Recent events in the UK, USA and potentially France regarding military action have raised interesting questions about how militaries operate within democracies. Last week we saw the surprising defeat of David Cameron’s attempts to gain parliamentary legitimacy for military strikes against the Syrian government – his already watered-down bill being rejected by a majority of 13 votes. Both Foreign Secretary William Hague and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond have said that military action against Syria is now off the agenda, and that we shan’t be joining the USA in any potential strikes. Interestingly, the votes weren’t even about the actual strikes, merely the timescale, but the defeat seems to have been interpreted as an altogether rejection of the plans. Opinions on this particular issue aside, I’m convinced that this result was a victory for the democratic system. Polls have repeatedly shown that the British public is against any military action, which the parliamentary vote reflected. We’ve since had President Obama announce that Congress will have a vote on the issue*
What’s remarkable is that, to the best of my knowledge, leaders have nearly always been able to go to war without much opposition from parliament. Before the First World War Britain was admittedly gripped by jingoistic fervour and the idea that wars had little consequence for us, therefore resulting in conflicts in South Africa and the Crimea going ahead without resistance. But even after the First World War, we entered the Second World War, the Korean War, the Gulf War and the Iraq War without parliament stopping them. While it’s important to make the distinction which many seem to be forgetting that David Cameron never intended to go to war over Syria, just launch strikes, parliament effectively blocking military action in such a way still seems unprecedented. This really is a testament to just how war-weary a nation we’ve become. I read a brilliant quote recently but unfortunately can’t remember the source, which went something like “Such processes must be alien to the Syrian military system“, which sums up precisely why I feel so privileged to live in a democracy.
The British Prime Minister and the French and American Presidents all have the power to authorise initial military action without parliamentary approval, although, unless events unfolded very favourably indeed, it would be tantamount to political suicide for any of these leaders to bypass the wishes of parliament. So the interesting question is raised: should parliament have the legal power to authorise military action planned by the government? There’s a strong democratic argument in favour, in that power is with the elected representatives, not one solitary leader, and that forcing debates through parliament encourages all sides of an issue to be heard and considered. Then again, if parliament was necessary for military action to be used, we’d be helpless within a crisis without passing emergency legislation. Take the situation in the USA, where any military action taken would occur at least three weeks after the chemical attacks of Gouta. That’s not a problem here, where it is wise to gather as much evidence as possible before taking action, but it would be a clear problem in other scenarios. All things considered, I think the best system might be for the elected leader to continue having the power to make decisions regarding war and peace, but parliament should have the power to block such action before it is taken – and the opportunity to do so. Effectively, the system we have now except more ground into law.
Somewhat relevant is one of my favourite political theories: the Democratic Peace Theory. In short, this cites statistical evidence of the fact that democracies are far less likely to wage war with one another than authoritarian states. This could be due to the accountability of democratic militaries, or the democratic culture of achieving aims through negotiation, or the current link between democracy and globalised trade. It’s one of the main reasons that Western policymakers are so keen to promote democracy abroad, as the theory suggests that once worldwide democracy is achieved, limited world peace might even be a possibility. You can look at how peaceful Europe has become since becoming a democratic entity as partial evidence of this. Anyhow, I’ve interpreted recent parliamentary procedures as more evidence of the theory working.
*Because, you know, when faced with an impossible, complex decision, who better than Congress to solve it?