Democracy and Regime Type
The overall pattern of democratic restraint in the treatment of prisoners seemingly provides one of the more hopeful implications for the future of warfare. Many policymakers have grabbed hold of the democratic peace thesis to promote the spread of democracy around the world as a way to ensure not only greater rights and freedoms for citizens at home, but also peace and security abroad.14 Decent conduct toward prisoners also provides more systematic evidence in favor of the conjecture that one of the ways in which democracies are more successful at fighting wars is their greater ability to induce enemy soldiers to surrender.15 Expanding the community of democratic states not only may make wars less likely, but also means those conflicts that do break out will be relatively more humane.
The relevance of the regime type finding nonetheless needs to be further scrutinized in light of continued critiques of the democratic peace and the broader purported distinctiveness of democracies. In particular, a growing body of research questions the rigid distinction commonly put forth between democracies and dictatorships in their foreign policymaking.16 Rather than a singular autocratic penchant for violence, dictatorships have demonstrated some extraordinary diversity in their willingness to use force, with some tyrants behaving in ways remarkably similar to democracies.17 The mixed findings for communist regimes and prisoner abuse discussed in chapter 5 suggest that dictatorships should not be automatically thrown together. Sharing certain parallels to the argument in this book concerning democracies, some of the main points put forward to differentiate among autocracies involve the degree of accountability to domestic elites as well as the relative civilian or military background of those actors and their leaders.18 Although not subject to the will of the mass public, certain types of dictatorships (especially those constrained by civilian-oriented elites) differ little from democracies in their caution over going
to war, as well as their success once the fighting has started.19
Along similar lines, dictators may differ systematically in their actual conduct during wartime with certain more benevolent autocrats humanely treating prisoners in ways reminiscent of democratic belligerents. The available evidence, however, suggests that when it comes to wielding violence both on and off the battlefield, democracies appear to remain distinct in their wartime conduct. Irrespective of the particular categorization of dictatorships, additional analysis shows that autocratic captors are on the whole more likely to commit grave levels of abuse against prisoners during interstate wars compared to democratic belligerents.20 Accountability to the wider public rather than a narrow set of domestic elites, or only to leaders themselves, thus appears to distinguish democracies from dictatorships in their conduct, at least toward enemy combatants. More work remains to be done to determine the precise ways in which domestic institutions and preferences, whether democratic or autocratic, shape the behavior of states before, during, and after war. In particular, future research needs to take seriously the possibility that the role of domestic politics can vary depending on the stage of the conflict or the particular arena of conduct.
Even if democracies do set themselves apart in their more restrained behavior toward prisoners, the promise of democracy still needs to be tempered somewhat. The commitment of democracies to humanitarian principles protecting the rights of prisoners appears tepid at best, though there are some grounds for optimism. Democracies have generally proven to be more humane toward prisoners in wars taking place after the advent of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, though it is not completely clear if this is due to the normative sway of humanitarian norms or other unrelated factors. Similarly, international law may not have a consistent overall effect, but democratic ratifiers do appear more likely to uphold their legal commitments toward the rights of prisoners. Of course, getting democracies to join the prevailing laws of war can sometimes be challenging. Some of the strongest holdouts to recent treaties regulating warfare, such as the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions or the Rome Statute establishing the ICC, are leading democracies like the United States and Israel, who are unfortunately also among those most likely to be involved in future armed conflicts.21
Despite some of the possible mitigating effects of international legal or normative forces, the weight of the evidence shows that domestic institutional imperatives are the main drivers behind instances of benevolent democratic conduct. When concerns over retaliation are pronounced and the strategic benefits from good conduct are there for the taking, democratic belligerents can demonstrate amazing care for enemy prisoners even in the heat of battle.22 Yet the same pragmatism guiding democratic decision making also suggests that, when these institutional incentives are absent, democracies exhibit an aptitude or even enthusiasm for engaging in extreme levels of abuse.
The tension between democracy and the rights of potential victims is also in line with recent research on repression and political violence. Faced with serious threats, democracies often willingly shed their humanitarian facade and turn to coercive practices, even if the manner and motives behind their violations may differ in numerous respects from autocratic regimes.23 The uncomfortable reality of democratic abuse raises further questions about whether democracies possess their own particular logic of violence once they take a more brutal tack. The greater sensitivity of democratic leaders to public accountability and external retaliation can help explain not only when they will turn to abuse but also how those violations will be carried out. The relationship between democracy and torture continues to be tightly contested, pitting liberal values of individual rights against protecting the government and populace from attack.24 Democratic states like Britain, France, and the United States have been at the forefront of developing so-called clean techniques, which can still be excruciating for victims but leave few observable marks.25 The use of electricity, water, and stress positions, among others, has allowed the application of extreme levels of pain while minimizing possible monitoring by domestic opponents, external enemies, or the international community. The increased use of solitary confinement by countries like the
United States, both domestically and in armed conflicts, shows a similar desire by democracies to take advantage of grayer areas in the law.26 Democracies have demonstrated a propensity to engage in subtler and more indirect violations, across issues as wide-ranging as trade protectionism and the targeting of civilians, in an attempt to evade detection and minimize possible negative repercussions.27 While I have concentrated on the gravest breaches of prisoner treatment, more attention is needed to investigate possible ways in which democracies may seek to substitute more obscure forms of abuse or couch their violations in less flagrant terms. A more fine-grained approach to democratic wartime conduct would contribute to recent calls to disaggregate the study of political violence both across and within countries, over time, and especially among different types of activities.28