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Democratic Peace Theory Is False

Fabio Rojas invokes [1] democratic peace theory in his comment on Rachel Maddow’s new book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (via Wilkinson [2]):

The idea is simple – for whatever reason, democracies almost never fight each other. Of course, democracies go to war against non-democracies. But for some reason, democracies just don’t fight each other.

What’s the policy implication of all this? First, the sorts of rules that Maddow proposes are useless. People will just ignore the rules when they want to when they want war. Second, you have to reduce the population of non-democracies. Thus, if the Federal government wants to protect the United States by preventing war, the best, and cheapest, way to do it is to provide support and assistance for indigenous movements for democracy and tolerance. Once people have a genuine democracy at work, they just don’t want to fight with each other. They just don’t.

Rojas’ claim depends entirely on the meaning of “genuine democracy.” Even though there are numerous examples of wars between states with universal male suffrage and elected governments (including that little dust-up known as WWI), the states in question probably don’t qualify as “genuine” democracies and so can’t be used as counter-examples. Regardless, democratic peace theory draws broad conclusions from a short period in modern history with very few cases before the 20th century. The core of democratic peace theory as I understand it is that democratic governments are more accountable to their populations, and because the people will bear the costs of the war they are going to be less willing to support a war policy. This supposedly keeps democratic states from waging wars against one another because of the built-in electoral and institutional checks on government power. One small problem with this is that it is rubbish.

Democracies in antiquity fought against one another. Political equality and voting do not abolish conflicts of interest between competing states. Democratic peace theory doesn’t account for the effects of nationalist and imperialist ideologies on the way democratic nations think about war. Democratic nations that have professional armies to do the fighting for them are often enthusiastic about overseas wars. The Conservative-Unionist government that waged the South African War (against two states with elected governments, I might add) enjoyed great popular support and won a huge majority in the “Khaki” election that followed.

As long as it goes well and doesn’t have too many costs, war can be quite popular, and even if the war is costly it may still be popular if it is fought for nationalist reasons that appeal to a majority of the public. If the public is whipped into thinking that there is an intolerable foreign threat or if they believe that their country can gain something at relatively low cost by going to war, the type of government they have really is irrelevant. Unless a democratic public believes that a military conflict will go badly for their military, they may be ready to welcome the outbreak of a war that they expect to win. Setting aside the flaws and failures of U.S.-led democracy promotion for a moment, the idea that reducing the number of non-democracies makes war less likely is just fantasy. Clashing interests between states aren’t going away, and the more democratic states there are in the world the more likely it is that two or more of them will eventually fight one another.

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6 Comments To "Democratic Peace Theory Is False"

#1 Comment By Lev On April 17, 2012 @ 9:42 am

The democratic peace theory is one of the most ridiculous theories taken seriously by smart people (right up there with “Tom Friedman is insightful”). We should all be skeptical of theories whose formal definition literally includes “for some reason we don’t understand.” I don’t think that would have cut it for Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

I think it’s definitely a statistical anomaly. Democracies go to war plenty often. Sometimes popular enthusiasm among democratic electorates is the thing that sets off what might not otherwise have happened, as in Crimea. Their citizens aren’t any more opposed on principle to it so far as I can tell. If anything, my guess would be that a lack of democracy in the Middle East has kept things as quiet as they have been, since the publics of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan (to name a few) are almost certainly more hostile toward Israel than their rulers have been. Democracies are very willing to go to war, sometimes without any real cause. A possibly more compelling version of this theory would be the idea that trading ties make war less likely, which would explain a lot of things more compellingly. Such as, the countries toward which America has and hasn’t been hostile to over the past two decades.

#2 Comment By cfountain72 On April 17, 2012 @ 10:37 am

I think that, to be more precise, the *US* doesn’t attack democratic countries. So, if that is the case, the theory becomes self-fulfilling. If we can force enough countries to be democratic, we won’t have as many excuses to attack them…ergo, fewer wars…as a result of more wars.

(Didn’t say it made sense.)

Peace be with you.

#3 Comment By Selvar On April 17, 2012 @ 12:45 pm

Do these fools realize that Hitler was elected? If the people in a democracy want to go to war with another democracy, they will elect a non democratic government first. This is done to create ideological difference with the enemy and to have a government more capable of waging total war.

#4 Comment By Joseph Stromberg On April 17, 2012 @ 12:58 pm

The Dim Peace theorists always claim they win the debate. That is only true, if shifting the goal posts is a legitimate move.

#5 Comment By tbraton On April 17, 2012 @ 2:04 pm

“The democratic peace theory is one of the most ridiculous theories taken seriously by smart people (right up there with “Tom Friedman is insightful”). ”

LOL. I always thought that “Tom Friedman is insightful” was just a totally erroneous statement of fact. Now I learn it is actually a ridiculous theory taken seriously by smart people, a theory totally unsupported by any evidence. Thanks for clarifying. So, I guess we can say that Tom Friedman bears an uncanny resemblance to cold fusion.

#6 Comment By Lev On April 18, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

@Salvar: This is entirely correct. But if you go there, or mention that the British public positively lusted after war with Russia in the Crimea, then they say, hey, Russia wasn’t a democracy (absolutely true), and by 1940 Germany wasn’t one either in any sense of the word (which is also true). And Germany had the Kaiser in WWI as well as a parliament, so it was only partly a democracy. Again, true. But the idea that a full-blown democracy has never (well, at least since the 1860s) declared war on another full-blown democracy is one of those facts that is interesting but trivial. With enough caveats you can turn this into a true statement, but there aren’t enough asterisks in the universe to turn it into anything resembling a principle of foreign policy, a way of bringing about a more peaceful order. Democratic countries lust for war too, they declare them and fight them. Becoming a democracy doesn’t make a country less hungry for war. If only it were that simple.

@tbraton: Back when I was in college, I took a course on ethics, and the professor–who was a smart, well-informed, curious person, accomplished in the field–was using “The Earth Is Flat” as a text for one of his other classes. That is, sadly, a 100% true story. I almost bought it on his recommendation even though I wasn’t taking that class. And a professor in my Arab-Israeli class actually taught the democratic peace theory as though it were something to be discussed and debated rather than dismissed and mocked.