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- Impact of Democracy
- Theoretical Frameworks
- Criticism and Response
Democratic peace refers most specifically to the proposition that democratic states have not fought and are not likely to fight interstate wars against each other. It refers more generally to the notion that democracy has an important pacifying impact on international politics, whether by making individual states less warlike, by creating peaceful relationships for pairs of states, or by making the entire globe more peaceful. It is a proposition that lies at the heart of the American academic field of international politics, born in the wake of a world war ostensibly fought to make the world safe for democracy. Though its philosophical roots go back to Immanuel Kant and Thomas Paine, in its contemporary form, democratic peace focuses most intently on democracy’s impact on interactions within pairs of states. This research paper reviews research on that impact, its theoretical bases, major criticisms of it, and the most important responses to those criticisms.
Impact of Democracy
Recent interest evoked by democratic peace is the result, in an important part, of the strikingly simple claim that no two democratic states have ever fought a war against each other. This is not a trivial claim. Though interstate wars are far too common, statistically speaking, they are rare events. In most years, 99% of the pairs of states in the international system avoid fighting wars against each other. For the rate of warfare among democratic states to be significantly different from that for states, in general, the number of wars between democratic states must be at least close to zero.
So critics of democratic peace point out exceptions to the alleged rule about democratic states having universally peaceful relationships with each other. The War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain, the U.S. Civil War, the Spanish American War in 1898, even World War I, the official state of war between Great Britain and Finland in World War II, the war between Lebanon and Israel in 1948, and the military conflict between India and Pakistan in 1999 are among the most frequently mentioned wars on this list.
Resolving the debate about whether any or all of these are actually exceptions to the democratic peace rule obviously must involve definitions of “war” and “democracy.” A specific definition of war widely adopted by researchers focusing on quantitative analysis of evidence regarding its causes specifies that an interstate war involves military conflict between independent states leading to the deaths of at least 1,000 soldiers. This definition has been adopted by most analysts conducting systematic empirical evaluations of hypotheses regarding the causes of war for several decades.
Definitions and measures of democracy are probably more contestable. Most of the research on democratic peace has adopted a numerical threshold based on data consisting of annual scores rating states on a continuum from fully autocratic to entirely democratic. These thresholds are inescapably arbitrary to some extent. In fact, all definitions contain an important arbitrary element. Furthermore, to evaluate the validity of the statement that democratic states never fight wars against each other, all states must be sorted into “democratic” or “not democratic” categories. Obviously, states do not naturally or clearly fall into neatly exclusive or exhaustive categories of that kind. So, ultimately, the proposition that needs to be evaluated is “states that are sufficiently democratic never (or rarely) fight wars against each other.” How much democracy is enough, and how can that level of democracy be identified, are crucial questions with no answers that will generate universal consensus. One characteristic receiving some attention focuses on the ability of a state to stage elections in which executive leadership of the state passes from one independent political party to another, different independent political party.
The debate about which attributes commonly thought of as “democracy” possess the most effective pacifying impact leads inevitably to a more general issue regarding the theoretical basis for the democratic peace proposition. This debate shifts the focus from questions about whether it is true that democratic states have fought wars or become involved in militarized disputes at a lower rate than other kinds of states to a rather different issue: Assuming an acceptance of the claim that jointly democratic states do have a historical record of conflict that is distinctive in the way the democratic peace theory would suggest, what has brought about this record? One prominent answer focuses on the potential cultural or psychological impact of democracy on states and their leaders. Political leaders in democratic states are accustomed to resolving political debates and disputes in a peaceful, rule-based fashion. Leaders of democratic states can be expected to bring attitudes and expectations about conflict resolution cultivated in domestic political processes to interactions with their counterparts in other states. For their own protection, democratic leaders bring quite different attitudes and expectations to their interactions with leaders of autocratic states. They find such leaders ethically and morally suspect from the outset. And they have no expectation that conflicts with them can be resolved in a peaceful manner. But if the leaders of other states are democratic, leaders of democratic states anticipate that disagreements can be resolved in a peaceful manner.
The second main theoretical argument about the potential pacifying effect of democracy focuses on the structure of domestic political systems. An important starting point for such arguments posits that political leaders of all states place the highest priority on staying in power. Analysts point out that to initiate military interventions or attacks, leaders of democratic states need to persuade various elements in the government, interest groups, and even the general population to support such ventures. This process, relatively cumbersome compared with that faced by autocratic leaders, makes democratic states more hesitant and cautious about getting involved in military conflict. Then, too, democratic leaders are more vulnerable to being removed from office if they become involved in a war, or even a less serious militarized conflict, and they lose that war or conflict. Since democratic states tend to win the wars in which they become involved, democratic states are, everything else being equal, opponents to be avoided in military conflicts. Autocratic leaders tend to be not so cautious and not so anxious to win the wars in which they are entangled. All they need to do to maintain themselves in power is to satisfy or appease their relatively small winning coalitions. And since those winning coalitions are small, supporters of dictators tend to be loyal. They understand that they might well be excluded from the small winning coalition supporting any successor regime.
Democratic leaders must satisfy a much larger coalition. Therefore, they depend more crucially on providing public goods to that larger coalition, such as victories in war. If a war is lost, they probably cannot provide enough private goods to a sufficiently large portion of their coalition to maintain themselves in power. This is especially the case because supporters of democratic leaders tend to be much less loyal than supporters of autocratic leaders. The winning coalition of any successor in a democratic regime must necessarily be large, at least approaching one half of the population involved in selecting leaders—that is, the entire electorate. In other words, in political systems based on relatively large winning coalitions, those who desert the coalition supporting the current leader also have a reasonable chance of joining the winning coalition of the successor. All of these considerations make democratic states cautious about getting involved in wars or militarized conflicts, especially against other democratic states.
Criticism and Response
Some critics of both these approaches to explaining the alleged lower rate of warfare and militarized conflict among democratic states acknowledge that the statistical pattern exists. They argue, however, that the correlation between democracy and peace for pairs of states is not the reflection of a causal linkage. One argument has it that it is actually peace that produces democracy. That is, states that for whatever reason come into existence and/or exist for prolonged periods of time in an environment of peace are more likely to be democratic. But this does not prove that democracy causes peace.
One of the most prominent antidemocratic peace arguments points out that most of the historical examples of democratic pairs of states avoiding wars against each other come from the decades following the onset of the Cold War. Democratic states in that era, it is argued, avoided wars against each other not because they were democratic but because they shared the unifying threat of a powerful common enemy in the Soviet Union or the communist coalition of the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and various allies.
However, several statistical analyses of the relationship between democracy and peace control for the impact of alliance ties and still find that democracy apparently leads to peace. And, it is not true that the potentially unifying impact of opposition from the communist world was universally effective. That opposition did not prevent, for example, a war between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969, military conflict between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus in 1974, or the clash between Great Britain and Argentina over the Malvinas/Falkland Islands in 1982. In each of these cases, at least one of the antagonists was not democratic. Furthermore, the communist world was confronted by a capitalist/ democratic world even more imposing than itself in terms of military and industrial capabilities, and the allegedly unifying impact of that opposition did not prevent the Soviet Union from invading Hungary, Czechoslovakia, or Afghanistan, the serious clashes between China and Vietnam, and Vietnam’s attack on and occupation of Cambodia.
Democratic peace ideas influenced the foreign policies of the Clinton and Bush administrations during the 2 decades after the end of the Cold War. Especially in the latter case, some foreign policy initiatives ostensibly based on those ideas had problematic outcomes. One important criticism of the democratic peace literature is that it has never laid out clearly the policy implications of its findings, even though it is also true that few if any democratic peace advocates, for example, endorsed the U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003. In short, democracy may have an important pacifying impact on relationships between states. How policymakers might best take advantage of that impact is not always clear.
- Gowa, J. (1999). Ballots and bullets: The elusive democratic peace. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Ray, J. L. (1998). Democracy and international conflict: An evaluation of the democratic peace proposition. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
- Rummel, R. J. (1979). Understanding conflict and war: War, power, peace (Vol. 4). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Russett, B., & Oneal, J. (2001). Triangulating peace: Democracy, interdependence, and international organizations. New York: W. W. Norton.
- Weart, S. (1998). Never at war: Why democracies will not fight one another. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.