Lords of War

william the conqueror

The on-going wars in the Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Sudan, Libya, Mali, Somalia, the flaring of hostilities in Artsakh (Karabagh), Afghanistan, Egypt, and an insurgency in Western China certainly make the world seem to be an unsettled place in 2014.  In many of the conflicts, certainly in Libya and Syria, the beginnings of the conflicts appear to be justified by both internal and external groups seeking an overthrow of the entrenched dictators.  Political scientists tell us that historically most armed conflicts take place between authoritarian regimes and their more democratic adversaries. In that sense, today’s conflicts are a continuation of an age-old titanic struggle between two fundamentally different forms of government.

The types of the governments in the world today vary from a fully authoritarian regime to a fully developed liberal democracy.  North Korea is a hereditary totalitarian dictatorship and a good example of a fully authoritarian state.  Often Scandinavian countries like Norway and Denmark are cited as examples of fully developed democracies.  The continuum between a total dictatorship and a full democracy is filled with all kinds of political systems of all of which are some type of hybrids between these two extremes.  The United States is an example of such a hybrid.  According to a number of indices, United States is a full democracy, but with some problems in economic freedom and freedom of the press which shifts it slightly away from a full democracy.  Some in the United States would claim that excessive use of executive powers by the current Obama administration  smacks of authoritarianism perhaps signifying another slight move further away from a perfect democracy and directionally towards a dictatorship.  Another example is Iran. Iran is ruled by a Supreme Leader  with apparently dictatorial powers, but who is appointed for a lifetime by an elected council, and who has to contend at least to some degree with an elected parliament and the president.

There is a bewildering array of terms describing the various government types between full authoritarian regimes and full democracies: autocracy (rule of one), tyranny (often described as an unlawful rule of one), dictatorship (also rule of one), totalitarianism (autocracy or oligarchy plus attempted pervasive domination of the economy and the private life), aristocracy (rule of the privileged class), plutocracy (rule of the rich), oligarchy (rule by the few), timocracy (rule by the propertied), theocracy (rule by the clergy), ochlocracy (rule of the mob), etc. etc.  Also somewhere along this continuum there are groupings and non-country entities, like Hamas, Libyan militia groups, new governments, new countries, etc.  Some researchers call hybrid regimes halfway between democracies and autocracies “anocracies” literally “no government”.  For the purposes of this writing, anocracies are hybrid newly formed political systems which may shift to democracy or dictatorship.

It also appears that often the relationship of the governments with other countries around the world is determined not by its political system, but by how its political system is perceived by its neighbors or potential adversaries and, more and more in this age of social media and global news coverage, around the world.

Let’s consider some of on-going and recent armed conflicts around the world:

  • Syria’s Assad regime vs. collection of rebels which include the “Free Syrian Army” (presumably seeking democracy)
  • Syria vs. the Caliphate (ISIL)
  • Iraq and the Kurds vs. the Caliphate
  • Israel vs. Hamas
  • West Ukraine vs. East Ukraine

The table below is one way these conflicts can be described.  It lists the direct combatants in each of the conflicts as well as those who support them (proxies). The table does not include all of the currently on-going conflicts because not much is known or reported on some of the on-going conflicts. The political regime assignments in the table below may readily be questioned.  Many of the conflicts are of the multilateral kind where the “fog of war” is especially thick.  Napoleon Bonaparte said that: “No battle plan survives the first contact with the enemy”.  The same may be said about new political systems or anocracies during the time of war.  They may change suddenly or gradually along the political continuum tending more towards an autocracy or a democracy.

Proxy Belligerents 1 (political system) Direct Belligerent 1 (political system) Direct Belligerent 2 (political system) Proxy Belligerents 2 (political system)
Hezbollah (anocracy), Iran (hybrid leaning to dictatorship) Syrian Assad regime (hereditary dictatorship) Collection of rebels including the Free Syrian Army (anocracy) United States, EU (democracies)
Hezbollah (anocracy), Iran (hybrid dictatorship) Syrian Assad regime (hereditary dictatorship) The Caliphate-ISIL (anocracy transitioning to dictatorship?) Al Queda (anocracy seeking dictatorship?)
US, EU (full democracies) Iraq and the Kurds (new and highly flawed democracy) The Caliphate-ISIL (anocracy transitioning to dictatorship?) Al Queda (anocracy seeking dictatorship?)
US (full democracy) Israel (flawed democracy) Hamas (anocracy) Al Queda (anocracy seeking dictatorship?)
US, EU (full democracies) West Ukraine (anocracy) East Ukraine (anocracy) Russia (hybrid regime)
Libyan Kaddafi regime (dictatorship) Libyan militias (anocracy) US, EU (full democracies)

In this set of modern conflicts either the belligerents themselves or their proxies are more democratic while their opponents or their proxies are more authoritarian.

Some political scientists group all non-authoritarian political systems under the names like polyarchy, polycracy or plurocracy, meaning rule of many.  For the purposes of this writing, these terms are considered equivalent.  Statistical investigations of databases of historical armed conflicts show that autocracies are more likely to fight all other types of government (polycracies just to adopt one term out of many) than other autocracies, although the researchers hasten to mention that incidents of war between autocracies are more common than incidents of war between democracies.  For the purposes of this writing the terms authoritarian regime, autocracy, tyranny, dictatorship and totalitarianism are considered to be equivalent and essentially is a rule of one.

The finding that autocracies tend to fight polycracies suggests that the decision-making by a lone ruler, an autocrat, is fundamentally different than decision-making by a group, however large or small this group may be.  In the United States, we know this from our daily lives: important business decisions are made in board meetings, university budgets are discussed in regents meetings, school functions are adopted by the Parent-Student-Teacher Associations (PSTAs), city ordinances are passed by the city council.  On the U.S. federal scale a small group of wise old people (the Supreme Court) decides the constitutionality of the laws passed by a larger group of somewhat less wise people of all ages (the Congress), these laws being implemented by an administration led by a person who won a popularity contest (The President).  It is therefore interesting to a scholar of history when President Obama declares in a televised address that “the biggest barrier and impediment we have right now is the Congress” or berates the Supreme Court from the pulpit.  These are faint echoes of dictatorship, even if it’s a well-meaning one … or especially if it’s a well-meaning one.

Group decision-making isn’t perfect, and it can and often has made mistakes, however, it does have two advantages:

  • It allows for decision being influenced by competing interests
  • Because the members of the group may be of different age and tenure in their positions, there is long-term decision continuity. Each new member, given roughly the same influence level, cannot radically alter the position of the entire group.

Historically, autocrats have made good decisions and an individual autocrat arguably may have done better than a polycracy, however, there are two problems:

  • “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”
  • There’s no decision continuity over long run.

Obviously, the autocrats are not free of influences and advice, but many readers will know from their personal experience that the discussion between several people of about the same status is very different  than between a boss and an employee.  Now imagine if the boss not only had control over an employee’s livelihood, but also his life and lives of his family.  That puts a discussion in an entirely different light.

During most of the recorded human history there have been many more autocracies than polycracies.  Number_of_nations_1800-2003_scoring_8_or_higher_on_Polity_IV_scale

According to the research findings, autocracies fight polycracies more often than they fight among themselves, and polycracies fight each other less often than they fight autocracies.  If these findings are true then the history of the world for the large part is a titanic struggle of the two basic philosophies of government: the idea of the sole rule and the idea of shared or participative rule.


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