitment to human rights etc. The counter argument is that it is possible to have such a restrictive definition of democracy that none of the wars below will really count. Under such a restrictive definition the only nation that would be called a democracy would be Switzerland, the only direct democracy. It is also easy to forget that the Vikings, a people not renowned for being peaceful, were a group of democratic communities that frequently fought with each other.

The list below is formed purely on my own definition of what is counted as a democracy, namely an elected government where suffrage was generally available to citizens of the state (if not universally) and where a “culture of democracy” existed, for example Britain didn’t have universal suffrage until 1928 but it still had a culture of democracy (similarly the USA, a modern beacon of democracy, did not have universal suffrage until the 20th century yet no one doubts its credentials as a democracy). Doubtless there are some wars in the list which some people would dispute and others which some would add. If anything the exercise of formulating the list demonstrates the difficulty in defining precisely what a democracy is.

list of wars between democracies could be argued to be the following:

1) The Peloponnesian War, 431-404 BC – Fought between Athens and the elected oligarchy of Sparta

2)The Sicilian Expedition 415-413 BC – Athens vs Syracuse

3)First, Second and Third Punic Wars 264-146 BC – Roman Republic vs Carthage

4)American Revolutionary War 1775-1783 AD – Continental Congress vs Great Britain

5)Fourth Anglo-Dutch War 1780-1784 AD – Great Britain vs the Netherlands

6)French Revolutionary War 1789-1802 AD – Great Britain vs 1st French Republic

7)War of 1812 1812-1815 AD – Great Britain vs United States of America

8)Mexican-American War 1846-1848 AD – USA vs Republic of Mexico

9)American Civil War 1861-1865 AD – United States of America vs Confederate States of America

10)Philippine-American War 1899-1902 AD – Republic of the Philippines vs USA

11)Polish-Lithuanian War 1919-1920 AD

12)Operation Fork 1940 AD – Britain invaded the pacifist and neutral Republic of Iceland

13)Continuation War 1941 AD – Britain declared war on the Republic of Finland

14) First Kashmir War 1947-1949 AD – India vs Pakistan

15)Football War 1969 AD – Honduras vs El Salvador (lasted only 100 hours and is the only war to be caused by football/soccer)

16)Russia-Georgia War 2008 AD

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4 comments

  1. If you have such modern examples, why not define the German Third Reich as a democracy? Hitler was democratically elected president, and the National Socialist party was part of the Reich-stag.

    1. The reason why is because, while Hitler was democratically elected as Chancellor, he seized power as Fuhrer undemocratically on the death of Reichspresident Hindeberg and then abolished all other political parties. Therefore, by my definition Germany was not a democracy in WWII. But as I mention there definitions of democracy are a matter of personal preference and some may choose to add or detract examples I have given.

  2. Well democracy is probably the worst form of government, except for all of the other forms. How many wars have communist governments been involved with. Better question is communist governments that have existed vs how many wars they’ve declared and control that for years of existence. Now look at dictatorships…LOL.

    1. I was commenting on an often expounded lie that they dont declare war on each other. No comment on the system itself. Communist countries vitually never go to war with each other as they have only relatively recently come into existance

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