Peace Science Digest

Militarism Is a Threat to Democracy

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Beall via flickr

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Zafirovski, M. (2019). Indicators of militarism and democracy in comparative context: How militaristic tendencies influence democratic processes in OECD countries 2010–2016. Social Indicators Research, online publication.

Talking Points 

In the context of OECD countries over the time period of 2010-2016:

  • Militarism has an adverse impact on democracy over time.
  • Weaker militarism has positive effects on democracy over time.
  • Most countries with the highest levels of militarism are among those with the lowest levels of democracy.
  • Most countries with the lowest levels of militarism are among those with the highest levels of democracy.


The threat of militarism on democracy was famously articulated by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower in his 1961 farewell address when he warned about the unwarranted influence of the military-industrial complex on liberties and democratic processes. Bringing Eisenhower’s warning to the present day, the author of this study explores the impact of militarism on democracy in the member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) over a time period from 2010 to 2016. He hypothesizes that militarism generates largely adverse consequences on democracies.

Military-industrial complex

a concept describing the conjunction of the military establishment and the arms industry. In modern times military-industrial linkages have emerged as major concentrations of power.

Pilisuk, M., & Rountree, J. A. (2015). The hidden structure of violence: Who benefits from global violence and war. New York, NY: NYU Press.


The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is an intergovernmental organization with 36 member countries, all self-described democracies and market economies, whose goal is to shape policies that foster prosperity, equality, opportunity, and well-being for all. Most members are high-income economies.

Existing research shows that democracies generally are less militaristic than other societies. This study explicitly analyzes how militarism and related factors such as nationalism and imperialism influence democracy in contemporary western and politically and economically similar societies.

Why this study, why now? Growing military expenditures, military bases, aggressive wars, or threats of war make this inquiry particularly urgent for the author. In particular, he points to the dramatic acceleration of military expenditure in the U.S. and the start of a new arms race following the 2016 U.S. elections. These trends directly spread to NATO members, while also sparking similar reactions in rival countries. 

To adequately measure how militarism influences democracy, both terms need to have measurable indicators. Militarism in this study consists of the following four measurable indicators: 1) large or growing military expenditure as a share of the national economy; 2) military bases and installations in other countries, which in addition to militarism indicate imperialism and neocolonialism; 3) formation of or membership in a military alliance; and 4) launching of or participating in offensive wars or military action. Democracy in this study consists of the following four measurable indicators: 1) political freedom, equality, inclusion, and justice; 2) economic freedom and equality; 3) civil and related liberties and rights (e.g., environmental rights, gender rights, health rights); and 4) cultural freedoms including scientific and other intellectual freedoms. Data for the militarism and democracy indicators comes from a variety of recognized databases, press reports, membership information, and cross-national rankings.

In the analysis, militarism is the explanatory factor (the “independent variable” in research jargon) for other phenomena, most notably democracy (the “dependent variable” in this case). The results are twofold. First, the descriptive findings indicate the 10 countries with the highest levels of militarism are not among those with the highest level of democracy. In fact, most countries with the highest levels of militarism are among those with the lowest levels of democracy. The author identifies this pattern for past colonial or present imperial NATO powers within the sample of OECD countries. Half of the extremely militaristic countries (10) are former colonial or present imperial (the U.S.) “great” powers. Most of the least militaristic countries (10) have not been or are not colonial or imperial powers. This suggests that colonial history or current imperialism is a probable explanatory factor for militarism or its absence. Looking at the countries with the lowest levels of militarism, the author observes that most of them are among the ones with the highest levels of democracy.

Second, further statistical cross-national time-series analysis, which included other influential factors such as economic development and educational attainment, substantively and statistically confirmed the observed adverse impact of militarism on democracy. An increase of 10 points (on a scale to 100) in militarism came with a 7-point reduction in the democracy indexes. The deeper analysis also showed that weaker militarism had positive effects on democracy.

The author is particularly concerned with the context of the United States, second only to Israel in topping the militarism rankings. The “land of freedom,” so often viewed as an exemplary democracy, has the largest military-industrial complex, highest military spending, and most offensive wars or military interventions. Militarism appears to make the United States less liberal and democratic than is commonly assumed. President Eisenhower’s warning, according to the author, “vanishes without [a] trace in conservative American politics and society since.” The impact of militarism on democracy is not part of the public debate in the U.S. As this study has shown, there is a dire need for such a debate.

Informing Practice

At the War Prevention Initiative, we share the author’s concern about U.S. militarism and continuously seek to better understand how far-reaching the military-industrial complex is. The warning years ago from President Dwight D. Eisenhower—a war veteran and Republican—seems to have mostly resonated with the peace activist community without finding its way into more mainstream conversations. There has been a slight shift in recent years—the military-industrial complex has been labeled in public debates on shifting federal funding priorities from military operations to social needs and also came up in the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate debates. However, its reach remains unchallenged. The current political context provides an opening.

People from all sides of the political spectrum are worried about the state of the “experiment of American democracy.” There are many reasons for this concern such as the structure and fairness of elections, the extent to which elected officials actually represent the people (or not), and of course hyper-partisanship around policy issues like healthcare, immigration, and reproductive rights. Yet, when it comes to U.S. military and foreign policy, there seems to be an enduring consensus on the “Washington Rules,” whereby U.S. ideals are maintained globally by U.S. military force. Clear-sighted critics of this militarist consensus exist, however. For instance, Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army Colonel, professor, and President of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, has been a persistent voice in challenging the “Washington Rules” by questioning the wisdom of the U.S.’s global military presence, global power projection, and global interventionism. But, this consensus is so entrenched that citizens often cannot see its negative impact and how it sidelines them from full democratic participation in their own country. In other words, just as this study confirms, militarism negatively influences democracy.  

This study elevates President Eisenhower’s almost 60-year-old message to contemporary relevance. Activists, educators, funders, the media, elected officials, businesspeople, concerned citizens, civil society organizations, and others can use the insights of this study to articulate the impact of militarism on democracy in their respective spheres of influence and, in doing so, challenge and transform militarism for the sake of democracy.

Continued Reading

Berrigan, F. (2008, September). Military industrial complex 2.0. Retrieved December 16, 2019, from Common Dreamswebsite:

Hartung, W. (2019, December 17). The Pentagon budget has continued to rise for the last 40 years. Retrieved December 17, 2019, from Salon website:

Eisenhower, D. D. (1961). Transcript of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address (1961). Retrieved December 17, 2019, from

Wertheim, S. (2019, September). The only way to end ‘endless war.’ Retrieved December 16, 2019, from Quincy Institute website:


The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft:

Center for International Policy:

Keywords: militarism, democracy, OECD, military-industrial complex

The following analysis appears in Volume 4, Issue 6 of the Peace Science Digest.