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Democracy and National Strength

By Nader Habibi, Philadelphia


Most advocates of democratization base their support on contribution of democracy to social justice and fairness. Democracy is a political system that offers equal political rights to all citizens and because of its fair procedures for selection of political leadership; it also gives legitimacy to the government.  It is because of these characteristics that democracy is now the most popular political system all over the world. Various indices of political freedom, such as the House of Freedom's Political Liberty Index, show that the number of countries that have adopted democratic institutions has increased significantly in the past two decades.


However, in this article I argue that in addition to appealing to our sense of fairness, democracy has another positive benefit that often receives less attention. This second benefit is the crucial role of democracy in military and industrial strength. In the past two centuries, in wars between democratic and non-democratic countries, democracies have repeatedly prevailed. It is no accident that Great Britain, which adopted democratic institutions before other European countries, emerged as the dominant military power of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Similarly, the dominant global power of the past sixty years, the United States, is a democracy. The victory of the United States in the Cold War that took more than four decades is another affirmation of the superiority of democracy. The United States forced the Soviet Union into an arms race in which the Soviet economy could not keep up with its American counterpart.


Indeed there is some historical evidence of states using democratic reform to strengthen national defense.  The military history of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations reveals a linkage between these states' military needs and their willingness to grant political rights to those who contributed to their defense. The state of the art in military technology at any period in time determines whether a nation needs a large number of lightly armed soldiers or a small army of heavily armed soldiers.  The Greek city-states relied on large armies of lightly equipped soldiers and since they were frequently at war with each other or with the outside powers, they were in constant need of fighters. In order to encourage men to enlist they offered citizenship and voting right as a reward for serving in the armed forces. Similarly, in early stages of the Roman Empire the state needed large armies for its numerous wars of expansion. Similar to Greek city-states, the Roman republic offered citizenship and political rights as an incentive for serving in the army. On the other hand when the Roman Empire achieved its territorial ambitions and the large offensive armies were replaced with small defensive armies, the democratic rights were terminated and the political system retreated into a dictatorial mode.


Prior to the invention of rifles and guns, European states that emerged after the disintegration of the Roman Empire, relied on heavily armored knights for warfare. There was little need for large armies of lightly armored men who were no match for the opponent's armored knights. Since the protective shield and armor of knights were expensive and scarce, the European states relied on a small army of highly armored knights. Hence the states could afford to deny political rights to large segments of their population as long as they were able to find an effective mechanism to tax them.


In those historical periods taxes were raised through a feudal system where the ruler gave a feudal landlord complete political authority over the people and territories that he controlled in return for political loyalty and tax revenues. The king (ruler) would then use a portion of the tax revenues to finance and maintain his army of knights.


With the introduction of rifle the armored knights lost their value because rifle bullets were able to pierce their armors. Use of rifle meant that once again the countries that could raise the largest armies equipped with rifles and guns had an advantage in war. This implied that states needed large numbers of soldiers that were willing to fight and possibly die for their country. Soon many states realized that they could enlist more men in their armies and these men would fight with more vigor and royalty if they were allowed to participate in the political process. This logic became an important motive for political reform in several European states. 1     In the 20th century with the development of modern weapons, the armies became more dependent on advanced military hardware and the role of foot soldier diminished.  In industrial countries, the military personnel as a percentage of total population, is now smaller than any time in the past.


However, this does not mean that the state can afford to ignore the citizens' political aspirations and still maintain an effective military. While the number of soldiers in a modern army is smaller than before, the industrial base that supports, and sustains a modern army has consistently expanded. This industrial base involves thousands of scientists, engineers and technicians that devote their resources to development and maintenance of weapon systems. The combination of the defense related industries and the armed forces is known as the military-Industrial complex. Modern wars are no longer fought between the soldiers of two armies. They are fought between the entire personnel of two countries' military-industrial complexes.


Therefore, in light of the modern welfare technology, the state still needs the cooperation of a large number of people to maintain a military-industrial complex. What is different from the 18th and 19th centuries is that in a modern army the number of people directly involved in military operations has significantly diminished but the number individuals involved in the defense industries (and the projects that have direct or indirect military application) have increased. For example many large corporations plus a large number of scientists in universities and research centers of United States are involved in defense related projects.


Democracy plays an important role in the success of the military-industrial complex. The most important ingredients of an advanced military technology are the skilled professionals that are engaged in the military-industrial complex. One way that democracy contributes to military strength is through its positive effect on the labor force. Highly talented scientists and engineers are more likely to stay in their country and participate in defense related projects when their national government enjoys democratic legitimacy. In other words, a democratic regime increases the sense of participation and loyalty of skilled professionals who are essential for the development and production of advanced weapon systems.


A dictatorial regime that alienates its citizens, will also deny itself their talent and patriotic contribution. Every society has a limited pool of highly talented and intelligent professionals that amount to a fraction of its total population. However, this small group is the potential source of technological and industrial innovation in each society. Under dictatorship these capable individuals are likely to be alienated and their talent will be wasted. Some will emigrate while others might be reluctant to cooperate with defense related projects (or disqualified from participation for political reasons).  Many of the scientists who developed the United States' nuclear weapons during World War II were of German and Italian origin. Some of them had come to America to escape the brutal dictatorship of fascism in Germany and Italy.


Some governments might find a way around the shortage of domestic experts by hiring expatriate scientists. This alternative will be more costly as the wage compensation of a top expatriate scientist will be far more than a national expert. Furthermore, when a country is faced with international hostility, as is the case with Iran after the Islamic revolution, the expatriate scientists will be under international pressure not to participate in any projects with military applications.   


Other dictatorships could bypass the weakness of their domestic weapons technology by developing a close military tie with a strong regional or global power. This is often the strategy of choice for rich but small nations that because of their small industrial base cannot develop a viable weapons industry. The problem with this strategy is that it leads to military and industrial dependency and forces a small nation to compromise its foreign policy independence. In case of mid-size countries such as Iran, Turkey and Egypt, this policy often leads to domestic resentment by nationalist elements that consider their country's military dependency humiliating. Often these feelings lead to political instability and in case of Iran they contributed to the 1979 Islamic revolution. 


As an alternative, sometimes small and mid-size nations address their security needs by forming military alliances.  These alliances are supplemented with close economic integration as best exemplified by the European Union. Regional economic and military cooperation is a positive step towards improving the security of the member states and creating a large-scale regional military-industrial complex, which would be impossible for any member state to develop independently. If a group of nations choose to address their security needs through military and economic alliances then adherence of member states to democracy will significantly increase the likelihood that such an alliance will survive. A dictatorship, because of its lack of legitimacy, cannot fulfill its commitments to international alliances. Dictatorships are inherently unstable and a sudden change of government (by a coup or revolution) could result in a complete reversal of previous foreign policy positions. Economic integration at the scale of European Union takes a long time and requires a high degree of popular support in each member country. This popular support can only come about through democratic debate and free competition among interest groups in each country. These conditions are only possible within a democratic framework.


Functioning democracies are more efficient. They often have more success in preventing resource abuse and waste that arises from lack of democratic checks and balances. A military dictatorship might allocate more resources to defense compared to a democratic government. However, most of these resources will be wasted or stolen by the corrupt officials. 


Yet another channel for the positive impact of democracy on military strength is that it gradually leads to a more democratic culture within the armed forces. Evidence shows that in many developing countries lack of respect for the lower rank enlisted soldiers is a major source of discontent that reduces their willingness to sacrifice and fight well. Norvell B. De Atkine, an American Military advisor with many years of experience as a military trainer in several Arab countries, recently argued that the wide social and prestige gap between the officers and enlisted men was one of the reasons for the poor performance of Arab armies in the past four decades. He noted that even during training programs the enlisted soldiers were so frustrated by their low status and poor treatment that they showed little initiative for learning. This poor treatment of the enlisted soldiers, according to De Atkine, was a reflection of the general undemocratic military culture of Arab societies. 2 




After seven years of political struggle it now appears that Iran's political reform movement has been marginalized by the conservative hardliners who dominate the judiciary and the Guardian Council. In these critical hours of Iran's reform movement, perhaps the connection between democracy and military strength can be used by the advocates of democracy to win the hearts of some of the hardliners (specially members of the armed forces) who reject civil rights and democratic freedoms.


Furthermore, the recent calls by some right-wing groups in the United States for imposing democracy on Middle Eastern countries should not deter these countries from embracing democracy. Far from it, since democracy has played a crucial role in the military strength of United State and many other major powers, Iran and other Middle Eastern countries must move full speed towards democracy.


Some skeptics might argue that too many third world countries have been unstable during short periods of democratic rule, which have often been followed by military takeovers. Examples at hand are Turkey and Pakistan in 1970s and 1980s. The path toward democracy in most countries is rocky and filled with setbacks. For a democracy to make a contribution to military strength, it must have two attributes: political stability and political liberty. Both Pakistan and Turkey suffered from high degrees of instability, which led to political violence. Nevertheless the occasional return to democracy in both countries played a positive role in legitimizing the overall government structure. Furthermore, both countries enjoyed a good deal of media freedom on domestic issues, which allowed for a limited degree of public debate and exposure of government corruption. Also in both countries political groups were allowed to exist even if they were periodically denied the right to compete for office.  In short, partial democracy is still better than dictatorship and in majority of historical examples it gradually evolves into a full democracy.




1) For a detailed discussion of this argument see Daniel Morey, Democratization and the State's Need for Soldiers, 2001:


2) Norvell B. De Atkine, "Why Arabs Lose Wars": 


About the author:

Nader Habibi is an economist and works for a consulting firm near Philadelphia. He is an occasional contributor to


... Payvand News - 1/14/04 ... --

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