Democracies are less likely to go to war than autocracies. In recent years it has felt as though the United States is continually at war, continually bombing someone, and continually in an armed conflict somewhere in the world, but data do show that democracies are more peaceful than other forms of government. As the United States demonstrates, democracies are not entirely peaceful, but they are much less likely to be in an armed conflict at any time and it is rare to see two democracies fight against one another as opposed to fight against non-democracies.
Steven Pinker writes about this phenomenon in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature in order to show how and why the world is becoming a less violent place to live within. Describing the peaceful incentives for a democracy, Pinker writes, “democracies tend to avoid wars because the benefits of war go to a country’s leaders, whereas the costs are paid by its citizens.” Leaders who will not suffer the consequences as directly or as direly as their citizens are less likely to be hesitant to go to war. If their position and status are not dependent upon the support of the population who will suffer, then they have few disincentives to war. “But if the citizens are in charge,” writes Pinker, “they will think twice about wasting their own money and blood on a foolish foreign adventure.”
This concept seems to be playing out right now in Ukraine. Many people have suggested that Russia’s autocratic leader has had some sort of mental breakdown and that his decision to invade Ukraine is the result of an undiagnosed mental illness. What is more likely is that Putin didn’t expect to face many direct costs in this conflict himself. He may have known people would suffer, but thought he could win quickly and not pay any major consequences himself. He was not the one who would be on the front lines and in the corrupt Russian system, he did not have to worry about losing power.
In the United States and Europe, however, countries have been hesitant to get involved directly with the conflict. Directly challenging Russia could lead to a much larger conflict, and public leaders would certainly be ousted from office if they chose a path toward the next world war before making less aggressive actions to try to stem the tide of autocratic violence taking place in Ukraine. Democracies better reflect the experiences of the people, and as a result are less likely to pursue war or violence relative to autocracies.