A steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations. No autocratic government could be trusted to keep faith within it or observe its covenants. It must be a league of honour, a partnership of opinion… Only free peoples can hold their purpose and their honour steady to a common end and prefer the interests of mankind to any narrow interest of their own[1].

This short essay examines the democratic peace, a theory which is extensively debated by academics and theorists, studied by scholars, and applied by politicians. In order to present an extensive view of the theory, two opposite opinions will be discussed and different views and assumptions will be examined. The essay will attempt to distinguish whether spreading of democracy ensure, or at least contribute to international peace? What examples of the democratic peace does the history reveal? And what do these instances uncover?

The essay starts with an attempt to clarify the basic concepts that constitute the argument, such as war and democracy. Then, the essay uncovers the concept of the democratic peace theory itself, and distinguishes the underlying principles of it. Further, the essay presents and discusses a standpoint of those who claim that the democratic peace exists, and that it is the result of characteristics of democracies. Thus, advocates of the democratic peace proposition argue that the peace between democracies is based on shared democratic norms or political institutions. The relationship of relative peace among democracies is a result of some features of democracy; and it is not caused exclusively by economic or geopolitical characteristics of the state.

Proponents of the democratic peace theory clarify, however, that democracies are not necessarily peaceful in their relations with other kinds of political systems[2]. Still, they insist that sovereign stable democracies have never waged war with each other in the modern international system. Although these arguments seem to have a strong base, they still provoke many questions and concerns. Is democracy the only key factor that determines the relationship between the states? Or is the peace explained by other reasons?

The second part is devoted to the critique of the democratic peace proposition, presenting an alternative view of the issue. The critics (mainly realists) argue that the democratic peace is statistically insignificant and that the absence of war between democratic states is not due to their political system, but rather the result of other factors. For realists, ‘systemic structure is the primary determinant of unit behaviour’[3], therefore ‘the issue of unit type is a decidedly secondary variable’[4]. Most opponents of the democratic peace proposition (such as Layne, Spiro, Farber and Gowa) conclude that the relationship between democracy and peace is spurious or coincidental. Finally, the essay tries to identify whether the spread of democracy will guarantee an international peace.

The outcome of the theory analysis depends upon the definition of key concepts. In order to avoid definitional problems, it is essential to clarify what counts as war, what comprises a democracy and what constitutes a Kantian republic. By war is usually meant a large-scale (one thousand battle deaths[5]) ‘institutionally organized lethal violence’[6]. A definition of democracy varies from one author to another. The key elements of democracy, however, generally imply guaranteed and respected civil rights and liberties[7], including rights to political organization and political expression, the right to vote[8], freedom of speech, economic liberty[9] and ‘the fairly elected government and executive’[10] . Kant’s understanding of republic is compatible with the contemporary understanding of democracy; and implies freedom (with legal equality of subjects), representative government and separation of executive and legislative powers[11]. Kant advocates a smaller government, with a smaller number of rulers[12].

The central argument of the democratic peace is that war amongst democracies happens on a very rare occasion, since democracies are institutionally designed to respond to the views of their electorates[13]. When the consent of people is required to declare a war, the war is very unlikely to happen, as it threatens people’s security, takes their lives and destroys possessions. Since people are naturally peace-prone, they will be generally inclined to resolve conflicts by diplomatic means. Thus, a system based on democratic values guarantees justice, equality and self-dependence for the citizens[14] and decreases the number of wars since the people (not the ruler) decide whether to use force or not. Consequently, the best way to ensure progress towards peace is to encourage the growth of republics, as their constitutional arrangements check different interests and balance confronting positions[15].

Kant’s idea that democracies are more peaceful in their relations with each other was revived in the 1980s, when the spread of democracy led many academics and politicians argue that liberal countries almost never go to war with each other. The virtual absence of war between democracies is regarded as ‘the closest thing we have to an empirical law in the study of international relations’[16] and is labelled as the democratic peace theory.

Democratic peace proponents claim that political ideology accounts for the existence of the democratic peace. They argue that ‘liberal states are more stable internally and more peaceful in their international relations’[17]. Decision-makers in democracies follow norms of peaceful conflict resolution, since that reflects domestic experiences and values. Because democracies are biased against resolving domestic disputes violently, they try to resolve international disputes peacefully[18], since using the ‘force is not usually normatively acceptable behaviour in disputes between democracies’[19]. Therefore, relations between democracies usually categorised as ‘stable peace’ or a ‘security community’ in which states do not even expect to fight each other[20].

Democratically organized political systems in general operate under restraints that make them more peaceful in their relations with other democracies[21], since they share liberal values, norms and institutions; they expect mutual understanding and benefit from not conflicting each other militarily, and try to resolve conflicts by diplomatic means. Democracies also expect that other democracies will share similar preferences. The norm of peaceful conflict resolution creates a separate peace among democracies[22]. Leaders in democracies recognise that other democracie
s are similarly constrained. As a result, democracies will have more time to resolve disputes peacefully and less fear of surprise attack.

But this does not presume that democracies do not fight non-democracies, since liberal states presume that non-democracies act according to their own norms and values, which are predominantly non-democratic. Thus, liberal democracies are as aggressive as any other type of state in the relations with authoritarian regimes and stateless people[23].

This strongly supports the idea that the very nature of democracy is based upon such concepts as peace, universal values and justice; and thus, equally naturally precludes war and injustice. To summarise, in the dyads of states wars happen only when at least one of the rivals is non-democratic[24]. In addition, since 1945 democratic dyads have had fewer disputes than nondemocratic or mixed dyads and they have been less likely to threaten each other or to use force against one another[25].

From the liberal perspective, norms and values have a crucial impact on the way institutions operate. Also, the components of the democracy, such as separation of powers, public accountability, social and political freedom constrain decisions to go to war. But because democratic peace holds only between democracies, much depends on whether states perceive each other as democracies, since this will affect greatly actions of one democratic state towards the other.

Realists assume that states’ internal characteristics are irrelevant to peace[26]. Realists argue that the democratic peace proposition does not stand up to empirical scrutiny and is a poor guide for policy, since not a single case when democracies avoided wars with one another proved that they did so because they both were democratic[27]. Moreover, they insist that during crises democracies behave according to the realists’ explanation: they base their calculations on national interest; pay attention to strategic concerns, in particular the distribution of military capabilities; and use threats when necessary.

‘In the international system, fear and distrust of other states is the normal state of affairs’, and that ‘in realist world, survival and security is always at risk’[28]. From the security perspective, democracies respond no differently to their predicament than non-democratic states. In the absence of a rule-making and enforcing authority, international politics remains a competitive self-help system in which power and self-interest predominate. Thus, democratic states will respond no differently to democratic rivals than to non-democratic ones’[29]. Realists argue that all states compete for security, procure arms, form alliances, and fight wars, regardless their political system[30].

Critics of the democratic peace proposition argue that the empirical evidence of the theory is not compelling and attribute the absence of war between democracies to many other alternative explanations[31]. Firstly, democracies generally wealthy, and therefore have more to lose than to gain by engaging in militarised disputes with each other. Secondly, liberal states are economically connected and interdependent. Among other factors are geographical distance, alliances against common enemies and threats. Also, they tend to be ‘friends’ with other liberal states [32] and this makes war simply unthinkable (as for example, between USA and Canada). ‘War between states with contrasting political and economic systems may also be unthinkable because they have a history of friendly relations: for instance, Mexico and Cuba maintain close bilateral relations despite their history of divergent economic ideologies.’[33]; former Soviet Union states share similar values, culture and have very strong economic connections; some countries in the Middle East united by religion and a common enemy Israel).

States need both an opportunity and a willingness to go to war with each other[34]. Non-contiguous democracies, unless one or both were great powers, had little opportunity to fight one other. States cannot fight unless they can exert substantial military power against each others’ vital territory. Most states, if not great powers with ‘global reach’ could exert such power only against contiguous states or at least near neighbours[35]. Furthermore, the willingness of states to fight depends primarily on the significance of disputable issues; and on the relative importance of this issue to one party and the other, as this affects the amount of effort each state is willing to dedicate for resolving the conflict. Territorial disputes (over borders, or rights of ethnic groups whose presence is common to both) are rare in the absence of proximity[36]. Since relatively few democracies bordered each other in the 1920s and 1930s[37], the absence of war is not surprising.

Also, the absence of war between democracies could be explained by relative domination of authoritarian states in international system, since wars frequently involved one or more authoritarian states; therefore, such cases could not be recalled for disputing and disproving the democratic peace.

Moreover, critics argue that democracies did fight one another. Layne[38], for instance, claims that the War of 1812 and the U.S. Civil War were wars between democracies. Further, he argues that Germany in 1914 was as democratic as France and Britain (at least in the making of foreign policy), and that World War I could fit into the same category

Cooperation between states is difficult to achieve and even more difficult to sustain because of the problem of cheating and the concern about the relative gains (for example, Walzt, Mearcheimer). States are naturally fearful that others could cheat on a mutual agreement and attempt to gain advantages over them, since there is always ‘a window of opportunity for the cheating side to inflict a decisive defeat on the victim state’[39]. States are aware of this possibility and always remain cautious, while trying to ‘maximise their gains and provide for their own national security’[40] first of all.

Also, for most of international history before 1945, there were few democracies and little chance for them to fight one another[41]. The absence of war, therefore, could be the result of random chance, since the history of peaceful relations between democracies has started only after World War II[42]. This is clearly not a sufficient period neither for drawing conclusions about the nature of international relations, not for proving a theory.

Realists remain true to their beliefs, and argue that peace between democracies should not be explained from the liberal perspective. Rather than supporting the theory that ideology, democratic values and institutions account for international peace (values-and-norms based explanation), they claim that other
different reasons explain the apparent absence of war between countries. Moreover, realists emphasise that war is always possible in the absence of common regulator and warn the states to be prepared to either defend themselves or to attack the opponent, since no dyad of states can enjoy perpetual peace, regardless of their level of democratisation. However, the fact that democracies conflict with each other much rarely than they do with non-democratic countries remains true from any theoretical perspective, and even realists agree that peace between democracies does really exist.

But will spreading of democracy ensure a worldwide peace? Kant was among the first to argue that a federation of republics would be inclined toward peace and more likely to take international law seriously that would other forms of government: with gradual increase of republics worldwide, inter-state relations would be eventually transformed into a ‘perpetual peace’, leaving contemporary issues such as anarchy and violence in the past[43]. The reason for this is the ‘intrusion’ of domestic politics into foreign policy-making and the constant need to respond to critical public opinion[44].

Relations between democracies lead to the creation of zones of peace and security communities where the expectations of violent conflict between the units are virtually nil[45]. Thus, democracy is seen as a major source of peace: democratic representation, ideological commitment to human rights and transnational interdependence explain the ‘peace-prone’ tendencies of democratic states[46].

Democracies are generally more opened in their foreign relations than non-democracies. They benefit from their economic and social connections. Their institutions, society and entire system has already adjusted to global rules of the free world; they learned how to benefit from it. Going to war with other democracies would mean to go against the freedom, integration and cosmopolitanism. More importantly, democracies share common forms of political structure and political culture, as well as institutions, values and norms. But as the world is not composed entirely of the democratic states, it is not possible to argue that the spread of democracy really brings a universal peace.

The essay concludes that democracy and peace are interlinked with each other. The history proves the phenomenon that democracy almost always brings peace, and that liberal states do not fight one another. However, the assumption made in the introductory section of the essay that peaceful relationship between the states cannot be achieved without democracy was not substantially supported by undisputable facts and evidences. The history does know the cases when peace was achieved and maintained between the dyads of states with different political systems[47].


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[1] Woodrow Wilson’s speech in Congress, cited in Booth (1991), p.42

[2] Russett (1993); Doyle (1995)

[3] Brown (1991), p.x

[4] Layne (1994)

[5] Small and Singer (1982)

[6] Russett (1993), p.11

[7] Doyle (1995)

[8] Huntington (1991), pp. 7-9

[9] Dahl (1989)

[10] Russett (1993), p.11

[11] Kant (1991)

[12] Ibid.

3_2750" name=_ftn13_2750>3_2750" name=_ftn13_2750>3_2750" name=_ftn13_2750>3_2750" name=_ftn13_2750>3_2750" name=_ftn13_2750>3_2750" name=_ftn13_2750>3_2750" name=_ftn13_2750>[13] Kant (1991)

[14] Kant (1991)

[15] Russett (1993)

[16] Levy in Owen (1994)

[17] Fukuyama (1989), pp.3-18

[18] Fukuyama (1989)

[19] Brown (1991), p.105

[20] Brown (1991), p.105

[21] Russett (1993)

[22] Russett (1993)

[23] Doyle (1995), p.100; Small and Singer (1982); Brown et al. (1991)

[24] Russett (1993)

[25] Russett (1993)

[26] Russett (1993)

[27] Layne (1994)

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Brown (1991)

[31] Spiro (1994)

[32] Wendt (1999), pp. 298-9

[33] Baylis et al (2008), p. 113

[34] Most and Starr (1989)

[35] Modelski and Thompson (1988)

[36] Diehl and Goertz (1992)

[37] Russett (1993)

[38] Layne (1994)

[39] Mearsheimer (1994)

[40] Baylis (2008), p.232

[41] Spiro (1994)

[42] Farber and Gowa (1995); Layne (1994)

[43] Kant (1991)

[44] de Toqueville (1864)

[45] Evans and Newhman, p.120

[46] Doyle (1995), pp. 180-4

[47] for instance, Mexico and Cuba, former USSR member-states and Middle Eastern countries