Thursday, March 20, 2014

Whither Democratic Peace?

The democratic peace proposition (DPP) is a liberal theory of peace (Oneal et al. 2003) complimented by constructivist arguments in support of it. Its central and simplest edict posits that ‘democracies do not go to war with each other’ (Owen 1994). There is a high degree of consensus among its proponents, that both statistical and empirical evidence indicates the “absence of war between democratic states comes as close as anything we have to an empirical law in international relations” (Levy and Thompson 2010). Yet, the ‘democratic peace proposition’ is - at best - an incomplete theory of peace. However, historical evidence of conflict between democracies as recently as the Indo-Pakistan and the Israel-Lebanon wars illustrate that shared democratic principles alone cannot be a sufficient guarantee of peace between nations. In critically evaluating existing literature on the subject, it becomes quite apparent that the spread of democracy is just one of many factors that have contributed to a reduction in the number and intensity of conventional wars between nations. Advancements in technology and multilateral organisations on the other hand are increasing the relative military, economic and diplomatic cost of conventional war. Therefore, states, including liberal democracies, still engage in unconventional warfare and other forms of conflict; in an environment where the global battle space has shifted into alternate arenas.


The foundations of the theory were laid by Immanuel Kant in his 1795 essay titled “Perpetual Peace” in which Kant conceives three main criteria for a peaceful world order. The first is ‘republican constitutions’ which would engender and enfranchised and empowered citizenship in every nation; secondly ‘a federation of free states’ which would bring governance and order to interactions between states; and thirdly ‘universal hospitality’ or goodwill between citizens of different nations (Kant 2008). Kant’s propositions for perpetual peace saw resurgence in the 1980s with Michael W. Doyle among its leading proponents (Doyle 1983a, b).

The DPP that emerged in the early 1980s must be understood in the context of Cold War politics, and the ideological battle that was polarising nations along pro democratic and Communist arguments. Doyle as a proponent of democracy used Kant’s logic as a basis for his argument of the democratic peace proposition. However, the criteria he specified for ‘perpetual peace’ differs from Kant’s in two out of the three elements. Doyle retains “republican representation”(Doyle 2005) from Kant’s original thesis as a criterion for peaceful relations between nations, but deviates from Kantian thinking in the next two. The “ideological commitment to fundamental human rights”(Doyle 2005) requires states to agree on values that inform their political ideology, whereas Kant merely specifies a federation of states which may or may not share the same values. Contemporary Southeast Asia is an example of a region made up of states with different political values, therefore not meeting Doyle’s criteria, but still manage to retain peaceful relations along the Kantian thesis of federation (Kivimäki 2001). Doyle’s third requirement of “transnational interdependence” is also a deviation from the spirit of Kant’s idea of universal hospitality. Liberal as well as conservative states – perhaps with the singular exception of North Korea – share a high level of interdependency with many other states through trade and shared human security interests (Farber and Gowa 1997).

Doyle further insists that his argument “rests on a simple and straightforward proposition that connects those three causal mechanisms as they operate together and only together, and not separately”(Doyle 2005). Doyle’s insistence that all three causal mechanisms must be fulfilled for the DPP to apply to a given nation, raises questions that will be addressed below - about the definitional challenge of what ‘democracy’(Danilovic and Joe 2007) itself, and ‘peace’ between nations entail.


The DPP has been advanced by many contemporary liberal thinkers, including Michael Doyle , Francis Fukuyama , John Rawls , and Bruce Russett . Other scholars have extended the core proposition to argue that democracies are less likely to start wars (Lake 1992) and once engaged in war, they are also more likely to win them (Gelpi and Griesdorf 2001). Some go even beyond to argue that democratic states fight shorter wars or that they suffer fewer casualties compared to nondemocratic states (Bennett and Stam 1996).

Various proponents of the DPP attribute it to different characteristics of democracy . Their merits and shortcomings will be reviewed below. However Lipson himself agrees that there is a lack of theoretical basis for their claims – even though he insists there is irrefutable empirical evidence supporting the DPP . The absence of a theoretical basis for the DPP and the reliance of its liberal proponents on statistical evidence to support their arguments, raise the question – if the DPP is to be accepted – whether democracy is the cause of peace or whether it is just a statistical correlation (Ray 1998).


It must be noted on the outset that any claim of Democracies never going to war with each other must necessarily ignore or disregard the Indo-Pakistan wars of 1947 and Kargil war of 1999 , Israel-Lebanon wars of 1978, 1982 and 2006 and the United States (and allies) backed coups in Iran (1953)(Abrahamian 2001), Guatemala (1954), Indonesia (1955), Brazil (1960s) and Chile (1973)(Forsythe 1992). Wars have also been waged by democracies against other functional or constitutional democracies in the name of promoting democracy and on the contention that they were in fact fighting dictatorships – such as the Kosovo war in 1999 against the Milosovic regime. The American Civil War (1861-65) was waged between democracies of United States (United 2007) and those of the Confederate States (2009).
Scholarly critiques of the DPP has been based on the realist view that nations go to war to secure their interests; where shared democratic ideology is not a determining factor for a nation considering going to war or choosing not to. Farber and Gowa argue that the statistical correlations that support the DPP are a result of cold war politics (Farber and Gowa 1997). David Spiro contests the statistical significance of the perceived absence of war between democracies, to argue that there is no significant correlation between democratic nations and peace (Spiro 1994). Sebastian Rosato attacks the causal logic of the DPP to argue that (a) there is no basis to assume that democratic institutions or citizens are biased against war or more effective in non-violent dispute resolution and (b) there are no inherent attributes in democracies that prevent them from going to war against another democracy (Rosato 2003). However the purely realist analysis of the problem also fails to sufficiently address the ideological reasons that influence political decision making, which is at the core of argument in the DPP.
The lack of a consistent definition of ‘democracy’, or of ‘peace’, may help proponents deflect empirical scrutiny of the DPP by being selective in what they consider to be liberal democracies and what constitutes ‘peace’. Filtering the statistical evidence in favour of the DPP weakens it even further and definitional issues erode its utility. It is instructional to note that in recent years, wars that otherwise would have been avoidable, have been fought for the propagation of democracy in the hope that the will lead to greater peace (Kellner 2005).

In almost every democratic nation, media, lobbyists and businesses compete with citizens for influence over government. Rule of law, accountability and individual freedoms are subjective measures at best. Democracies also do not have an impeccable record of electing honest leaders or evolving efficient bureaucracies that most DPP theorists would rely on to deter respective nations from war. According to the definitional boundaries that Doyle sets out for ‘liberal democracies’ (Doyle 2005), such ideal democracies may never exist – least of all outside of the global West.


Theorists who identify either a correlation or causation between peace and democracy overlook a host of other factors that influence political decision making and conflict. The lack of a theoretical framework for the DPP as admitted to by Lipson et al, stems from the fact that other significant global and historical factors have contributed much more to the reduction in number and intensity of conventional inter-state wars. They include (a) Nuclear deterrence and the standoff during cold war years, (b) emergence of the UN and a global governance structure (c) prevalence of multilateral organisations with effective diplomatic as well as trade tools to check state behaviour, (d) end of colonialism and international consensus against invasion and occupation of foreign lands, (e) interdependence and integration in the global economy and (f) the increase in global travel and information exchange. It is possible to argue that nuclear deterrence – particularly the US nuclear umbrella over its allies – has played a far more significant role in preventing war than the propagation of democracy in the post World War II world order. It is also telling that even nuclear deterrence could not prevent the democracies of India and Pakistan from going to war in 1999 over Kargil (Dixit 2002) – albeit briefly.

The proliferation of independent democratic states outside Europe commenced with the end of World War II and vastly accelerated to become the most common form of governance after the end of the Cold War (Thor Torfason and Ingram 2010). The spread of democracy after the Cold War was hastened more by the lure of capitalism than by democracy itself (Gartzke 2005). Indeed Capitalism has even penetrated non democratic countries such as China and Vietnam. Economic interdependence has also been a powerful deterrent of war even with rival democracies (Tang 2012). In the backdrop of a distinct shift of power from individual states to non state actors (Strange 1996) such as large and multinational corporations, NGOs and Multilateral organisations such as the WTO, World Bank, IMF and the UN Security Council, the role of democracy as a factor in international peace must not be exaggerated .


The DPP has its origins with the ideological battles of the cold war in its backdrop. It may have been a potent tool for promoting the virtues of democracy during such a political climate, but by synthesising a weak correlation between democracy and peace, scholars have overlooked many exceptions to the theory on one hand and a number of significant factors that may have contributed equally or more towards peaceful relations between nations.

Given that the bulk of empirical evidence supporting the DPP are sourced from post WW II history of the world, it is worth contemplating other factors that may have prevented conventional wars between nations in that time. The advent of the United Nations and related multilateral organisations including the Security Council, the GAT/WTO, World Bank, IMF as well as other groupings of nations have brought some structure and governance to international politics. These have made arbitration and peaceful resolution of conflict possible, more effective and cheaper than the option of conventional war. The spread of capitalism has integrated global markets binding the economic interests and fate of nations – serving to deter war.

As nations become more economically integrated and dependent on technology, conflicts between them have shifted to new realms. Where nations do have unresolved disputes, trade levers and cyberspace for example have become a new battle grounds where they can and do attack, spy and extort concessions from each other in ways that escape the conventional definition and understanding of war and conflict. Therefore, the understanding of ‘peace’ as the absence of conventional war - that is attributed to the propagation of ‘democracy’ - is itself questionable.


History has consistently demonstrated that neither democratic nor totalitarian governments can survive without the implicit (or complicit) support of a majority of the population. The French revolution in 1799 and the Arab Spring of 2011 and many other historic events demonstrate that. For a government to have the implicit support of the people, it must fulfil at least two conditions. First, it must be seen to have the capacity to guarantee the physical and material safety of its citizens. Secondly, it must have influence – if not control - over the political beliefs of its citizens including their beliefs about justice. For example, a feudal system will prevail so long as the citizens believe that their society is justly organised by the class or caste system and that belonging to a noble bloodline is a legitimate claim to political power. Totalitarian regimes in North Korea and China demonstrate how the respective government’s ability to control the political beliefs of citizens and capacity to provide material safety is sufficient to retain power. Liberal democracies are no different – liberal leaders are elected by majority citizens who believe in liberty and egalitarianism. Such societies exist mainly in the Global West. Democracies in other regions may never be as ‘liberal’ due to differences in political legacies, culture and beliefs.

What compels nations at a political level, to go to war or refrain from doing so, are factors that affect their capacity to fulfil the two criteria outlined above: perceived threats to their material or physical security or to their political beliefs. North Korea threatens to attack any country that jeopardize its political beliefs for the same reasons that the words ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ are derided in the liberal democratic United States (Ceplair 2011) – because they are perceived as threatening entrenched political beliefs. Any two countries who share similar political beliefs – be they democracies or feudal states – will not have ideological grounds to go to war with each other and will only fight for reasons of material security. In a global economy of shared resources, nations may be pushed to fight other nations who threaten or stand in the way of their material or physical security regardless of shared political beliefs.

The realist view, that a nation’s ability to defend its physical and material security and political beliefs through military means depend on their relative military strength, tactical advantages and the overall likelihood of being able to militarily achieve their political objectives, has its merits. Peculiarities of individual leaders, national values and nationalistic fervour can also be major influences. The present world order offers non-military options for conflict resolution that are cheaper and less destructive.


The point is not that democracy does not engender peace. Indeed, there are attributes inherent to democratic governance that put tighter controls on nations going to war; such as political accountability, budgetary oversights and policies weighted more towards citizen welfare than government ambitions. Democracies also make desirable and trust-worthy friends – because of the collective wisdom of the crowds (Surowiecki 2005) and their general bias towards justice. As argued above, nations that are perceived to have shared political ideologies have one less reason to go to war against each other. In the past and present, wherever religious belief is the source of political power, shared beliefs have kept the peace and divisions have caused war. For example, the shared beliefs of ‘Christendom’ kept Europe relatively peaceful (Hillerbrand 2007) until their theological split in their beliefs during the reformation destabilised it. Wars such as the crusades were fought against competing ideologies rather than for material or physical preservation. With the spread of democracy, more nations have shared political values than those who don’t and therefore one less reason to rally against each other. Religious terrorist groups that threaten liberal democracies also do so, on ideological grounds.

The main opposition to the Democratic Peace Proposition presented here is aimed at its singular attribution of democracy as the source of peace between democratic nations because that ignores more compelling reasons why democratic as well as non-democratic nations have often refrained from fighting each other. Neither does the DPP deal with definitional challenges that limit the scope of what ‘democracy’ and ‘peace’ means in the modern world. The material and diplomatic cost of conventional warfare has increased, causing a shift of the battle space from the conventional theatre to covert operations, political manoeuvres, economic warfare and even cyber warfare. There is no evidence that democracies are, or have ever been, immune to such attacks or backed away from using such tactics to attack other democracies.

Understanding that political and ideological beliefs of nations are as defensible as their physical and material security; not only bridges the liberal and realist views on security but also provides a platform for more comprehensive theorisation. If a democracy is threatened; economically, ideologically or on their sovereignty by another democracy, conflict will inevitable ensue. Whether that culminates in conventional warfare, diplomatic wrangling, trade disputes, cyber attacks, espionage and blackmail or covert and proxy attacks depend on the political priorities and avenues available for nations to pursue the optimal outcome.

I have outlined a theoretical framework based on national security interests and national political values that provide a more complete framework for understanding the factors that influence nations to attack one-another or fight for self preservation. The argument presented here is that these factors are common to democracies as well as others, and provide the foundation on which a comprehensive theory of international relations can be formulated.

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