Democratic Peace

Acknowledging the connection between strong democratic insititutions and the absence of war

By John Bacher | 1998-03-01 12:00:00

IT'S A FACT: Democracies do not make war against other democracies. Democracies do go to war with dictatorships. Dictatorships do go to war against each other. Dictatorships sometimes go to war when beginning their transition to democracy, as in the cases of Yugoslavia, Cambodia, and Chechnya. But we have not seen wars between combinations of truly democratic states.

The United Nations now includes 185 states, about two-thirds of them democratic. Increasingly this organization is functioning as a federation of democracies, pledged to uphold peace and human rights. When the U.N. intervenes, as for example in Cambodia, this is usually done to ensure the establishment of a democratic system of government, and to bring a halt to massive abuses of human rights.

All this is just as Immanuel Kant predicted two hundred years ago in his book, Perpetual Peace. It was Kant who developed the concept of a "democratic peace" in the 1790s. While he was writing, there were only three partially liberal democratic states in the world, none of which (including the United States) could be described as full democracies, since women and racial minorities could not vote. When Kant was writing, he lived in an autocratic Prussian state that did not accept the human rights doctrines that he was preaching.

Kant's writings are often difficult to read. When he refers to "republicanism" he means what we now call liberal democratic systems of government that ensure majority rule through elections, while at the same time respecting the basic human rights of minorities. He describes what he terms a "republic" as having divisions of powers and a constitution, whereas he says that "democracy" is despotism. Actually, though, by "democracy" here he means the authoritarian republicanism that was typical of the French Revolution of his period, where there were no checks against executive authority, as there are in today's liberal democracies. Republican France, despite its formally democratic constitution, practiced arbitrary arrests, imprisonments, and executions.

Kant notes that (what we call) liberal democracies will encourage "perpetual peace" because "if the consent of the citizens is required in order to decide that war should be declared (and in this constitution it cannot but be the case), nothing is more natural than that they would be very cautious in commencing such a poor game, decreeing for themselves all the calamities of war. Among the latter would be: having to fight, having to pay the costs of war from their own resources, having painfully to repair the devastation war leaves behind, and, to fill up the measure of evils, load themselves with a heavy national debt that would embitter peace itself and that can never be liquidated on account of constant wars in the future."

In contrast to the great difficulty of war-making in democracy, Kant shows how easy it is for dictatorships to go to war. He notes that in dictatorships, a declaration of war:

"is the easiest thing in the world to decide upon, because war does not require of the ruler, who is the proprietor and not a member of the state, the least sacrifice of the pleasures of his table, the chase, his country house, his court functions, and the like. He may, therefore resolve on war on a pleasure party for the most trivial reasons and with perfect indifference leave the justification which decency requires to the diplomatic corps who are ever ready to provide it."

Kant describes a federation of free states, which is what the United Nations will become if all its members are successfully democratized. His portrayal of world government is similar to the federal system with which we are all familiar, in which disputes among the various levels of government are mediated by a Supreme Court. When he was writing, there was no International Court of Justice (ICJ), before which nations could bring suits instead of using war as a recourse. The ICJ was not created until 1905.

What he called the "league of peace" or the "league of nations" was to maintain the "security of the freedom of the state itself and of other states in the league with it." This would mean intervention on grounds of what we today call human rights violations. Kant wanted only democratic nations to be part of his league of peace.

Perhaps it was an error to admit dictatorships when setting up the League of Nations and later the United Nations. Had that error not been made, violations of democratic norms would be a reason for expulsion from the federation of free states, and even a reason to put such a country under trusteeship until it met the requirements of democracy. Had this principle been used by the League of Nations in 1934 when Hitler came to power in Germany, World War II, with its millions of casualties, might possibly have been averted. Requiring democracy as the price of admission to international organizations might have been possible; in 1919 the "big three" founding states of the League of Nations - Britain, the United States (which did not ratify) and France - did meet most democratic norms. In fact, the federation was similar to the alliance of democracies that Kant had intended.

However, democracy as a condition of membership in world federation is an idea that is still evolving. Even

Britain became a democracy, with full adult suffrage, only on the eve of signing the Versailles Treaty, so it was probably too early for Kant's principles to be incorporated into the founding League of Nations statutes. Woodrow Wilson, a founder of the League, actually opposed voting rights for blacks in the United States. His belief in the righteousness of the cause of the U.S. Confederacy led him to promote the concept of self-determination in international law, a principle that has contributed seriously to world instability.

The principle of democracy as a litmus test is, however, coming to be applied in the former Yugoslavia by NATO and was used for a time by the U.N. in Cambodia. It is also being applied by the Organization for African Unity, whose peacekeeping forces have intervened in such places as Liberia to restore conditions for free, democratic elections. Now that the Cold War has ended, both NATO and the OAU are beginning to function like authentic regional peacekeeping bodies of the United Nations.

Kant's concept of a democratic peace has been revived by Dean Babst and William Eckhardt in a 42-year study that looked at all independent countries from 1950 to 1991. They found that no civil wars have taken place in democratic states during that period, whereas 90 percent of dictatorships have experienced civil wars. (War is defined as any armed conflict, involving one or more governments, and causing the death of 1,000 or more people.)

It is rather obvious why civil wars are absent in democracies. Why would any group launch a war to control a state, involving the deaths of a thousand people or more, when they could pursue their goals peacefully through electoral participation? Democratization is, then, a way to avert the horrors of civil wars.

Democracies are also not plagued by the crimes against humanity that are usually associated with intense civil conflict. As Babst and Eckhardt note, of the 119 million victims of genocide in the twentieth century, virtually all were killed in non-democracies, especially totalitarian ones. The reason is obvious. Democratic governments would be far less likely to kill their own people than dictatorships because they depend on their votes on election day. The whole structure of democratic government, with its protection of human rights, is designed to prevent such disasters from happening. This is also why famines are unlikely to occur in democratic states; governments are unlikely to be re-elected if they face angry voters whose relatives have died of starvation.

But why are democracies so much more peaceful than dictatorships? During the same 42-year study, only 23 percent of all democracies participated in war. During that time 93 percent of the dictatorships took part in war. If foreign wars are taken into account, the only difference is that dictatorships are slightly less likely to become engaged in a foreign war than in an internal one. Only 23 percent of democracies were involved in foreign wars, as contrasted to 72 percent of dictatorships.

Kant not only predicted this differential more than 200 years ago, but also explained it. Babst and Eckhardt conclude, as did Kant, that "in major democracies, public pressure relating to concerns for the cost of war, in lives and resources, constrains the national leader's decisions and thus reduces the chance of disagreement between nations escalating into war." Dictatorships are immune to such popular pressure.

Babst and Eckhardt look at 16 countries that became democratic between 1950 and 1991. Of these, only two participated in wars after becoming democracies. Every one of these 16 countries had been engaged in a war while they were dictatorships. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Greece, Honduras, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Nepal, Panama, Portugal, Spain, Uruguay, and Venezuela - took part in wars when they were dictatorships, but not after they became democracies.

Critics of the proposition that democracy causes peace have argued that it is irrelevant how many democracies or dictatorship have engaged in war; what is important is the effect of democracy on dyads - pairs of countries that have some potential to go to war with each other. Naturally, they say with a laugh, democratic New Zealand is unlikely to go to war with democratic Botswana, which is thousands of miles away. But Zeev Maoz has examined actual dyads of war, pairs of countries that have experienced long periods of conflict over various issues - such as Argentina and Britain, Pakistan and India, Greece and Turkey - to see whether being a democracy has had any impact on their going to war with each other.

Maoz notes that "Turkey's initial transition to democracy was in the mid-1920s, while Germany's first experience with democracy occurred during the 1919-33 period. In both cases the conflict activity of these states with their traditional rivals dropped significantly. Consider members of the democratic club in the North Atlantic community (e.g. Greece and Turkey) that became non-democratic during the 1954-86 period. Whenever that happened, the conflict between them flared up."

Greece and Turkey provide an excellent example of how dictatorships are more prone to war. The last war between these countries was sparked by a Greek dictatorship's attempt to annex the island of Cyprus. Since the failure of this adventure, which resulted in Greece's becoming a democracy, the two countries have been at peace. Greece and Turkey have fought three wars, none of which took place in the many periods during the past century when both countries were democratic.

Consider also the impact of democracy on the dyads of conflict in Latin America. There have been bitter rivalries between Peru and Ecuador, Chile and Argentina, and Brazil and Argentina. None of the wars between these dyads took place, however, when both partners to the conflict were democratic.

The same pattern holds for inter-regional conflicts in Latin America. The recent Falklands War between Argentina and Britain took place when Argentina was a dictatorship. As in the Greek case, the ensuing war was disastrous for the dictatorship that started it; the military rulers were overthrown, to be replaced with a stable democratic regime that is still functioning.

We are left with the big question about attaining Kant's "perpetual peace": How can we bring democracy to the dictatorships of the world without war?

John Bacher is an activist now teaching at McMaster University.


Dean Babst and William Eckhardt, "How Peaceful are Democracies, Compared with Other Countries?" Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 1, 1992.

Zeev Maoz, "The Controversy over the Democratic Peace," International Security, Vol. 22, No. 1, 1997.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1998

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