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Examining Democratic Peace Theory And The Cold War Politics Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 3475 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In the discipline of International Relations there has always been dispute between scholars representing the different explanations that are used to interpret how regimes communicate and relate to one another. In the liberal camp and more specifically the theories concerning democracy, a claim has been presented stating that democracies do not fight wars with each other. Scholars have also implied that democracies are generally more peaceful than other regime types. This analysis seeks to understand the principles and origins behind this democratic peace theory and whether it is a valid tool when assessing recent conflicts.

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The essay will be structured into three main parts. Firstly, we must start out by thoroughly defining and investigating the supporting views that exist about the peace theory. Secondly, the weaknesses of the theory will be discussed in great detail to assess the validity of using it when examining recent historical events. Thirdly the analysis will assess post Cold War conflict patterns using the knowledge and arguments obtained in parts one and two. The events will be analysed using the peace theory argumentation. Finally, the essay will give a concluding assessment regarding the value of the democratic peace theory. This assessment will be given by summarizing and acknowledging each of the three main parts examined in the analysis.

The main argument of the realist school concerning this theory is its lack of relevance and evidence despite its possible validity. They argue that history might show a trend, but cannot by itself be accepted as valid evidence. The analysis will hold the liberalist peace theory to account in a critical manner using such arguments. Throughout the essay I will try to create a convincing argument showing that there are good arguments on both sides. It is therefore as this analysis will show a question of context that determines the value of the democratic peace proposition when looking at recent conflicts.

Defining and investigating the peace theory

The democratic Peace Theory traces its origins back to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant [1] . He was the first to argue “that the rational citizen in liberal capitalist societies is generally peace-prone…” [2] This original idea claimed that democratic peace derives from the nature of the individuals living in the democratic states. The modern peace theory argues that democracies do not fight wars with each other. Today the ongoing effort to validate the theory on one hand and disclaim its importance and variables on the other is considered one of the main battles between the liberal and realist schools of thought. [3] The core of the theory is widely accepted and has been related to as something very close to a law in International Relations. [4] Does this however, mean that democracies are in general more peaceful and does the fact that it is true provide any useful results for the assessment of recent conflicts? To understand and be able to evaluate these questions we must firstly investigate the arguments put forward by the liberal school.

The claim that democracies rarely fight one another because they share common norms of live-and-let-live and domestic institutions that constrain the recourse to war-is probably the most powerful liberal contribution to the debate on the causes of war and peace…” [5] 

As Sebastian Rosato clearly identify in these words, the peace theory stands first and foremost as a powerful liberal argument in international relations. Some scholars go as far as referring to the origins of this theory as the core of liberalism. [6] If proven right it strikes a critical blow against realist thought concerning the presence of international anarchy. James R Huntley support Rosato’s argument concerning how common norms negate the possibility of war. As he says; “The experienced democratic people are more of one mind about essentials than other groups in the world.” [7] The notion that citizens, (with all liberties and ties the word incorporate), of nations have more in common with each other is according to both scholars key in understanding why democracies possibly are more peaceful. To grasp how this could be the case a brief look at the structure of a democratic state is required. This can show how geography, ideology and institutions play an important role in building peace. [8] 

Table 1: [9] 

In table 1, John M Owen visualizes how democracies reach a peaceful conclusion with other democracies in scenarios of potential conflict. Liberal ideas and the democratic ideology create a peaceful attitude towards other identical regimes. This leads to government constraint because of accountability in the sense that leaders wish to stay in power. [10] Liberal ideas are also imprinted into democratic institutions. Debates within these institutions conclude that the moral and economic cost of waging war against another democracy overcome the need to do so. This again leads to leadership constraint and the result is democratic peace.

Russet and Oneal further explain how democracies are intertwined with each other in two main areas. They claim that there are similarities between democracies both on a cultural and a structural level. [11] Many scholars support this claim through various arguments. Some of these include high levels of accountability in democracies [12] , the historical trends of forming alliances between democracies, the economical ties between democracies [13] and finally the problems involved with attacking other regimes of consent [14] .

Another aspect of the peace theory that arguably has an effect on its credibility is the general liberal advantage of widespread belief in this theory simply due to the positivity it creates. This claim is supported by Brock, Geis and Muller whom state that the Peace theory has become a central tool incorporated “in the mindsets of Western politicians and diplomats. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Condoleezza Rice, to name but a few.” [15] This certainly affects policies made in recent conflicts. The fact that the peace statement itself provides a positive and thus a moral response is something a realist might immediately point out as a reason for why it is promoted and held true by many democratic states and scholars. [16] The realists can then claim that the importance of hard empirical evidence is undermined and replaced by moral values.

Identifying the weaknesses

After looking at the peace theory mainly from a liberal perspective we must now investigate where it is lacking and why most realists discard it in many ways as insignificant. The first part showed how the original peace theory is widely accepted, but what about the new notion that democracies are in general more peaceful? Scholars argue that history proves otherwise and that developments like colonization and democratization support this. [17] 

A second observation is the lack of a mechanism that actually proves why democracies do not fight each other. [18] In the first section we saw many examples that would encourage democracies to find peaceful solutions, but neither of these completely prevents a possible war with 100% certainty. It is acknowledged that they do not fight wars, but not justified why.

Further, realist arguments confront the historical trend showing how democracies tend to make alliances. According to the realists the peace that exist between democracies are not upheld because of democracy, but because the democratic states share common strategic interests. This is an interesting claim that could be valid in many examples. During the Cold War it was in the interest of all capitalist countries to stall the development of communism. This might be called a common strategic interest. [19] Another example could be the recent threat of terrorism. The randomness of terrorist attacks and the hatred by extremist groups for liberal values make most democracies potential targets. Thus it would be a common strategic interest for democracies to unite against terrorist leaders like Osama Bin Laden.

In the peace theory debate, one of the main points of disagreement rests with the relationship between dependent and independent variables. Paul K. Huth and Todd L. Allee explain the variables by using two main concepts that are known as Monadic and Dyadic factors. [20] These factors explain how states relate to one another. The Monadic view incorporates domestic variables and is as such the dependent variable. This can include both the normative and structural values discussed in the first section. The Dyadic factor is the independent variable and seeks to measure relationships between two states at a time. This means that it is used to test the likelihood of conflict in any given combination of two states. [21] 

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Aside from a lacking explanation of the relationship between the monadic and dyadic factors, a critique that quickly comes to mind here is how such a method can be used as empirical evidence in any academically approved theory. If the 192 states of the world are to be paired up in every possible combination to measure potential outcomes it would create an enormous and highly inaccurate amount of statistical data. [22] Due to this problem of measurement, a critical weakness is found in the structure of the Democratic Peace Theory. In liberal defence however, scholars like Rasler and Thompson argue that aside from democratic dyads where peace is common, democracies in dyads with non-democracies have been known to reduce conflict “in the identified dyads” [23] This would mean that all though a complete measurement of possible outcomes between dyads is impossible, single cases can still be found and thus used to give the peace theory some credit. The possibility of democracies affecting other regimes in a given dyad brings us to the investigation of recent conflict patterns.

Conflict Patterns since the Cold War

The end of the Cold war brought about the alleged ‘new world order’ in which America enforced its hegemonic position. [24] The first major incident after 1989 was the Gulf War. This war was supported by the United Nations and led by the United States. [25] The short duration of the operation made it a pure military conflict and as such little of the peace theory can be related to it. One could however suggest that the United States played the role of a democratic aggressor. There was never any democratization involved in this short campaign. Realist critique of democratic peace can be applied to this conflict in the sense that it was waged due to the strategic interests of the United States. It can thus be argued that they acted on a self interest base rather than a mission to liberate the people of Kuwait.

A second event that occurred during the 1990’s, was the division and wars in Yugoslavia. [26] This conflict was an intra-state conflict fought out in non-democracies and it is therefore difficult to find a relation to the peace theory. It can be said that the western effort to find a solution was a gathering and peaceful effort, but its extensive failure give such claims little credibility. The United States has here been framed as a main cause of the outcome due to their passive role in the conflict. [27] 

Since the turn of the millennia, conflicts have mainly concerned themselves with intervention in autocratic regimes. The presidential change that took place in the United States in 2001 arguably affected the agenda of these interventions. [28] These has in most cases been followed by a wave of democratization as supported by Anne Holohan; “Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan are among the territories struggling to democratize and develop economically at lightning speed in the early twenty-first century under the auspices of international intervention…” [29] The peace theory’s newest strain which considers how democracies in dyads with other regimes might cause less conflict through democratization would certainly be relevant in the three cases mentioned here. In the western world this is probably seen as a positive factor by many.

Realist claims concerning strategic interests can once again be imposed as critique to the peace theory in this recent development. The argument might be that intervention in all three countries mentioned by Holohan was driven by known democratic allies. Because of the instability-threat autocracies pose for democracies, it was in western strategic interests to intervene.

Another interpretation of recent conflicts concerns religion. Huntington claims that “Contemporary global politics is the age of Muslim wars…” [30] The 21st century has so far been dominated by the war on terrorism in mainly Muslim countries which gives credit to this claim. This incorporates the issue of deterrence. Deterrence theory is a concept where states strive to enhance their defensive capabilities up to the point where they are so strong that others deter from attacking. [31] Deterrence might prove hard to increase when put up against the recent threat of terrorism. This is because extremist groups are known to work in multiple states and often despite opposition from local governments. Such inter-state operations make it hard to identify an enemy and thus problematic to evaluate how to make terrorists deter from attacking a state. This is especially difficult because democracy and liberalism as ideological concepts have been targeted. Recent conflict patterns suggest that the war on terrorism is increasing in scale and it is thus highly relevant when testing the Democratic Peace Theory. Would a spread of democracy in areas where terrorists operate enhance democratic deterrence? Again this would be a strategic interest.

In the case of Afghanistan we also see how the accountability factor of the peace theory is incorporated. Leaders of the United States carried out the attack with broad popular support due to the loss of American lives in the 9.11 terrorist attacks. [32] The peace theory thus correctly assesses the importance of having popular support in democracies to justify involvement. Some have however speculated whether this popular support was gained truthfully in the case of Iraq. Was this an example of how governments through media can stage public support and would this then go against the peace theory as a realist argument? [33] 


Through this analysis I have approached the Democratic Peace Theory in a large number of ways. The results of these investigations have shown that it is both inaccurate, lacking and in the case of some conflicts of no relevance. On the other hand it has also been shown how its mere existence shape international politics, how history thoroughly reinforces its validity and how it enlightens the patterns of recent inter-state relations. Thus, to assess the peace theory, one needs to consider the context in which it should be evaluated.

Its existence affects how leaders in major powers relate to one another and how they base their decisions in democracies. It also shows how structural, cultural and normative factors are composed, both within and between democracies. Our history proves that wars between democracies are extremely rare and when they happen it is under very special circumstances. In these contexts the Democratic peace theory is an invaluable tool.

It fails to identify reasons for why democracies are more peaceful towards each other than towards other regimes. It is specifically based on inter-democratic relationships and thus has a very limited value when assessing terrorism which has dominated the last decade. The theory is further based partially on dyadic relationships which are impossible to measure accurately and thus useless as theoretical evidence. In such contexts it is hardly relevant when assessing recent conflicts and cannot be relied upon as valid.

When looking at recent conflict patterns all the contexts referred to above needs to be addressed to create a covering picture. Many conflicts become hard to couple with the peace theory because they are intra-state affairs. Other problems like the lack of a state as the enemy has also weakened the relevance of the theory. Several of the conflict interventions discussed in this analysis can however be justified with liberal democratization arguments. On the other hand they can be attacked by realist views of common strategic interests. The context thus becomes crucial in determining the value of the democratic peace theory. It need not be wrong simply because its supporters fail to sufficiently explain it, and it need not be significant merely because it is true.


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