In my research project about decision-making during the Second World War, I am examining how a state’s “regime type,” i.e., the type of government it has (democracy, autocracy, or something in between) affects its foreign policy. I am also examining whether the regime type of a state’s opponent or potential opponent affects foreign policy outcomes. So, for example: does the fact that a potential opponent is a democracy affect a state’s decision to launch a war against it? In the world of international relations, we refer to such theories as “second image” explanations of international political behavior.
In addition to tracking down and interpreting the relevant archival sources on the decisions in question, one of the most challenging aspects of conducting research like this is deciding how to classify a particular state’s regime. Ask yourself this question: how do we determine whether a state is a democracy or not? One obvious answer might be that the state must hold elections. Okay, so….elections for what? For the head of state? For the head of government? What about representatives in the national assembly? What about judges? How many candidates or parties must be running to count as a “real” election? And who is voting? These are just a few of the many criteria that researchers must consider in determining whether we should classify a state as democratic or not. In an earlier post I argued that many of the criteria researchers use to evaluate whether a state qualifies as a democracy are actually measures of how similar a particular state is to the United States, not how well the state measures up to some objective standard.
To me one of the most important criteria for determining whether a state should be counted as democratic is that adults are not excluded from voting in national elections based on their race, gender, or socioeconomic standing. So, for example, it is inappropriate to refer to the United States of 1850 or 1915 as fully democratic because major categories of adults were ineligible to vote (African Americans in 1850 and women in 1915, although we know that African Americans were effectively disenfranchised long after they were officially granted the right to vote, further complicating our assessments).
Back to my research: my project examines the British invasion of Iceland in 1940 (and the planned attack on Norway that was thwarted by Germany’s own invasion of that country). Over the past few weeks I have been researching Iceland’s political system, and I discovered that Icelandic women were granted the right to vote in 1915, before the same right was extended to women in the United States. I also learned that in 1980, Iceland elected Vigdis Finnbogadottir as president, making her the first democratically elected female head of state in the world. A fascinating article by Kirstie Brewer ties this remarkable electoral feat to a day in 1975 when 90% of all women in Iceland went on strike, refusing to attend their jobs outside the home, to perform housework or to look after children in order to call attention to their demands for equal rights with men. Icelandic fathers dubbed this day “the Long Friday” while they scrambled to entertain children at their workplaces and bought out easy-to-prepare sausages for their kids from the local shops. For many the day was heralded as a wake up call for women demanding equal rights with men. It’s a fascinating article about the path taken by a state that many have dubbed the most feminist country in the world, and worth thinking about in a U.S. election season where feminism and gender have become major stumbling blocks for the Democratic party.