Military Action in a Democracy

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?

International News Round-Up

Syria

  • After a meeting of the ‘Friends of Syria’ group, the USA has decided to recognise Syria’s opposition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.  Most of the scores of countries present have at least recognised the opposition as a legitimate representative.  Politically this will be another victory for the opposition, but it may also have an impact ‘on the ground’.  William Hague has discussed the possibility of arming the opposition if President Assad does not strive further for national dialogue.
  • Syria has also been reported to have fired several ‘scud-type’, Soviet-made missiles into opposition-held areas in the north of the country.  This appears to be the next stage of the government’s response.  When repression failed they sent in the army; when they were losing to the opposition’s guerrilla warfare they began shelling cities; when this failed to defeat the rebels they began conducting air raids; and now the opposition are increasingly wielding anti-aircraft weapons it appears the regime has turned to missiles.  They are becoming increasingly backed against the wall.  The next logical stage in this escalation would be chemical weapons, which would essentially be suicide for the regime.

North Korea

  • North Korea has launched a rocket, breaking several United Nations resolutions.  Although North Korea insists that this is for peaceful means, but countries such as the USA, Japan and South Korea believe this is a test for ballistic missiles, which could eventually reach the West coast of the USA.  Despite having the capabilities to bomb any country in the world, the thought of its own territory being under threat terrifies the American government.    Though I don’t think anyone wants to see a nuclear-armed North Korea with the capabilities  to launch inter-continental ballistic missiles.

Venezuela

  • Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, has returned to Cuba for cancer treatment, despite claiming during his election campaign that his cancer had completely been cured.  Cancer can make sudden reappearances so I wouldn’t like to make any assumptions one way or the other.

South Africa

  • In other health-related news, Nelson Mandela, the first black African to be President (from 1994 – 1999) and leader of the anti-Apartheid movement, has been rushed into hospital with a lung infection.  He is apparently doing well, but at the age of 94 his health is bound to be frail.  I think the world is united in hoping he has a full recovery.