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The democratic peace theory or simply democratic peace (often DPT and sometimes democratic pacifism) is a theory in political science and philosophy which holds that democracies—specifically, liberal democracies—never or almost never go to war with one another. A more general version is that all kinds of systematic violence is rare in and by democracies. Despite criticism, it has grown in prominence among political scientists and has become influential in the policy world.

History of the theory[edit]

Immanuel Kant

The idea came relatively late in political theory, one contributing factor being that democracies were very rare before the late nineteenth century. No ancient author seems to have thought so. Early authors referred to republics rather than democracies, since the word democracy had acquired a bad name until early modern times. Nicolo Machiavelli believed that republics were by nature excellent war-makers and empire-builders, citing Rome as the prime example. It was Immanuel Kant who first foreshadowed the theory in his essay Perpetual Peace written in 1795,[1] although he thought that democracy was only one of several necessary conditions for a perpetual peace. US President Woodrow Wilson advocated the idea in politics during and after WWI.

In 1964, Dean Babst was the first to claim that statistical evidence supported the theory. Thereafter, an increasing amount of research has been done on the theory and related subjects. More than one hundred researchers have contributed to the literature according to an incomplete bibliography.[2] Despite criticism, it has grown in prominence among political scientists and has become influential in the policy world. Scholar Jack Levy made an oft-quoted assertion that the theory is "as close as anything we have to an empirical law in international relations"[3]

Presidents of both American parties have expressed support for the theory. Bill Clinton: "Ultimately, the best strategy to ensure our security and to build a durable peace is to support the advance of democracy elsewhere. Democracies don't attack each other."[4] George W. Bush: "And the reason why I'm so strong on democracy is democracies don't go to war with each other. And the reason why is the people of most societies don't like war, and they understand what war means.... I've got great faith in democracies to promote peace. And that's why I'm such a strong believer that the way forward in the Middle East, the broader Middle East, is to promote democracy."[5]

Statistical studies supporting the DPT[edit]

War and liberal democracy can be defined in different ways. The studies supporting the DPT have often defined war as any military action with more than 1000 killed in battle. This is the definition used in the Correlates of War Project which has also supplied the data regarding the wars and the militarized disputes for many of the studies. The early researcher R.J. Rummel required liberal democracies to have voting rights for at least 2/3 of all adult males and that the democracy should be older than 3 years at the start of the war. He also had some implicit criteria; for example, the chief officer of the democracy must have had a contested election. Another example is requiring that at least 50% of the adult population is allowed to vote and that there has been at least one peaceful, constitutional transfer of executive power from one independent political party to another by means of an election. Many researchers have used the Polity Data Set which scores states for democracy on a continuous scale for every year from 1800 to 2003. There are also many other data sets used in conflict research.[6][7]

Numerous studies using many different kinds of data, definitions, and statistical analyses have found support for the democratic peace theory. They have concluded that no wars have been fought between liberal democracies and that this is statistically significant when compared with the wars fought with and between nondemocracies during the last two centuries. There is also much research showing that all kinds of systematic violence is rare in and by democracies.[8][9] Most statistical work has focused on the 19th and 20th centuries, but there is also some research on the applicability of the theory outside this period.[10]

Militarized interstate disputes (MIDs) include the disputes that later will become wars but also the disputes causing less than 1000 or even no battle deaths but including for example a military display of force. There have been more than 2000 MIDs since 1816, allowing more detailed statistical analyses than when looking at wars. Research using a continuous measure of democracy shows that the most democratic nations have the least MIDs. There is an ongoing debate regarding whether it is the most authoritarian or the intermediate regimes that have the most MIDs. When examining these MIDs in more detail, the inter-liberal disputes have on the average more hostility, but are less likely to involve third parties, hostility is less likely to be reciprocated, when reciprocated the response is usually proportional to the provocation, and the disputes are less likely to cause any loss of life.[11][12][13] Enduring militarized competition between democratic states is rare. After both states have become democratic, there is a decreasing probability for MIDs within a year and this decreases almost to zero within five years.[14]

In international crises that include the threat or use of military force, if the parties are democracies, then relative military strength has no effect on who wins. This is different from when nondemocracies are involved. This pattern is the same for both allied and nonallied parties.[15]

Research also shows that wars involving democracies are less violent and that democracies have much less democide.[16] The most democratic and the most authoritarian states have few civil wars, and intermediate regimes the most. The probability for a civil war is also increased by political change, regardless whether toward greater democracy or greater autocracy. Intermediate regimes continue to be the most prone to civil war, regardless of the time since the political change. In the long run, since intermediate regimes are less stable than autocracies, which in turn are less stable than democracies, durable democracy is the most probable end-point of the process of democratization.[17] The fall of Communism and the increase in the number of democratic states were accompanied by a sudden and dramatic decline in total warfare, interstate wars, ethnic wars, revolutionary wars, and the number of refugees and displaced persons.[18]

Democracies do sometimes attack nondemocracies. Many earlier papers found that democracies in general are as warlike as nondemocracies, but according to several recent papers democracies are overall slightly less involved in war, initiate wars and MIDs less frequently than nondemocracies, and tend more frequently to seek negotiated resolutions.[19] A recent theory is that democracies can be divided into "pacifist" and "militant". While both avoid attacking other democracies, "militant" democracies have a tendency to distrust and use confrontational policies against dictatorships. Most MIDs by democracies since 1950 have involved only four nations: the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, and India.[20][21] Research has examined the effect of different democratic institutions. One finding is that proportional representation is associated with less external and internal systematic violence.[22][23]

Causes[edit]

One idea is that democracies have a common culture and that this creates good relations. However, there have been many wars between non-democracies that share a common culture. Democracies are however characterized by rule of law, and therefore the inhabitants may be used to resolve disputes through arbitration rather than by force. This may reduce the use of force between democracies.


Another idea is that democracy gives influence to those most likely to be killed or wounded in wars, and their relatives and friends. However, democracies sometimes attack non-democratic states. One explanation is that these democracies were threatened or otherwise were provoked by the non-democratic states. This idea also suggests that the relationship in the DPT became stronger when graphic movies and television made wars less romantic.

Studies show that democratic states are more likely than autocratic states to win the wars. One explanation is that democracies, for internal political and economic reasons, have greater resources. This might mean that democratic leaders are unlikely to select other democratic states as targets because they perceive them to be particularly formidable opponents. One study finds that interstate wars have important impacts on the fate of political regimes, and that the probability that a political leader will fall from power in the wake of a lost war is particularly high in democratic states.[24]

A game-theoretic explanation is that the participation of the public and the open debate send clear and reliable information regarding the intentions of democracies to other states. In contrast, it is difficult to know the intentions of nondemocratic leaders, what effect concessions will have, and if promises will be kept. Thus there will be mistrust and unwillingness to make concessions if at least one of the parties in a dispute is a nondemocracy.[25]

The book Never at War explains the democratic and also a related oligarchic peace by the human tendency to classify other humans into ingroup and outgroup.

Criticisms[edit]

There are at least four logically distinguishable classes of criticism. One that the criteria has not been applied accurately to the historical record. For example, critics have argued that Germany was a democracy at the time of WWI. Another that the criteria are not appropriate. For example, critics may prefer that liberal democracy should exclude or include both of Germany and England at the time of WWI, rather than separate them into democratic and non-democratic. A third that the theory may not actually mean very much. For example, there were very few liberal democracies before the twentieth century. Democracies have fought many offensive colonial and imperialistic wars. A fourth that it is not democracy itself but some other external factor(s) associated with democratic states that explain the peace.

These tend to overlap, being in fact complementary criticisms, and many critics make more than one of them. It is particularly hard to tell the first two classes apart on for example 1914 Germany and England, since they cannot be separated into democracy and nondemocracy using numerical factors like the percentage of the population having the right to vote, but must be separated by qualitative factors. These criticisms are discussed in the remaining sections.

Specific historic examples[edit]

Number of wars 1816-1991[26]
Democracies vs. Democracies 0
Democracies vs. Nondemocracies 155
Nondemocracies vs. Nondemocracies 198
Other studies show similar results.[27]

Note that the following concerns the claim of no wars between liberal democracies and not other claims like fewer MIDs. More examples are discussed in the article about the book Never at War which also discuss the role of oligarchies. These and other possible counter-examples have been discussed in great detail in the literature.[28]

Liberal democracy?[edit]

For the First World War critics have argued that the German Empire was a democracy, (the Reichstag was elected by universal male suffrage and it did vote overwhelmingly to fund the war), or that Britain was not a democracy (only three-fifths of British males could vote, to say nothing of the Empire beyond the Seas, the majority of which had no say in the decision at all). Supporters respond that the German Kaiser had the executive power. He appointed and dismissed the Chancellor, the Imperial officials, and the officers. He could and did declare war together with the not democratically elected Bundesrat, 30% of which was appointed by the Emperor, and most of the rest by the German princes. The Reichstag had little control over the executive power and its legislative power was greatly limited by the Bundesrat. The Emperor's appointees in the Bundesrat could themselves veto amendments to the German constitution. In 1913 the Chancellor ignored a vote of no confidence and there were often threats of a military coup d'etat if the Reichstag should ignore the Emperor on important issues. In effect, therefore, especially in foreign and military affairs, there was little democratic control. The Emperor was also the King of Prussia which had 3/5 of the German population and the Prussian constitution gave him even greater power there. The landed aristocracy of the Junkers formed the officer corps of the army, dominated Prussia, and had strong influence on national politics as well.[29][30][31][32][33] If Britain was not a liberal democracy, then this is another reason why WWI was not a war between democracies. The last argument may however weaken the statistical support for the DPT, because fewer democracies mean fewer possible wars.

There can be similar responses to other objections. During the War of 1812, only a small minority had the right to vote in the United Kingdom, many new urban areas had no representation, the ballot was not secret, many seats in Parliament were appointed or openly bought from the owners of rotten boroughs, and the House of Lords could veto all laws. The defenders of DPT exclude the American Civil War because, in addition to it being an internal conflict, in the Confederate States of America less than 2/3 of the adult male population could vote, abolitionists were censored and imprisoned, and there was never a competitive presidential election.[34] Only a minority had the right to vote in the Boer republics before the Boer Wars.[35] Nawaz Sharif, the president of Pakistan at the time of the Kargil War, used terror tactics to silence critical press and the previously independent judiciary, for example storming the Supreme Court in order to force the Chief Justice out of office. Yassir Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority at the start of the latest conflicts with Israel, and Slobodan Milosevic, the president of the Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War, can be criticized on similar grounds.[36] [37] There was never a democratic election in the Philippines before the Philippine-American War. All the Mexican presidents at the time of the conflicts with the U.S., like Mariano Paredes y Arrillaga, took their power in coup d'etats. At the time of the War of the Pacific, only one man in fifty could vote in Chile and Peru.[38] Spain had the Turno system and the monarchy retained important powers at the time of Spanish-American War.[39]

Some tribes may have a form of democracy in the extended kinship group but no effective control of personal raids against non-kin groups. These often gradually involves friends and relatives and escalate to vendettas and wars. Examples include the Iroquois who frequently raided and eventually destroyed most of the Hurons. Such tribes and liberal democracies have fought one another.

Liberal democracies before the nineteenth century?[edit]

In Ancient Greece, city-states with limited democracy fought wars with one another. Most noted is the Sicilian Expedition by the Athenian democracy against Syracuse. These states had large numbers of non-voting slaves and metics. It is estimated that only 30-50% of adult males in Athens had the right to vote. The Roman republic and Carthage had limited democracy and fought the three Punic Wars. There were persistent wars among Venice, Florence, Genoa, and other Renaissance city-states with limited democracy.

Deaths in battle[edit]

The rule of at least 1000 killed in battle excludes attacks by one democracy on another in such overwhelming force that there is no effective resistance, and thus few deaths in battle. Some Indian Wars and small scale foreign interventions by the United States may be examples. One example is the non-battle deaths of 4000 Cherokee indians during the Trail of Tears in 1838. The Cherokees had created a republican constitution in 1827 that in theory had many democratic rights. However, the nation allowed slaveholding and become increasingly authoritarian, in the end beating, censoring and even murdering those advocating a voluntary removal. The state of Georgia decreed that the government was dissolved in 1828 which was before three years had passed since the creation of the constitution.[40]

Democracies have engaged in covert conflict resulting in a change of regime on the losing side. The British- and American-supported 1953 coup d'etat in Iran against Mohammed Mossadegh and the 1954 U.S.-backed coup in Guatemala, led by Carlos Castillo Armas are examples of such events, also excluded.

Five months after the start of the Continuation War, the United Kingdom reluctantly issued a formal declaration of war on Finland due to pressure from Soviet Union. However, the United Kingdom's only significant act of war happened prior to the declaration (a Royal Air Force raid on German-run mining operations in Petsamo), Finland spent the Second World War fighting a totalitarian opponent who had previously attacked the nation, the United Kingdom and Finland for almost the whole of WWII carefully avoided attacking one another, and the casualties were too few to be classified as a war statistically.[41] There have been very few formal declarations of war since WWII and using this as the definition of war would mean that for example the US has fought no wars since WWII. The lavish material support the United Kingdom and the United States provided to Soviet Union raises the question if democracies can make war against other democracies through proxies.

Many of the above cases are MIDS, not wars, and as noted earlier the DPT only claims fewer MIDs between democracies, not that they do not exist.

Rummel's time limit[edit]

Rummel's version of the DPT has a requirement that the democracies must be stable and therefore must be older than three years. This excludes the war between the French Second Republic and the Roman Republic (19th century), the 1911-1912 war between Italy and the Ottoman Empire, and the 1991-1992 war between Yugoslavia and Croatia. The First Balkan War is excluded if one considers the Ottoman Empire to have become democratic after the first election in November 1908 or when the constitution was amended so that the parliament could control the cabinet in April 1909. The war started in October 1912, which would be before four years had passed. Critics instead argue that democracy occurred in July 1908 when a constitution was introduced. It is also doubtful if the opposing Christian states fulfill the democratic criteria since the Kings continued to have extensive powers in all of them. Studies using the Polity data set have required a score of least 7 out of 10, which excludes the French Second Republic (6), the Ottoman Empire (3), Croatia (3), and Yugoslavia (0) at the time of the wars.[42]

The time limit and other requirements like democratic institutions and elections on both sides also exclude civil wars within democracies over legitimacy or secession, such as the American Civil War, the Sonderbund War, the Anglo-Irish War and the Irish Civil War which followed, and the 20th century civil wars in Colombia, Spain, Uruguay and Sri Lanka.

Colonial wars and imperialism[edit]

One criticism against a general peacefulness for democracies is that they were involved in more colonial and imperialistic wars than other states during the 1816-1945 period. On the other hand, this relation disappears if controlling for factors like power and number of colonies. Democracies have less of these wars than other states after 1945. This might be related to changes in the perception of non-European peoples, as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[43]

Related to this is the human rights violations committed against native people, sometimes by liberal democracies. One response is that many of the worst crimes were committed by nondemocracies, like in the European colonies before the nineteenth century, in King Leopold II of Belgium's privately owned Congo Free State, and in Stalin's Soviet Union. England abolished and fought slavery throughout the world when the nation become more democratic.

Correlation is not causation[edit]

A statistical association does not establish causality. Critics have thus argued that the absence of wars and the few MIDs may be explained by other factors in democratic states that are not related to democracy. Supporters of the DPT do not deny that other factors affect the risk of war but argue that many studies have controlled for such factors and that the DPT is still validated. Examples of factors controlled for are contiguity, power status, alliance ties, militarization, economic wealth and economic growth, power ratio, and political stability.[44][45][46] Studies have also controlled for reverse causality from peace or war to democracy.[47][48][49]

The Kantian peace theory[edit]

CMA CGM Balzac.jpg
Trade and and the United nations, one intergovernmental organization

Several studies find that more trade causing greater economic interdependence and membership in more intergovernmental organizations reduce the risk of war. Democracy, interdependence, and intergovernmental organizations are positively related to each other but each has an independent pacifying effect. This is often called the Kantian peace theory since it is similar to Kant's earlier theory about a perpetual peace.[50][51] However, other studies find an effect from more democracy but no effect from more trade.[52]

Economic development[edit]

One study indicates that independently of trade, democracy is not a significant factor unless both of the democracies have a GDP/capita of at least 1400 USD. This level is quite low and 91% of all the democratic pairs passed this criteria during the 1885–1992 period and all in 1992. Still, higher economic development than this makes the effect of democracy stronger. Low economic development may hinder development of liberal institutions and values.[53]

Geographic isolation[edit]

Critics have argued that few democracies mean that they are geographically isolated and thus unable to make war with one another. As described above, several of the studies finding evidence for the DPT have controlled for this. One study has demonstrated that democratic pairs of nations have not been more geographically separated than non-democratic pairs.[54] Today more than 50% of all nations are democratic.[55]

The Cold War peace[edit]

Joanne Gowa has argued that the Cold War was responsible for creating the illusion of a democratic peace. The United States and the Soviet Union "assumed dominance of what became essentially a bipolar world". The democratic states had a common interest due to the threat from the Communist states and allied with each other. She present statistical research that before 1914 inter-democratic MIDs were as likely as MIDs involving at least one nondemocracy. Looking at the time before the Entente Cordiale, 1816-1904, she finds that the democratic states were less likely to ally and more likely to engage in MIDs with one another.[56] At least one other study has shows similar results.[57]

While not statistical evidence, one intuitive counter-argument is that external threat did not prevent wars between the Communist states and did not prevent wars beteen democracies and nondemocracies in the Western bloc.[58]

Such wars include the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Cambodian-Vietnamese War, and the Sino-Vietnamese War. There were also minor conflicts, not meeting the threshold of deaths, particularly the Sino-Soviet border conflict and the Prague Spring. In the Western bloc such wars include Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, at a time when Cyprus had British military bases and close ties to Turkey's NATO partner Greece. Another is the Football War. However, the US put pressure on the combatants to stop the Football War which fits the bloc peace theory. A third is the 1965 US invasion of the Dominican Republic. The 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War may also be wars within the Western bloc, because Iraq belonged to CENTO, the US and the UK were also member, and the UK had nuclear weapons deployed on Cyprus for the defense of CENTO until 1975.[59] Israel received extensive aid during the Yom Kippur War from the US. Bloc peace theory supporters note that the Soviet-Iraqi Treaty of Friendship was signed in 1972. All of these wars had more than 1000 military casualties. The Falklands War almost qualify.[60]

More importantly, more recent studies find fewer MIDs between democracies also before the Cold War.[61][62] Gowa's theory does not explain the low domestic violence in democracies or why relative military strength does not influence the outcome of crises between democracies.[63] Gowa did not control for alliances, arguing that there are methodological problems. Many studies that have controlled for alliances like NATO show support for the DPT.[64]

DPT supporters also argue that there has been continued peace between democracies after the end of the Cold War. Critics disagree and even if true they note that the European Union and NATO still exist and that they contain some of the democracies capable of maintaining a war. However, there are many democracies outside Europe.[65] The threat from the Communist states which Gowa thought explained both the peace and the existence of alliances between democracies such as NATO has largely disappeared. Contrary to what could be expected from Gowa's theory, the fall of Communism was accompanied by a sudden and dramatic decline in interstate warfare and other armed conflicts[66]. Some researchers argue that the increase in democracy associated with the end of the Cold War is the main cause for this decline in armed conflicts while others note that there has also been an increase in intermediate regimes and as noted earlier such states may be particularly prone to civil war. Other explanations for the decline in armed conflicts is the end of colonialism and the Cold War itself. [67][68]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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  66. ^ "Global Conflict Trends". Center for Systematic Peace. Retrieved October 1, 2005. 
  67. ^ "The Human Security Report 2005". Human Security Centre. Retrieved October 18, 2005. 
  68. ^ "Democratic peace clock". Freedom, Democracy, Peace; Power, Democide, and War. Retrieved October 18, 2005. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Brown, Michael E., Sean M. Lynn-Jones, and Steven E. Miller. Debating the Democratic Peace. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996. ISBN 0262522136.
  • Doyle, Michael W. Ways of War and Peace. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997. ISBN 0393969479.
  • Gowa, Joanne. Ballots and Bullets: The Elusive Democratic Peace. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. ISBN 0691070229.
  • Huth, Paul K., et al. The Democratic Peace and Territorial Conflict in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge University Press: 2003. ISBN 0521805082.
  • Lipson, Charles. Reliable Partners: How Democracies Have Made a Separate Peace. Princeton University Press: 2003. ISBN 0691113904.
  • Ray, James Lee. Democracy and International Conflict: An Evaluation of the Democratic Peace Proposition. University of South Carolina Press: 1998. ISBN 1570032416.
  • Rummel, R.J. Power Kills: Democracy As a Method of Nonviolence. Transaction Publishers: 2003. ISBN 0765805235.
  • Russett, Bruce & Oneal, John R. Triangulating Peace: Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations. W. W. Norton & Company: 2001. ISBN 039397684X.
  • Weart, Spencer R. Never at War: Why Democracies Will Not Fight One Another. Yale University Press: 2000. ISBN 0300082983.

External links[edit]

Supportive[edit]

Critical[edit]