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!