Israel’s democratic qualities have played an important role in its military achievements over the years. This lesson arises not just from Israel’s wars, but also from 200 years of global great power clashes. Democratic powers – the UK and then the US – overcame non-democratic foes and rose to global hegemony starting in the mid-19th century. As a result, their political model – democracy – set a global standard, and their language – English – became the international lingua franca. Indeed, 20th century dictatorships even sought to portray a democratic appearance, calling themselves “popular democracies”, or maintained a procedural democracy that elected leaders by a sweeping majority, even if fraudulently so.
The three titanic clashes of the 20th century – two world wars and the Cold War – ended with victory for the democratic camp, although often requiring alliances with non-democracies. The democratic advantage in war is not limited to democratic Great Powers. At the end of the 1990s, scholars Allan Stam and Dan Reiter showed that of the 297 wars between states in the years 1816 to 1990, democracies (most of which were not Great Powers, obviously) won almost all the wars they initiated and two-thirds of those imposed on them.
Elections are one explanation for the “democratic dividend” in war. Leaders of democratic states fear voters will depose them due to failed wars and therefore opt for wars they can win. Public trauma in the wake of war can unseat even a strong, established party. Such was the case with Israel’s Mapai/Ma’arach. In 1977, voter fury at the results of the 1973 Yom Kippur War brought about its downfall after 44 years of uninterrupted rule in the pre-state Jewish political entity (The Yeshuv) and later the State of Israel.
A nation’s participation in the choice of its leaders imbues government decisions such as a decision to go to war with an added dimension of legitimacy, generating greater identification among soldiers with the combat goals. It is true that non-democratic states, such as the Soviet Union, were successful in mobilizing public support during difficult times, such as World War II. However, the repressive nature of the Soviet state made it easier for the Germans to recruit to their side over 100,000 Soviet citizens (some of them prisoners of war they had captured). Moreover, in the final historic analysis, both of these political systems that challenged democracy – Nazism and Marxist-Leninism – were defeated.
Another explanation for the advantages democracies enjoy in war pertains to their institutional structure. Democratic leaders have less room to maneuver because constitutions, lawmakers and supreme courts provide checks and balances on their power. This results in tighter oversight over the executive branch of government, and, in turn, greater effectiveness of a decision to go to war, a decision on how to conduct a war and what lessons to learn from it.
Israel beat Egypt in 1967 inter alia because Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser undermined Israeli-Egyptian stability through a series of irresponsible declarations and measures, while his army was engaged elsewhere in a far-off war in Yemen. In a better-balanced regime, such declarations and steps would probably not be possible. The institutional balance is thus very important. As scholars Philip Potter and Matt Baum showed in a 2015 study, even autocracies in which constraints are placed on the ruler enjoy greater success in foreign policy and defense.
Democracies succeed in war because of not only elections and limits on power, but also because they are underpinned by values. A democratic culture that enables domestic and external criticism is a significant force multiplier. For example, writing in a 1982 opinion piece in Haaretz, Major Gershon Hacohen backed the right of a senior officer to resign in order to avoid leading his troops on a mission with which he disagreed. Hacohen’s unusual stand earned him a reprimand and a discharge. He was re-instated several years later, rising to the rank of Major General and contributing greatly to the Israel Defense Forces with his original thinking and outspoken views.
A true democratic culture empowers individuals, encourages their initiative and commitment, and makes them more militarily effective. On the other hand, nondemocratic states repress personal initiative, especially by military personnel, to prevent them directing it against the regime. In a comprehensive study in the 1990s, scholar Kenneth Pollack showed that lack of initiative on the part of military commanders in Arab armies was one of the main reasons for their persistent failures in wars against Israel. Similarly, non-democratic regimes divert significant intelligence resources to repressing their population at the expense of developing an effective an intelligence apparatus directed at the enemy. In this respect, too, Israel enjoys an advantage over its non-democratic neighbors.
Finally, open and democratic societies have been more successful in mining creative talents in high-tech, entrepreneurship and innovation, making the democratic West more prosperous and technologically and scientifically advanced, in terms of military effectiveness, too. True, non-democratic states such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were able to reach some scientific achievements. However, only democracies managed to preserve their scientific and technological advantages in the long term. A technological edge is particularly important for Israel’s security. After all, it is this edge in technology that allows it to compensate for its limited human and material resources, when compared to its foes.
A strong democracy is therefore vital for Israel’s security. Fair elections and regime change, checks and balances with an emphasis on restraining the power of the executive branch, an open and democratic culture of criticism, and the ability to attract and retain the creative classes are the pillars of an effective Israeli national security. Undermining them means not only a different political order, but also a real threat to the security of the state.
Dr. Ehud Eiran is a Board Member at the Mitvim Institute, and an Associate Professor in international relations at Haifa University.