Accessibility links

Breaking News

Yugoslavia: Analysis From Washington -- Threats, Dangers And Democracies

Washington, 20 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As the ongoing debate in NATO countries about Yugoslavia shows, democratic countries tend to react to threats very differently than they do to dangers, a pattern that also helps to explain the constraints leaders in these countries face in trying to devise policies that will attract public support.

In a new paper released by the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, British scholar Charles Dick points out that democratic societies tend to respond well to threats. Whenever they perceive a direct challenge to their way of life or even national existence, the citizens or such countries are prepared to do whatever it takes to repulse or eliminate the threat, a commitment their leaders can draw on.

But when these societies are confronted with dangers rather than threats, with actions or events that do not appear to pose a direct challenge to themselves, Dick suggests, both the citizens and their leaders tend to react in an entirely different and in many respects a more problematic way.

In many cases, as the current debates across Europe and the United States show, citizens in democratic countries argue that no sacrifice is justified and no action is needed precisely because dangers are not necessarily threats. Indeed, such attitudes help to explain why some analysts have argued that democracies will not go to war against each other.

Whether that conclusion is justified remains very much an open question, but popular attitudes about the differences between threats and dangers do pose a serious challenge for political leadership. In these countries, leaders who recognize that dangers can grow into threats have a particularly hard time in making a convincing argument that their societies should act before that transformation takes place.

On the one hand, that sometimes means that democracies react to dangers only very late in the game, only after tragedies of one kind or another prompt public opinion to shift in favor of intervention rather than restraint. Indeed, history is full of examples of leaders who have had to wait for a disaster before they could convince their own peoples of the need to act.

And on the other hand, such attitudes help to shape both public debates and policy choices in these countries. Those who oppose any action can always find support for their position if they play down the dangers or even importance of any set of events for their own countries. Neville Chamberlain's 1939 dismissal of Czechoslovakia as a country "far away about which we know little" is only the most notorious of such remarks.

Those who seek intervention sometimes fall into an opposite if equal error. Driven by a belief that their countries must act in any particular case, they frequently overstate the size of the danger as part of their efforts to portray it as a genuine threat. Loose comparisons of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to Nazi leader Adolph Hitler are examples of such public discourse.

These public positions also have their counterparts in the debates within democratic countries. Those opposed to action can always point to polls which show that many of their citizens do not want to act. And those who believe that action is necessary frequently find it necessary to act slowly and cautiously in order to lay the groundwork for larger actions later.

Knowing that their electorates might oppose dramatic actions against particular dangers, democratic leaders sometimes take smaller steps than they believe necessary out of the conviction that their populations will support larger ones only after the futility of smaller measures becomes self-evident. Not surprisingly, their opponents not only understand such a strategy but seek to counter it by calling public attention to what is going on.

Many commentators have suggested that the NATO debate about Yugoslavia is somehow unique, but Dick's argument that Europe has now moved from what he calls "an era of threats to one of dangers" suggests that the very public debates about that issue are in fact typical of the kind of discussions that democratic countries are likely to conduct in the absence of something they all agree.

Understanding this fact of life in post-Cold War Europe may not help to resolve these debates, but it at least helps to clarify the issues involved.