Crying Wolf And Playing Chicken

David Runciman’s history of democracy occasionally succumbs to a Tocquevillian penchant for paradox, but his argument is brilliantly and convincingly delivered

President Obama arrived an hour late at the dinner of the G20 in Saint Petersburg at which the Syrian crisis was to be discussed. He had apparently been on the telephone trying to convince sceptical members of Congress to vote for his proposed military action against the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, David Cameron, who was at that dinner from the beginning, must have seemed to his Russian hosts and their Chinese friends a rather impotent figure, following the House of Commons decision of August 30 rejecting his advocacy of intervention. Therein lies one of the main predicaments of democracies. They do not make such decisions easily, in time or with one voice. They are particularly bad at foreign policy decisions and at the timing of such decisions. And, for better or for worse, they often change their minds. Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, written 25 centuries ago, told us some important things about these problems. So did Alexis de Tocqueville, nearly two centuries ago, in his Democracy in America.

David Runciman focuses on a particular problem: how democracies cope with crisis situations, and how their weaknesses conceal strengths and their strengths inadvertently generate potentially fatal weaknesses. He takes his cue from Tocqueville, the thinker who “first noticed the distinctive character of democratic hubris — how it is consistent with the dynamism of societies, how democratic adaptability goes along with democratic drift”. Tocqueville was deeply troubled by his discovery that democracies are “caught between their impulse to precipitate action and their instinct to wait”. But the French aristocrat thought that, for all their problems, democracies were likely to be better at coping with crises than rival systems in the long term. 

For Runciman, the trap lies exactly there: “Their experience of crisis is more likely to make democracies complacent than it is to make them wise: what democracies learn is that they can survive their mistakes.” For example, politicians have not much incentive to compromise if they believe the democratic system can withstand most forms of confrontation: “This is the confidence trap. Democracies are adaptable. Because they are adaptable, they build up long-term problems, comforted by the knowledge that they will adapt to meet them.”

As Runciman puts it: “So democracy becomes a game of chicken. When things get really bad, we will adapt. Until they get really bad, we need not adapt, because democracies are ultimately adaptable. Both sides play this game. Games of chicken are harmless, until they go wrong, at which point they become lethal.” (This was written with reference to recent confrontations between Democrats and Republicans in the US. But the behaviour of Greek politicians and voters during the two successive elections of May and June 2012 would also be a case in point.)

Runciman tests his thesis about democratic entrapment by studying, through its prism, seven moments of major crisis faced by democracies in the last 100 years: 1918 and the dramatic and unexpected victory of the Allies; 1933 and the Great Depression; 1947 and the onset of the Cold War; 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis, a scandal that shook West German democracy, and the Sino-Indian war; 1974 and the perturbations that followed the oil and inflation crises; 1989 and the swift collapse of Communism; 2008 and the ongoing global financial crisis.

Are we then left with Harold Nicolson’s verdict, that “democracy, for immediate, as distinct from ultimate purposes, [is] a fool”? Maybe, but we should not underestimate the qualification. Runciman agrees with Tocqueville that democracies have the advantage in the long run, provided the long run is allowed to happen. For the future, Runciman identifies four challenges: war, public finance, environmental threats, and plausible competitors. 

On war, the evidence suggests that democracies do not fight each other and that “in the wars they do fight, democracies win far more often than they lose”. He dismisses as scaremongering recent warnings that Europe could return to the wars that scarred its history. “Peace between democracies is not an illusion; it is real and it is robust.” 

On finance, Runciman finds that democracies are “analogous” to markets: overconfidence in the efficiency of well-functioning markets causes participants to behave in ways that undermine that efficiency — another case of the confidence trap. On the environment, Runciman challenges the traditional complaint that democracies “prioritise immediate over future experiences, simplicity over complexity, gut instinct over science”. There is an alternative explanation: “The democracies have failed to act not because they are stupid, but because they know they are not stupid and will take the necessary action when it is required.” His concern is that the past may be a bad guide to the future: “Just because democracies have been guilty of crying wolf in the past doesn’t mean there is no wolf out there.”

When it comes to rival systems, Runciman is relatively — though cautiously — more optimistic on the prospects for mature democracies. As Tocqueville had noted, the advantage of autocratic systems is that “they are better at thinking about the long term in the short term”. But, Runciman opines, “it is only a limited benefit because they get stuck with the choices they make”. Autocratic regimes are far less likely to admit their mistakes and change course when necessary: “Democracy still has the advantages. But it is no better than its rivals at accessing its advantages when it needs them.”

Overall, Runciman’s primary message is that the strengths of democracy should not blind us to the dangers that arise — not least as a result of its own successes in the last century — and entrap us in a kind of optimism that would really be tantamount to a form of fatalism. To that extent, his main argument is not only plausible but also extremely important. It is tempting to see autocratic regimes such as China (or “hybrid” regimes such as Russia) as having major advantages over the democracies of today, and in one sense Runciman’s book gives cause for concern. While exhibiting the follies and mistakes of democracies, however, he also highlights their flexibility, resourcefulness and resilience. 

I found one minor oversight: the 1840 Franco-British crisis that led Tocqueville and Mill to fall out was not related to an imperial dispute over Sudan, as Runciman says, but rather to a dispute over the conquest of Syria by the Pasha of Egypt, Mehmet Ali, and the other four great powers’ ultimatum to him to back down, in defiance of his French ally. 

Sometimes Runciman may appear to have a Tocquevillian penchant for paradox. But his argument is brilliantly and convincingly delivered. The big story of mature democracies in crisis is told with remarkable confidence and brio. Runciman writes lucidly and compellingly: this is a book that you cannot put down. And that is a great feat when writing on a subject as complex as democracy, with its dangers and its promise inextricably bound up together.

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