11 November 2018 is Armistice Day. One hundred years before that day, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, the guns fell silent. More than 16 million people died during the fighting, and many more were wounded, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.

Could all that suffering have been prevented? The Great Powers at the time were by-and-large not democracies (and many were colonial empires). Even those that were nominally democratic still did not have universal suffrage. If the people had been given a say in the decision to go to war, would peace have triumphed? Or was World War One a popular conflict (at least in the beginning)? Did many march willingly to war?

One hundred years after the end of WWI, Debating Europe has launched a series of online discussions dedicated to examining the legacy of the Great War. We’ll be looking at the origins and impact of the First World War, and what lessons can be drawn one hundred years later.

Should there be so-called “war referendums”? This is the question we’ll be addressing today. To get a response, we approached Andrew Bradley and Alexandra Bellin from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA). These are their own views, based on personal knowledge and the reading of International IDEA publications and other articles, and do not necessarily reflect the views of International IDEA.

[…] In a ‘war referendum’, citizens make the decision on whether a nation should go to war – an act in which citizens are given constitutional power (popular legitimisation) over war. Until now, no referendum of this kind has taken place. During the 1930s (leading up to the Second World War) and 1970s (the height of the Vietnam War) there was some support in the United States of America for a popular vote before engaging in war. More precisely, [US Congressman] Louis Ludlow [proposed] such an amendment to the US Constitution several times between 1935 and 1940. However, these proposed constitutional amendments never materialised.

What makes a referendum before countries can declare war highly unlikely, are inter alia, the following:

– Time factor: Referendums need time to be organised, while the declaration of war is strategic and sometimes needs speedy military decisions. There is no time for extensive consultations since quick choices and reactions are needed for war or the declaration of war.

– Constitution and legal laws: The constitution of a country indicates which state entity or person has the power to decide whether or not to go to war.

– Indirect decision-making: Citizens elect their representatives, and the constitution of a country gives power to a representative person or body (Parliament, Cabinet, House of Representatives, Senate, etc.) to make that strategic decision whether or not to go to war. Thereby, citizens through their representatives exercise that indirect power…

We put this question to Matt Qvortrup, Professor of Political Science at Coventry University, an internationally-recognised expert on referendums, and author of the recent book “Government by referendum”. How would he respond?

[…] On the issue of war and peace, one of the first arguments for having a democracy was from Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher, who said that if the people were to vote on going to war or not going to war, they probably [would vote for peace], because they would be the ones getting shot. If you go back to Kant’s 1795 essay on Perpetual Peace, the original argument was exactly that…

Canada voted in 1942 as to whether they should [have popular conscription] in the Second World War, and decided that they should… The Australians, twice, voted about conscription [for overseas combat] during the First World War (and Australia had only been independent for twenty years at the time). They had the first vote, said ‘No’, and they tried a year later and again they voted ‘No’ (though many Australians volunteered to fight…). So, the question of whether a country should [have conscription] has been tried in two credible democracies [during wartime], which means there is a precedent for it.

What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Stadex, who is convinced that referendums on war would be conducive to peace, as very few people would want to send their sons and daughters to fight. Is there a merit to this argument? Do we have reason to believe that public opinion would generally lean towards peace?

How would Andrew Bradley and Alexandra Bellin from International IDEA respond?

In general and in most cases, it is perceived that public opinion leans towards peace. However, public opinion and vote in a referendum are mostly unpredictable, unstable, and dependant on the political reality of a country. As such, there is no empirical evidence to believe that public opinion would generally (and always) lean towards peace.

In wars, there are no ‘winners’, and only human loss and massive suffering. But, in the 2016 referendum, citizens rejected the Colombian peace agreement; after 52 years of war and 4 years of negotiation between the FARC and President Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian citizens voted in a referendum (50.2%) against the implementation of the peace agreement.

We also put this comment to Professor Matt Qvortrup. Did he think that the march of technology has changed the equation slightly? In the 20th century, it was an era of mass conscription where ordinary people were sent to the front lines to die in the trenches. Today, developed countries are more likely to send small professional forces, or even deploy drones and air power to wage war without necessarily risking large numbers of people (at least, in terms of their own citizenry) on the ground. Does that change things?

Of course, the counter-argument to that is: ‘If we bomb them with drones, what will they do to us?’. One of the reasons why the British House of Commons voted against going into Syria was that these things are difficult to contain and might lead to a number of different dynamics.

Still, it’s a valid point about conscription, and of course the Australian and Canadian votes I mentioned above were conscription votes. In fact, they had a referendum not long ago in Austria about abolishing conscription which people actually voted against. So, if you’re an Austrian and you’re male and you’re 18 years old, you have to go into the army, no ‘ifs’ no ‘buts’. So, I do think there’s an element of ‘things have changed because of technology’ but I also think it depends on the issue. Also, remember that the Canadians did vote to go to war, even though there was conscription. So, turkeys will vote Christmas occasionally if the issues are considered to be of such momentous importance…

However, this is all speculation. The Kantian argument is that people won’t vote for war because they are going to have to fight in them. That worked in Australia, because they didn’t agree the Kaiser was so evil that it required Australians to go around the world and fight him… It is possibly true that with conscription it is different, but then people have to think about the implications of us going in with joysticks and drones, and maybe if they deliberate a bit about that they might reach a different conclusion…


Should people be given a referendum on going to war? Would the world be more peaceful if “war referendums” were constitutionally required? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: Public Domain; PORTRAIT CREDITS: (c) Matt Qvortrup, Andrew Bradley (c) Council of Europe

33 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    EU Reform- Proactive

    Sorry, I don’t even consider answering such crazy (general “referendum”) question about- specifically a “military war” in the EU or Europe!

    Why would the EUI/DE/EU choose to speculate on something totally foreign to its fundamental founding philosophy? Who lost confidence, gone off the rails, or gone cuckoo?

    Please folks- NEVER EVER allow, let the EU go as far, or agree to give the EU an EU army to enable them to declare a military war by whatever means or regulation!

    Suddenly some “great minds” in the EU leadership seem surmising, assuming in the theorem of war in the EU/Europe? Is that a misunderstanding, a bad dream, a warning or part of a hidden agenda?

    Even any thought about a military war in the EU/Europe- is a preposterous mad assumption and dangerous fear mongering! To achieve what? Politicking?

    Please specify, who is presumed or supposed to go to war- using its military- with whom in the EU?

    Further more, the EUI/DE/EU has no competence to speculate or even dream to regulate who & how to declare a military war in the EU or between any of the 193 UN sovereign Member states.

    In the US, the US president needs Congressional approval. The UN Security Council can declare war by “Resolutions” under international law.

    The EU urgently needs an “anti war Treaty” to “prohibit” any military confrontation within the EU/Europe- not to speculate or “regulate” how to declare it! Absurd!

    Surely, the US, Russia, China & others should ridicule any such EU ambition- should the EU attempt to regulate the declaration of war- specifically “by the people” (which people?), the CoE or the whole world generally!

    The only superpowers left to risk a serious “military war” is the US, Russia & China! Any EU member is either too weak, hopefully too wise or/and protected by NATO Article 5 (“casus foederis”)

    The EU seriously needs a psychologist for its soul & urgent reform!


  2. avatar
    Simona Campanelli

    I think people are usually (not always) against things like suffering and beeing hit by drones. But they are also manipulable, and I don’t think a referendum would be a guarantee of sanity. However, it might be better than the simple decision of a president or a dictator.

  3. avatar

    Referendum on going to war …. What !? lol

    If the peoples of the free world had voted no to war in 1939 in a referendum you would all now be part of the Third Reich which makes the question idiotic.

    But don’t worry, you will get your war. Sooner or later there will be a civil war in one of the Nations States in the EU because of the idiotic polices of Brussels. My money is on Spain & it will be interesting to see if Berlin sends it’s new EU army in to crush the resistance.

    • avatar

      Ivan people should have voted in German to prevent war and dictatorship…

    • avatar

      Romeo They did, it was called an election. Didn’t stop the Socialist bloodbath did it.

    • avatar

      Ivan You put your money in Spain because it’s all you have left. This means you don’t have any manhood :)

    • avatar

      Manuel Cheap sexual jokes. really ? lol I’ve just sold my property in Spain & another in Italy to reinvest in the UK, only a fool would leave their money in the EU at the moment.

    • avatar

      “it’s new EU ARMY in to crush resistance”

      Lol, the absolute state of this lad

    • avatar

      Ivan It is expensive to learn this difficult English language.
      During your stay did you have any lucky with Spaniards or Italians? or have you gone with virgin oil? You know something? Making good olive oil is only for masters, each olive tree is different, when olives are fatty, it’s time to press them, but do you know? it’s not the same to press at dawn as to press at midday? So much culture that you’re losing because you’re not with us.

    • avatar

      Manuel I love Italians & the Spanish, its their political leaders I have a problem with. We are leaving the EU not Europe & not the world so we will still experience other cultures just as we did before 1993, the EU is NOT Europe and Europe is NOT the EU.

      Follow the money comrade & you won’t go far wrong, all it will take is another country in the EU to get into financial trouble and the whole house of cards will fall. Italy, Spain, Ireland & Portugal are primed for collapse.

    • avatar

      Ivan how can you love Italians and have a problem with their leaders? The leaders are democratically elected and the present ones more than any other in the past, they faithfully represent the Italian people.

    • avatar

      Giorgio You think because they are elected everyone should agree with them on everything ? that’s the kind of attitude that allowed The National Socialist German Workers’ Party to nearly destroy the planet.. Praise politicians when they get it right, criticise them when they get it wrong & European politicians are getting it very wrong at the moment by allowing unelected European politburo to control 27 Nation States.

    • avatar

      Ivan RT troll is busy again. Have fun on your island while you post rightwing propaganda and Putin’s agenda.

    • avatar

      Arnout Really ? is idiotic main stream media sound bites all you have comrade.

      Definition of Stupidity:

      Repeating the same thing and expecting a different outcome.


    • avatar

      I hope I’ll fight in that EU army bro :)

    • avatar

      Francesco Under the control of Berlin & against the peoples of Europe comrade ? At least people will know who their enemy is with that flag on your sleeve.

    • avatar

      Ivan Your country is going out of Europe, and escaping from us, giving the back. The real colour of your flag is no more the red, blue and white, now you have only one colour the yellow!
      You became very rich with the European Union. Young people in the 60´s had many difficulties to have a disco player at home, and they listened music on the family radio, or going to a bar and there they ask for a single pint for all the night.
      Now your young people are rich and drunk and have only nonsense, like the balconing.


  4. avatar


    That’s pretty much what leaders around Europe said in 1938 comrade, how did that turn out for you ?

  5. avatar

    When England descends in to civil war, we should have a referendum on getting involved, so we have a mandate to leave them to it.

  6. avatar

    I would rather have a referendum on banning warmongering.
    I would also put a hefty humanitarian tax on all weapons manufacturers.
    These would be a bit more sensible questions, I think.

  7. avatar

    No, because most of them don’t have the faintest idea about how international relations function, and can bring about disaster. Besides, there is also the possibility that people could vote for war, based on emotions (don’t forget the enthusiasm of 1914), and again cause a disaster. So in both cases

  8. avatar

    I find this a silly question since we shouldn’t go to war ever :D

  9. avatar

    Well the question is rather pointless. In the previous century wars were between dictators (or equivalents) or democracies were attacked by dictators. So either you would never be allowed a vote or you would have voted for your own destruction. Your last vote. Even wards in say Vietnam were principally about that question. And of course those wars were indeed ended by a vote. Elections. So really it’s a silly question.

  10. avatar
    catherine benning

    Should people be given a referendum on going to war?

    As they are the people who will be on the front line and used as the fodder needed to bring about the a thwrting, of course they should. Do they want to be prepared to die for the politicians who bring about this little fun game they have lined up? Is death worth what is being fought for?

    Look what the last two WW’s have brought to Europe. And how many million of the best breeding stock we had meet their demise. Only to be left with the half wits we see at the top now trying to run our countries with a bunch of feeble females who are not even quick thinkers. The term the nanny state was so very well placed. Look at the results. Europe in utter chaos with no path ahead. Except cultural suicide.

    Do you believe dead men who lie in those graves we dug feel it was worth their life or for their families and their tribe? I don’t think so. They were betrayed by us all with what we have stood by and allowed to happen here.


  11. avatar

    Referenda should be simply prohibited. Hitler grabbed power through a series of referenda, and so did Chavez.

  12. avatar

    you have no shame, you could not ask this question tomorrow?

  13. avatar

    This is the right blog for everyone who really wants to find out about this
    topic. You understand so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that I personally
    will need to…HaHa). You definitely put a new spin on a topic
    that’s been discussed for a long time. Wonderful stuff, just great!

  14. avatar
    Kurakpio Matthew Anthony

    I suggest public consultation in a referendum is better than to just wage war on a certain area

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