In the following exchange Dan Reiter defends his argument that democratic states win most of the wars that they fight primarily because they choose which wars to engage in more carefully than authoritarian states do. This is called the “selection effects” explanation because democracies are selecting which wars to fight and which to avoid. Here, Reiter is replying to previously published criticism by Michael C. Desch and Alexander Downes that detailed examinations of several historical cases that Reiter cites do not in fact support his arguments. Desch and Downes respond and then Reiter has a rebuttal. They primarily debate both how historical evidence should be interpreted and how their hypotheses should be evaluated in the 1920 Russo-Polish War, the 1956 Sinai War, the 1967 Six Day War, the 1982 Lebanon War, and the 1965 escalation of the Vietnam War.
Are democracies more likely to win the wars they fight? This question has been of interest to historians and philosophers since Thucydides. During the Enlightenment, the question was highly relevant to the great issues of the day, as thinkers such as Thomas Paine wondered how emerging republics like the United States and France would fare in war against monarchies. It reemerged in the twentieth century, when some worried whether the Western democracies had the stuff to stand up to Nazi Germany and its fascist allies. After World War II, Westerners fretted that an American Athens would ultimately fall short against a Soviet Sparta.
In setting up his analysis here, John Schuessler refers to one of the arguments Dan Reiter and Allan Stam make in their book Democracies at War. Democracies, those authors claim, “produce better estimates of the probability of victory than their autocratic counterparts do,” and they do so in large part because in democracies these issues are argued out in public.