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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Whither Democratic Peace Theory?

Many neoliberals and neoconservatives still promote the theory of a strong tendency of democracies to avoid war with each other as justification for aggressive foreign interventionism, democracy promotion, nation-building and grand projects like remaking the Middle East in the image of Western democracies.

The crude (and most popular) version of the Democratic Peace Theory dismisses the multitudes of countervailing historical episodes for various reasons and holds that no two democratic countries have ever gone to war with one another.

Perhaps more pressingly, it is this theory that stands behind the push for the NATO expansion which played a part in the provocation of this summer's Russo-Georgian War and misguided proposals like former presidential candidate John McCain's "League of Democracies" and the latest suggestion from the Progressive Policy Institute's Will Marshall to President-Elect Obama:

You should seize the opportunity to lead NATO's transformation from a North American-European pact into a global alliance of free nations. By opening its doors to Japan, Australia, India, Chile, and a handful of other stable democracies, NATO would augment both its human and financial resources. What is more, NATO would enhance its political legitimacy to operate on a global stage.

Another quirky variant of the theory was created by neoliberal New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, famed for his bestselling book The World is Flat, who wrote in 1999 that "no two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s.”

As this Inside Higher Ed article explains, Friedman's peculiar variant of the Democratic Peace Theory was defeated and its more conventional expressions were again thrown into doubt this summer when the democratically elected governments of Russia and Georgia entered into armed conflict.

In a throwaway line in his commentary on the present and ongoing violence in the Near East, Justin Raimondo observes that the bombing raids of Gaza (which threatens to become a ground war as Israel amasses troops) is, among many other things, a counterexample to the crude Democratic Peace Theory:

If nothing else, this fresh paroxysm of Israeli aggression ought to debunk, once and for all, the neocon talking point that democracies never go to war with each other. Yet here we have a country that styles itself an island of Western-style liberalism in a sea of Oriental despotism going to war with the only other democratically elected government in the immediate vicinity.

It didn't take this most recent ruptures of "democratic peace" in the Caucusus or Palestine for me to consider this old theory thoroughly debunked, but in recent months I have taken to calling Thomas Friedman and his neo-whatever ilk "flat-earthers."

Posted by Kalim Kassam on December 30, 2008 | Permalink



The idea that because two democracies have never gone to war with each other in the past it is guaranteed that it will never happen in the future would be extremely naive thinking. Kinda like Rain Man and his insistence on only flying on Qantas. But where universal generalizations fail, strong tendencies might remain. It would seem a fairly modest and more plausible claim is if two democracies have never gone to war before, then it is much less likely that future conflicts will involve democracies.

So when individual cases of democracies at war come about or are pointed to, it still remains the case that it is far less likely that two democracies will go to war than two countries where one or both are not democracies. (It's probably also true that in the vast majority of cases where democracies and non-democracies go to war, the non-democracy started it. The current Iraq war being a notable exception.)

What this means, then, is that DPT is not false (like the belief that the earth is flat is false), it's just mis-described as a universal claim. So while it is foolish to claim that two democracies have never gone to war and never will, it is not absurd to claim that democracies are far far far FAR less likely to start a war with anyone, so the more democracies we have, the better.

Of course, that is not yet an argument that escapades like the Iraq invasion are justified. (As an aside, it is ironic that some democracies claim that it was justified because turning Iraq into a democracy decreases the chances of future wars. Make war to stop war? Sounds like a Catch-22 to me.) But it does mean that only a straw man version of DPS is easily debunked.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2008-12-30 6:33:31 AM

Kalim, while I agree with you, I think that perhaps both proponents of Democracy Peace Theory and you are missing the more poignant point.

Certainly nation states that could be characterized as democracies--as you've aptly pointed out--have gone to war. But I think what people are getting at when the say "democracy" is "liberal democracy".

If I may be so bold as to suggest that, then I might say that the claim might still hold water, since at the very least, no two liberal democracies have gone to war with each other.

Russia today is--at most--a procedural democracy. I would be surprised if anybody would stand up and attest that Russia embraces liberal values, culturally or politically. The same goes for Gaza and the West Bank.

In general, I agree with you completely that the neoconservative project of forcing democracy is a fruitless and harmful endeavour.

I don't believe it's always an immoral endeavour per se.

I view individual rights as supreme. I certainly view individual rights as superseding state sovereignty rights; what moral value or legitimacy does a sovereign state possess if it's function is not the protection of it's people, but rather the enemy of it's people?

For these reasons, I view a litany of states as immoral and illegitimate.

All things being equal, I value the life of a liberal over the life of someone who is denying that liberal liberty. Or put succinctly: I value the life of someone who wants freedom, over the life of someone who is suppressing that persons freedom. If that person requests help to overcome his/her oppressors, than I believe that war can be justified in my concept of libertarian ethics as being the 'defence of another against coercion or harm', particularly if that is the true motivation for the war.

While I may think war can be morally justified is completely secondary to whether or not it's strategic, practical, or likely to achieve the desired outcome... which is where my general agreement with you comes in.

Posted by: Mike Brock | 2008-12-30 7:07:35 AM


Saying that war can be morally justified is one thing, but saying that some people can commit others to help wage that war is quite another. In such a case the war might be helping some who want liberty to be free from those who are oppressing them, but it can only be done at the cost of coercing others (one's fellow citizens) into joining in the struggle.

Now some might say that in the absence of a draft - with an all volunteer military - no one is coerced into fighting. But even if that is true, wars cost money and the financing of wars - even morally justified ones - always fall on all taxpayers whether they want it to or not. So while there might be wars that are morally justified to wage and with volunteer armies it might also be the case that no combatants on the justified side are forced into battle, waging such a war still might only be possible because some people are coerced into economically participating. Which calls into question the legitimacy of any war of assistance (as opposed to a war of self-defence).

Posted by: Fact Check | 2008-12-30 8:45:26 AM

I don't think "two democracies" is the right word, and in many formations of the DPT such as Michael Doyle's and others, it is much more complicated than that. The "Democratic Peace Theory" if that is what you want to call it was also supported by classical liberals throughout the 18th and 19th century such as Ludwig von Mises.

We should instead use the word "liberal democratic" peace theory. The premise is that the norms of liberalism - free trade between nations, interdependence, limited government, etc. will make war less likely, instead of more likely. I have read much of the literature, but I am not really prepared to say anything either way. In many ways you can see that classical liberal norms have made the world more peaceful and more grounded in international norms, while in many other ways you see that it hasn't really done anything.

The whole "two democracies will never chose to go to war with each other" is only one variant of the democratic peace. Other variants say that two nations trading will not go to war with each other because it will hurt their economies, etc.

Posted by: Omar Abu Hatem | 2008-12-30 10:35:54 AM

Uh, you may have noticed Russia is sliding quickly back into Soviet Communism. A new law makes it treason to now criticize Putin.

Putin arranged to have Ossetians fire on Georgian peacekeepers to get that ball rolling in the war on Georgia. It had nothing to do with US policy.

Posted by: Faramir | 2008-12-30 1:12:45 PM

Kalim, none of the examples in the Wikipedia article contradicts DPT. So what's your point?

And what does the Israel - Hamas conflict has to do with DPT? Do you consider a terrorist organization liberal and democratic?

Posted by: Johan i Kanada | 2008-12-30 3:35:08 PM

It is likely more accurate to say that two nations that pursue free trade with each other will not make war on each other. It may also be more likely that two nations based on the rule of law are less likely to war. Democracy is more a process than an ideology. As such it is difficult to define to everyone's satisfaction.

Posted by: DML | 2008-12-30 10:01:46 PM

democratic peace theory is nothing more than propaganda wrapped up academic garb, making it acceptable and readily available for high level policy makers to present to their masters. whenever there are "studies" of democratic peace theory, these so-called theorists find any reason they can get to leave out conflicts/wars between democratic countries. i.e. US civil war, war of 1812 (us and britain), israel v. palestine for many years now, and many others. also, they constantly are shifting the standards of what qualifies as "democratic", i.e. if certain groups in the population can't vote, etc. what about russia and georgia this summer?? well the useful idiots in the ivory towers will say, "1- russia is not a LIBERAL democracy" lol "2- to qualify as a war/conflict, there must be x number of deaths, etc." thus russia-georgia doesn't disprove their sacred theory. it is completely unscientific nonsense dressed up as "serious".

Posted by: jim donaldson | 2009-01-03 4:23:22 PM

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