As protests mounted against the disputed 2009 election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, President Barack Obama announced that democratic values ought to be observed, but added that the United States did not intend to meddle in Iranian affairs.

Many denounced the President’s mild reaction. But Sandeep Baliga, an associate professor of Managerial Economics and Decision Sciences at the Kellogg School of Management, says President Obama made the right move. “If we respond with our own saber-rattling, this is more likely to inflame the situation than ever before,” he wrote in a comment posted in a New York Times online editorial on the situation in Iran.

Baliga and his colleagues David O. Lucca, an economist with the Federal Reserve Board, and Tomas Sjöström, a professor of economics at Rutgers University, argue that leaders of limited democracies or weak dictatorships respond more aggressively to threats than leaders of true dictatorships or true democracies. In their report, they analyze international conflicts among democracies, dictatorships, and governments that fall between these extremes. Iran, with its semi-democratic electoral system, falls into the latter category.

Democratic leaders risk more than dictators if they do not react aggressively to threats from abroad, because unlike dictators, they face the challenge of re-election.

Modeling the Range of Governments
The team constructed a game-theoretic model in which conflicts are triggered by leaders who fear both being attacked and being removed from power by the people they govern. Democratic leaders risk more than dictators if they do not react aggressively to threats from abroad because unlike dictators, they face the challenge of re-election. Yet an unnecessary war hurts the leader of a true democracy if the average voter deems it unnecessary. Meanwhile, a leader of a limited democracy might survive politically in most scenarios, getting ejected only when he is weak in the face of aggression. Therefore in the team’s model, leaders of limited democracies were most likely to act on threats from abroad because they face fewer repercussions in the decision to go to war than leaders of true democracies. Strong dictators do not face removal from power if they are weak in the face of aggression, which means that dictators tend to be less aggressive than leaders of a limited democracy.

Grounding their model in reality, the team classified regimes between 1816 and 2000 as dictatorships, limited democracies, or full democracies using a standard classification scheme constructed by political scientists. For example, Britain was classified as a limited democracy between 1821 and 1829 because although there was a Parliament to balance the King or Queen, not everyone could vote. Likewise, as Napoleon III gave the French Parliament more power in 1870, France transitioned from a dictatorship to a limited democracy.

The authors found that two countries with limited democracies are more likely to fight each other than any other combination. For example, around 2000, the partially democratic countries of Tanzania fought with Burundi, Kenya fought with Ethiopia, and Ghana fought with Togo. In the first half of the last century, Germany fought with Japan, Colombia with Peru, and Italy with Turkey during periods when each had a limited democracy.

Peace was most likely at either extreme. Countries led by dictators were 36 percent less likely to fight one another than two countries with limited democracies.  And the likelihood of conflict between two fully democratic countries is 95 percent less than that between two limited democracies. 

Fear Is a Great Motivator
Fear drives motivation for war in Baliga’s model, which is why leaders of full democracies may enter war to maintain political support as citizens become increasingly nervous about another country. In this situation, democratic leaders worry about their country being attacked, but also worry about drumming up support for re-election by a people searching for protective leadership. Indeed, a look back into history shows that democracies turn violent more quickly than other types of regimes, Baliga says.

Historians have attributed wars to fear in the past. For example, political scientists have suggested that leaders in Germany entered World War I in part to satisfy the domestic turmoil they faced at home. The team’s game theory model combines both fear and domestic politics as fundamental causes of war. However, factors like economic development and trade incite war as well and were not included in this analysis because of a dearth of data on these aspects prior to the nineteenth century. But the authors do take into account worldwide economic shocks and normal business cycles as well as the geography, institutions, and culture of the countries involved in conflict and thus, they say they capture the disparity between natural resources and economic standing.

Philosophers including U.S. founding father Thomas Paine have long maintained that democracy promotes peace, because the average citizen avoids conflict. In the name of peace, leaders of the United States have subsequently promoted democratization. Former President George W. Bush argued that spreading democracy would bring peace to the Middle East.

However, if these results hold true, democratization is a risky business. If it is not fully implemented, a democratic government could be more aggressive than the regime it replaced. “Limited democratization might advance the cause of war, so you need to be careful to implement democracy one hundred percent,” Baliga says. “If you take half-measures, you can make matters worse.”

In Baliga’s letter to the New York Times, he said that it is important to engage with Iran in talks, but not to inflame the situation. “A careful study of history,” he wrote, “finds that weak dictatorships like Iran, that lie in between full democracy and strong dictatorships, can be the most warlike of all.”

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