Good riddance, democratic peace theory

I’ve never had much time for the democratic peace theory. It strikes me as empirically suspect, overly simplistic, and ethnocentric. Now it looks like the spread of democracy itself will finally put an end to this nice but rather naive idea.

Put simply this theory states that democracies will not engage in war with each other and was most famously proposed by one of those Wise Dead White Men, Immanuel Kant, in 1795. In the last couple of decades it has gained in popularity despite some rather obvious flaws. While I think that there may be something to the proposition that democracies are less likely to go to war with each other than non-democracies the evidence for this is still not conclusive, and the idea that they don’t at all has already been disproven. I would suggest that over the next decade or two the democratic peace theory will be so openly refuted that it will no longer be a tenable position. The reason for this is simply the increasing number of democracies in the world.

It is important to point out that there are already several counter-examples to the democratic peace theory but these are usually cast aside by the argument that the countries involved aren’t actually democracies – the so-called “no true Scotsman” fallacy. Here’s a list of wars between democracies, and although the “not a real democracy” argument might hold for some (or most) of them, by narrowing the definition of democracy so much the proponents of democratic peace theory reduce the size of the statistical sample so much that their own conclusions can no longer escape being called a statistical anomaly, or explained away by other means. For instance, the vast majority of democracies are for historical reasons based in areas of European cultural heritage – Europe itself, North America, and Australasia, or what is commonly referred to as the West – and when countries outside of this implement democracy it is often taken to be “not a true democracy.” However an explanation of why these Western democracies have not engaged in war with each other (except for Britain declaring war on Finland during WWII… oops, don’t mention that!) could just as easily be their shared cultural backgrounds and the mutual interests they hold which significantly reduce the chance of war between them.

Now that more and more countries are becoming democracies counterexamples of the democratic peace theory will become more common too.  The obvious place to look for this is the Middle East – Egypt is in transition to becoming democratic and it  at least seems possible that something similar may happen in Syria in the future.  All that has to occur than is a conflict between one or both of these states and Israel and there is yet another example of democracies going to war with each other. Of course Palestine holds elections too, so there is already an ongoing conflict between Israel and another democracy, not to mention the tensions with Lebanon which is also a democracy. What these cases show is that when two democracies do not have mutual interests and view themselves in completely different ways then the fact they are democracies does not prevent them from fighting each other. As more states become democratic the number of states with contested borders or other reasons for disputes who both happen to be democracies will increase.

Having said all this, it is possible that being a democracy reduces the chance of conflict with other democracies but generating statistical proof of such a proposition means accounting for variables such as culture and mutual interests which are inherently qualitative. International relations is not a subject which is suited to statistical/quantitative analysis for this very reason.

Democracy is still a desirable goal for a whole bunch of reasons, but claiming that democratising the world will end conflict is just plain wrong. Trying to defend the democratic peace theory on the basis that counterexamples are not true democracies is pure ethnocentrism. Effectively it is saying that only Western powers are true democracies, and that they are somehow superior to other democracies from other parts of the world while ignoring such obvious problems with their own political systems as the shambles of the 2000 US Presidential Election. Clearly this is bulsh*t. Without the “no true democracy” argument democratic peace theory really doesn’t stand up, so can we please forget about it now?

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8 responses to “Good riddance, democratic peace theory

  • jisantuc

    “generating statistical proof of such a proposition means accounting for variables such as culture and mutual interests which are inherently qualitative”

    But we already play with those. In fact, we’re kind of good at playing with them. Generally speaking, we use dummy variables when we’re trying to assess the effects of qualitative variables on a continuous variable, but if you were just testing for correlation, you could make one of the qualitative variables your dependent and use regression techniques to determine whether combinations of other variables meaningfully predict the likelihood of your qualitative variable’s being “true.”

    Nice post though. I always thought democratic peace theory was a bit like arguing that, before the 16th century, European and North American countries did not go to war with each other –> European and North American countries will not go to war with each other.

    • fromthefourthcorner

      You clearly know more about statistics than I do! My vision of them as a strange kind of sorcery may be a little biased… although one of the best articles I have read on democratic peace theory was a statistical analysis that concluded that there was no strong correlation between the form of a country’s government and the chances of it going to war with a democracy. Unfortunately the computer I downloaded it to is now dead and I can’t remember who wrote it or what it was called :s

  • World Watcher

    I just did a seminar on Liberal Peace theory, and how it is called a load of garbage by Realists. Unfortunately I did it in front of the director of Peace and Conflict, Uni of Otago. Clearly, he was not impressed with my central thesis.

  • fromthefourthcorner

    I take it he’s a liberalist then? Should tell him to get real 😉

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