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President Obama arrived an hour late at the dinner of the G20 in Saint Petersburg at which the Syrian crisis was to be discussed. He had apparently been on the telephone trying to convince sceptical members of Congress to vote for his proposed military action against the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, David Cameron, who was at that dinner from the beginning, must have seemed to his Russian hosts and their Chinese friends a rather impotent figure, following the House of Commons decision of August 30 rejecting his advocacy of intervention. Therein lies one of the main predicaments of democracies. They do not make such decisions easily, in time or with one voice. They are particularly bad at foreign policy decisions and at the timing of such decisions. And, for better or for worse, they often change their minds. Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War, written 25 centuries ago, told us some important things about these problems. So did Alexis de Tocqueville, nearly two centuries ago, in his Democracy in America.

David Runciman focuses on a particular problem: how democracies cope with crisis situations, and how their weaknesses conceal strengths and their strengths inadvertently generate potentially fatal weaknesses. He takes his cue from Tocqueville, the thinker who "first noticed the distinctive character of democratic hubris — how it is consistent with the dynamism of societies, how democratic adaptability goes along with democratic drift". Tocqueville was deeply troubled by his discovery that democracies are "caught between their impulse to precipitate action and their instinct to wait". But the French aristocrat thought that, for all their problems, democracies were likely to be better at coping with crises than rival systems in the long term. 

For Runciman, the trap lies exactly there: "Their experience of crisis is more likely to make democracies complacent than it is to make them wise: what democracies learn is that they can survive their mistakes." For example, politicians have not much incentive to compromise if they believe the democratic system can withstand most forms of confrontation: "This is the confidence trap. Democracies are adaptable. Because they are adaptable, they build up long-term problems, comforted by the knowledge that they will adapt to meet them."

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