What the Numbers Say About PM Liz Truss and Prospects for Peace | Opinion

Liz Truss is the United Kingdom's new prime minister—that brings the number of female leaders in the G20 to two. She enters world politics at a tense moment: Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine looks unlikely to end anytime soon, and tensions in the Taiwan Strait are greater than ever. The risk of a great power war between the West and Russia or China seems greater than any point in 30 years.

Maybe what we need is more women in charge, and fewer macho men. Surely that would make for a more peaceful world? The social science says yes, but maybe not for the reasons you think.

The idea goes far back. Start with one of the most famous plays of all time, Aristophanes' Lysistrata, still performed today. Women in Athens couldn't vote, but a war was killing their sons, brothers, and husbands. Unlike the men, they wanted peace. So Lysistrata, the lead, calls on her fellow women of Greece to deny their husbands sex until Athens and Sparta stop the fighting.

The Victorious Liz Truss
New Conservative Party leader and incoming prime minister Liz Truss waves as she leaves Conservative Party Headquarters on Sept. 5, 2022 in London. Carl Court/Getty Images

Soon, a Spartan emissary approaches the city. Women have heeded Lysistrata's call, he grumbles. No sex for Spartans. He pleads for a treaty. By the end of the play, representatives from each polis gather to reconcile. Celebration ensues.

This is not, sadly, how the Peloponnesian War ended. Following the production's premiere, the fighting raged on several years. The play isn't an enlightened treatise on gender, either. It's a bawdy comedy, written by a man, acted by men, in a society dominated by men, playing up stereotypes for hilarity. Still, it captures a common view: if women were in charge, we wouldn't fight so much.

It's undeniable: most warriors have been men. Most of the leaders who've declared war—men. Raids on the neighboring gang or clan—also men. Fistfights, brawls, duels—again, overwhelmingly males. It's true around the world, in almost every society, even in related apes.

It's true that women favor peace somewhat more than men. In surveys, given a hypothetical confrontation between nations, about 50 percent of men say they would support the use of force, versus 38 percent of women—the average response from 17 surveys in six countries (mainly the United States and U.K.).

Does this mean putting more women in charge would lead to a more peaceful world? Yes, but not necessarily because women are inherently more pacifistic.

It's obvious that men are more aggressive one-on-one or in small groups. Some of this is evolved, some of it is socialization. Even so, individual tendencies, regardless of the leader's gender, are a poor guide to how nations behave. Groups deliberate. Passions and urges are filtered through layers of decision-making and bureaucracy.

We don't know to what extent male aggression gets moderated by groups or deliberation. Strikingly, however, female leaders take their societies to war just as often as male ones. When political scientists pulled together data on 20th century rulers around the world, they found that 36 percent of women leaders attacked another state, compared to 30 percent of males—a small difference that disappeared when accounting for other variables.

Now, you might be thinking that only the most aggressive women get elected. But even women who find themselves in power by chance don't look for peace more than men. For instance, another study compared 500 years of European monarchs, looking for near-random variation in when a man or woman came to power. Queens were 27 percent more likely to find themselves at war than the kings. Now, maybe queens were perceived as weak, and were attacked more. Or their husbands had more time for military adventures. But little evidence points to female heads of state being pacifistic.

Why, then, do I believe that more women in state-level decision-making will make for a more peaceful world?

In my book, "Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace," I show how unaccountable power is the greatest cause of war and strife in history. Autocratic and other unchecked leaders are willing to wage war because they don't pay the ruinous costs. Excluding any large group from the political process is going to make a country more likely to fight. Thus, bringing half the population—women—into decision-making compels leaders to consider the ravages of war and make more peaceful choices.

When leaders confront a rival country or group, they have two choices: negotiate or fight. That's why the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz famously told us that "war is the continuation of politics by other means."

One of these means, however, is far costlier than the other. War depletes the treasury, kills soldiers, and leads to the murder and rape of men, women, and children. That's why most enemies prefer to compromise. As Winston Churchill said, "Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war." For every conflict that ever was, a thousand others have been averted through dialogue and concession.

But what if leaders aren't accountable for the costs? To an autocrat, war still carries a risk of ruin. But they are insulated—if not immune—from the death, mayhem, despoilment, and plunder. Therefore, they are too quick to eschew compromise and use violence to attain their goals. This war bias is one reason most conflicts involve authoritarian leaders, and why democracies almost never fight each other—what political scientists call the democratic peace.

Still, democratic leaders are prone to some of the same war bias if half the population is marginalized, oppressed, or can't vote. Whether it's women, a racial minority, youth, or a religious group left without a say, rulers are going to ignore the price borne by the people without a voice. That makes peace agreements harder to find.

Checking that power—through legislatures, civil society, international institutions, and (importantly) the enfranchisement of women and minorities is the globe's surest path to peace.

A range of statistical analyses also show that women's representation in parliament, their relative education levels, and lower violence against women are all associated with a lower of international and civil wars. Others suggest that peace processes that include women are two-thirds more durable. As usual, correlation is not causation, but the idea is intuitive: bargains that exclude half the population are less likely to last.

Unfortunately, over the last 30 years, women were only about one in 15 mediators or signatories in major peace processes around the world. Most formal peace processes include no women at all in major roles. That means that even when a minority political faction, ethnic group, or religious sect is included in talks, their female members stay at home.

That's a problem. Not because, like Lysistrata, women have naturally peaceful predispositions and temper the excesses of men. Far more important are the constraints that wider political participation places on the people who decide on war.

So, does that mean the elevation of Liz Truss is an important step for peace? Not by itself. For that to happen, we will have to wait for the kinds of checks and balances and broad political representation that England enjoys spreading more widely in the world.

Chris Blattman is a professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and author of the book Why We Fight.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.