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Power Kills

Contents | Preface

Appendix 1.1: Q and A on No Wars Between Democracies

Chapter 8: On The Nature of Democracy

Chapter 13: Why Does Power Kill?

Other Democratic Peace Documents On This Site


What is the "democratic peace"?

"The rule of law: towards eliminating war"

"Freedom of the press--A Way to Global Peace"

"Convocation Speech,"

Freeman Interview

City Times Interview


"The democratic peace: a new idea?"

Q & A on democracies not making war on each other

But What About...?

Bibliography on democracy and war


"Libertarianism and International Violence"

"Libertarianism, Violence Within States, and the Polarity Principle"

"Libertarian Propositions on Violence Within and Between Nations: A Test Against Published Research Results"

"Democracies ARE less warlike than other regimes"


Vol. 4: War, Power, Peace (see e.g., Propositions 16.11 and 16.27

The Miracle That Is Freedom

Power Kills


Chapter 1

Summary and Conclusions*

By R.J. Rummel

Lust of power is the most flagrant of all the passions.

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.
----Lord Acton

It is not power itself, but the legitimation of the lust for power, which corrupts absolutely.
----Richard Howard Stafford Crossman

Power kills, absolute power kills absolutely
----This Book

War has been a scourge of our species, one of the horses of the apocalypse. It has slaughtered many millions of us and left many more permanently scared in mind and body. In my lifetime alone I have seen my own country, the Unites States, fight in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf, with lesser military actions or interventions in the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Libya, Panama, Granada, Iraq, and Bosnia. That such killing should come to an end for us all, that we should sometime conquer war, has been a dream.

Peace plans and designs, universal treaties and schemes for multilateral organizations have been put forward to end war. It has been thoroughly studied and researched, its causes and conditions dissected. And solutions have been proposed. Education, cultural exchange, economic development, socialism, internationalism, international sports, free trade, functional organizations, better balancing of power, artful diplomacy, deterrence, crisis management, arms control, world government, peace research, and so on, have their proponents. All to some extent have been tried or been achieved.

Were war and other international violence the only source of mass deaths, it would be enough to demand our greatest effort to eradicate it, but there is also civil violence within states to add to this carnage. Bloody riots, revolutions, guerrilla war, civil war, lethal coups d'etat, terrorism, and the like, have also claimed millions of victims. And for this second human plague the solutions have been no less creative and varied. We should eliminate poverty, promote understanding, teach human values, facilitate change, decentralize government, emphasize minority self-determination, institutionalize conflict resolution, and on and on. Yet as of this writing we still have bloody conflicts in Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, Somalia, Angola, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Iraq, Turkey, and a dozen or more other nations.

And then we have the widespread affliction exemplified by the Holocaust and genocides perpetuated in Bosnia and Rwanda, but whose generality has been ignored or unknown. Mass murder and genocide, or democide in short, has been the worst scourge of all. It has killed in our century not only millions or tens of millions, but possibly hundreds of millions. It has been a revisitation of the Black Death, but now intentionally carried out by human hands. The recognition of this general butchery has been so new that general solutions apart from those for war and civil violence have only recently been proposed.

The extent of mass killing in war, internal collective violence, and democide in our lifetime and throughout history is not only depressing, but makes eliminating it seem hopeless. After all, this killing has been the stuff of history: the Mongol invasions, Thirty Years War, Napoleonic Wars, World Wars I and II; the Mongol massacres, the slaughter of the Crusades, slave deaths in the Middle Passage, the butchery of the Teiping Rebellion. In some cases all we need is a single name to provoke images of mass murder--Genghis Khan, Ivan the Terrible, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot. All one needs to do is change the names, places, and dates in Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War to those of our century to make it recent history.

How can one even presume, therefore, that there is a solution to war? All alleged solutions must seem only the raving of idealists. To those with an appreciation of history all that seems possible is to moderate and perhaps in some cases to avoid a particular war. And similarly for proposed solutions to civil violence and democide. "Lets be realistic," it is often said, "foreign and domestic violence are in our blood. They have always been with us; they will always be with us." Anyway, some will argue, wars are sometimes necessary when the alternatives are even more horrible, such as having one's country taken over by a foreign state or ideology.

And yet it is the burden of this book to show that these "realists" are wrong. Wrong with regard to war and lesser international violence. Wrong about civil collective violence. Wrong about genocide and mass murder. There is one solution to each and the solution in each case is the same. It is to foster democratic freedom and to democratize coercive power and force. That is, mass killing and mass murder carried out by government is a result of indiscriminate, irresponsible Power at the center. Or in terms of the title of this book, Power kills.

This solution has been around for centuries and in one form or another was integrated into the classical liberal view of government: the government that governs least governs best; and freedom promotes peace and welfare. But practitioners and analysts alike were soon persuaded that this was just idealistic thinking, especially because democracies themselves seemed so warlike and under the hammer blows of socialists of all kinds it increasingly seemed that the very core of such thinking, capitalism, was inherently belligerent and the mother of violence.

However, there has been a resurgence of interest in this solution, particularly when put in terms of democracy, and without the ideological baggage that classical liberalism gave to freedom. This renewed interest has been theoretical and empirical. It has been both the result of theoretical work on international relations and democide, and the attempt to disprove empirically that democracies are any more peaceful than other regimes among themselves and in general. This empirical work has been the most intensive and extensive of any in the study of war, civil collective violence, and democide. For war in particular, all recorded wars since the classical Greeks that might involve democracies have been studied in historical detail. All possible historical cases where democracies might have made war on each other have been put under the analytic microscope. All cases of democide in this century have been subject to intensive investigation for the role of power versus democracy. Even wars among tribes within preindustrial societies has been studied to see if the more democratic have lesser violence.

Moreover, other possible factors that might really account for the inverse relationship between democracy and violence, or the lack of wars between democracies, have been checked, such as geographical distance (lack of common borders between democracies might account for this). Perhaps economic development, a common enemy, similarity, and so on, also might explain this, but on careful empirical and comparative investigation such has proved not to be the case.

Of course, because throughout history democracies have been few in number, chance might be the simple explanation for why democracies appear more peaceful. But where data allowed for the calculation of probabilities, often for wars even over two centuries, or other kinds of violence during this century, the findings were consistently very significant. In some studies the odds of finding the inverse relationship between democracy and, for example, wars, ran in some cases to thousands or millions to one. It is important to note also that many of the investigators that looked at this began with great skepticism over such a simple solution. Some thought they would disprove it and ended up convinced of it. Indeed, some were so convinced that this was wrong that in spite of their empirical results to the contrary their conclusions even denied their own evidence.

For the philosopher of science we have here an ideal case of science in action. We have a long dormant hypothesis and first very limited test. We have researchers independently discovering or conceiving of the hypothesis. We have the denial of that which cuts against mainstream beliefs about war and other forms of violence. We have replication after replication that finally in their accumulation creates a consensus and forces a more systematic attempt to explain what has been found.1 That is, we have a multitude of different studies by different researchers using different approaches on different kinds of data with different definitions. All are generally consistent, as will be presented in Part 1.**

What specifically has been uncovered or verified about democracy and violence? First, well established democracies do not make war on and rarely commit lesser violence against each other. The relationship between democracy and international war has been the most thoroughly researched question and all who have investigated this have agreed--democracies do not fight among themselves. Possible exceptions to this, as of the war of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States, or the Spanish-American War, were found not to have been really between democracies or to have been cases in which one or another democracy was either newly established or marginally democratic. Many issues and questions have been raised about these findings and I have tried to answer the most popular ones in the Appendix 1.1 to this summary.

Second, the more two nations are democratic the less likely war or lesser violence between them. There is a scale of democraticness here, at one end of which are two undoubted democracies with no likelihood of war and virtually zero probability of lesser violence between them, and at the other end are those nations most undemocratic (the totalitarian ones) that have the greatest chance of war and other violence among themselves. This finding shows that democracy is not a simple dichotomy--democracy versus nondemocracy--but a continuum. The implications of this are profound, and will be sketched later.

Third, the more a nation is democratic, the less severe its overall foreign violence. This finding in particular is disputed among researchers, but I will show in detail in Chapter 4** that on this there should be no disagreement--that the evidence, even in the studies of those who question it, is clear. Most of those investigating this, I will show, have defined war and violence in terms of frequencies and have been therefore misled. They have in effect equated the very small wars with total wars like World Wars I and II; and they have also equated a few dozen deaths in war for one country with that of several million killed for another.

Fourth, in general the more democratic a nation, the less likely it will have domestic collective violence. Studies that include the relevant variables and indicators support this empirically. And those studies I have carried out specifically to test this are uniformly positive.

Finally, in general the more democratic a nation, the less its democide. Although in the literature democracy has been suggested as a way of reducing genocide and mass murder, data for testing this empirically have been unavailable until recently. Indeed, so far I appear the only one to have explicitly tested this, and have found that democide is highly and inversely related to democracy. This holds up even when controls are introduced for economic development, education, national power, culture, and ethnic/racial and religious diversity. Case studies of the most extensive democides, such as that in the Soviet Union, communist China, Nazi Germany, and Cambodia support this conclusion.

In sum, then, I will show that, overwhelmingly, the evidence supports this general principle: democracy is a method of nonviolence. Democracy is a practical solution to war and all other kinds of collective, that is, political regime, violence. It will not end such violence per se. But among all types of regimes, democracy minimizes this violence. And compared to its opposite, totalitarian regimes in which millions may die through democide and rebellions and aggressive wars, democracy virtually eliminates this source of deaths.

How do we explain this? What is the theory? One surface explanation, probably the most persuasive and oldest (going back at least to Immanuel Kant), is that where you have representative government decision makers are restrained from making war by the public will. After all, it is argued, the public does not want to bear the awful human cost of war. And in fact this may well account for the inability of democracies to make war, even sometimes to protect other democracies against aggression (as in the extreme reluctance of the United States to overtly help Great Britain during its greatest peril, the Battle of Britain in 1940). But as the history of the Unites States, Britain, and France well show, democratic publics can become jingoistic; they can pressure for or support military action.

A deeper explanation involves basically two factors: cross-pressures and democratic culture. The first is that democratic structure, the institutions of democratic governance, evolve and create checks and balances on the use of power, and inhibitions due to the political and social diversity that develops. These tie down decision makers and cross-cut and cross-pressure interests such that the strength of purpose required to commit violence cannot easily arise. This is particularly true between two democracies where they have a plethora of common bonds and shared interests.

The democratic culture argument is that democracy requires the arts of conciliation and compromise, an attitude of toleration of differences, and a willingness to lose. The development of this democratic culture is what defines democracy as well established; it infuses and orients domestic and foreign relations. When democrats recognize each other as democrats, they see each other as willing to negotiate and compromise, to resolve conflicts peacefully. Where dictators and totalitarians thrive, however, rule is by coercion and force, command and decrees. This type of system not only selects a particularly aggressive and dominating personality, but puts a premium on deception, force, and especially, winning. When dictator negotiates with dictator, it becomes a struggle to see who can dominate or win.

Beneath institutions and culture, however, is still a deeper and more comprehensive explanation of the democratic peace. This is by social fields and their opposite antifields. A social field is a spontaneous society within which individuals interact. Its key is the freedom of people to pursue their own interests, to create among themselves expectations--a social order--in terms of their wants, capabilities, and wills. The primary mode of power is exchange, its political system is democratic, and this democratic government is but one of many groups and pyramids of power in the social field.

Within this field there is a creative diversity of small groups, associations, societies, businesses, and the like, and thereby multiple overlapping, cross-cutting, and cross-pressuring linkages and bonds that isolate and minimize violence. Of necessity such an exchange based order produces a culture of exchange, that is norms of negotiation, accommodation, concessions, tolerance, and a willingness to accept less than one wants. This field is not isolated to one democratic society. It envelopes all democracies; all are perceived as within the same moral and behavioral universe. The forces of a spontaneous society that thus restrain violence work as well to minimize violence between democratic governments within their social field and particularly to make war between them as unlikely as one between IBM and Apple computer.

The opposite of such an order is the social antifield. This is a society that has been turned into an hierarchical, task oriented organization ruled by command. It divides its members into those who command and those who must obey, thus creating a schism separating all members and dividing all issues, a latent conflict front along which violence can break out. Spontaneous behavior can still occur, there is still something of a social field, but it has been isolated in the corners and pockets of the organization where commands do not reach. Many political regimes have created such societies and, indeed, the worst and most repressive of them even have become identified with their creators: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao. They totally restructured their societies to achieve national greatness, racial purity, or the "dictatorship of the proletariat" and eventual communism. This was the task, the reorganization of society the tool, and the Great Leader at the pinnacle of power provided the unquestionable leadership.

The basis of such antifields, societies turned into organizations, is coercion. The operating framework is repression, controls, spies, concentration camps, torture, executions. The dynamic of obedience is fear. And their most characteristic political regime is totalitarian.

Those totalitarians who rule or officiate within such an antifield are not used to compromise or negotiating with underlings. Their culture is one of command, and unquestioning obedience and their modus operandi is naked power. They rule by fear. On big issues, they cannot lose, for that may mean death or imprisonment. In extreme cases, as of Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot and their henchmen, it could also mean the death of one's whole family and even friends and associates. Such a culture does not favor democratic negotiation with other regimes; it favors disinformation, subterfuge, and aggression.

Moreover, there is little diversity, no meaningful pluralism independent of the regime. All religion, business, unions, education, trade, sports, cultural activities, and so on, for all possible sources of independent power, are controlled at the top. Even, in extreme cases, laughter, holding hands, or honeyed words for a loved one can be dangerous unless explicitly permitted, as in Pol Pot's Cambodia. In such an antifield there can be no cross-cutting, cross-pressuring interests. All is a matter of "them" or "us".

Basic to understanding an antifield is obviously Power, the dominance of indiscriminate and irresponsible power at the center. It is this Power that fosters war and lesser international violence. It is this Power that provokes internal rebellion and violent opposition. It is the Power that massacres human beings in the millions, near 61,000,000 in the case of the Soviet Union alone. In other words, this Power kills.

At the most fundamental level, then, we have an opposition between Freedom and Power. It is an opposition between the spontaneous society and the society turned into an hierarchical organization. It is an opposition between social field and antifield. This is not to deny the importance of culture and cross-pressures and the influence of public opinion in explaining the democratic peace. It is to say that they are social forces whose presence or absence is best understood in terms of the freedom of a democratic, spontaneous society or the commanding power of one that is tightly organized.

We thus end up with this explanation. Democracy is a method of nonviolence because democratic freedoms create a spontaneous society whose culture promotes negotiation and compromise; and whose social, economic, political, and cultural diversity and cross-cutting bonds inhibit violence. Violence is a product of the appositive of democratic freedom, the massive employment of coercion and force by totalitarian regimes to organize society and mobilize the people to achieve some goal: racial purity, victory in war, national greatness, economic development, or communism. In between are those societies ruled by authoritarian regimes that allow more or less freedom to their people and, accordingly, produce more violence than democracies but less than totalitarian regimes. That is, there is a scale of Power here. The more Power at the center, the more killing. Power kills; absolute Power kills absolutely.

The implications of this are obvious. If democracy is a method of nonviolence, if it is a solution to war, domestic collective violence, and democide, then we should foster democratic freedom.2 This does not mean that democracy should be spread by force or imposed on other nations. Nor does it mean that all people will or should accept democratic freedom regardless of their own culture and religion. There is after all the question of social justice, and while nonviolence may be a central principle, some peoples may prefer, for example, an authoritarian government and state religion like Islam to democratic freedom, even if it means more violence.

However, I do not believe this should be a matter for a national elite to determine. I do not accept a governing elite's condemnation of democratic rights as a Western invention unsuitable to their culture. This is a matter for a people to decide and not their unrepresentative elite to determine for them. A plebiscite, a referendum, or a democratic election should be the basis for deciding whether a people will be governed democratically.

There is one question that will bother many who read this. Can we truly predict that a democratic world will be a more peaceful world. While past history does not perfectly predict future history, it is the best basis we have for gauging empirically what ought to be done, leaving aside questions of ethics and values. But it may be true that a wholly democratic world may create new conditions that promote extreme violence. We just do not know the future and cannot deny such a possibility. But the value of having a theory that explains the past is that it also gives good reason for the future being consistent with the past. The explanation in terms of free societies argues strongly that in so far as such free societies exist in the future, violence should be minimal.

Moreover there is the argument from Immanuel Kant. If the hypothesis is more theoretically and empirically reasonable than competing ones, and is most morally desirable, then in our actions and policies we should act as if it is true. As political scientist Bruce Russett writes about the fact that democracies do not make war on each other,

understanding the sources of democratic peace can have the effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Social scientists sometimes create reality as well as analyze it. Insofar as norms do guide behavior, repeating those norms helps to make them effective. Repeating the norms as descriptive principles can help to make them true. Repeating the proposition that democracies should not fight each other helps reinforce the probability that democracies will not fight each other. It is an empirical fact that democracies rarely fight each other. They do not need to fight each other because they can employ alternative methods of conflict resolution, and at less cost than through violent conflict. A norm that democracies should not fight each other thus is prudentially reinforced, and in turn strengthens the empirical fact about infrequent violent conflict.3

Our long history of war and revolution and mass murder going back to the most ancient times has come down to this. We now have a solution in our grasp. The question now becomes one of implementation. How do we best protect and promote freedom? How do we control and minimize power? [For my attempt to answer this, see "An Enlightened Foreign Policy".] 


* From the pre-publisher edited manuscript of Chapter 1 in R.J. Rummel, Power Kills: Democracy as a Method of Nonviolence, 1997. For full reference to Power Kills, the list of its contents, figures, and tables, and the text of its preface, click book.

** See the table of contents.

1. We also have the final acceptance of the inherent peacefulness of democracies as being obvious. An anonymous reviewer of this book for another publisher claimed it contained "nothing new" and recommended rejection.

2. As to whether the process of democratization will cause greater violence, see endnote 2 of Chapter 7.

3. Russett (1993, p. 136).

For citations see the Power Kills REFERENCES

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