The Democratic Peace Thesis: Not a Force for Peace After All

By Aryaman Bhatnagar

The attempts to establish a strong symbiotic relationship between Liberalism and peace can be traced back to the times of writers like Kant, Montesquieu and Rousseau. They proposed that liberal domestic constitutional and institutional mechanisms would make liberal states inherently more peaceful (Macmillan, 1978, p.278). It is the legacy of such works that has continued down till this day to influence a number of theorists, many of whom perceive liberalism to be a force for absolute pacifism. It has, in fact, provided the basis for the “Democratic Peace Thesis”, which argues that liberal democratic states never wage war against each other.

This pacification of foreign relations among liberal states is said to be a direct product of their shared legitimate political orders based on democratic principles and institutions. The reciprocal recognition of these common principles leads liberal democracies to share a feeling of mutual trust and respect towards each other reducing the possibility of war. Moreover, democratic institutions such as public opinion, legislatures and the electoral process make leaders more accountable making the possibility of large-scale war nearly impossible. Finally, the commercial ties between the liberal states also foster a spirit of interdependence and cooperation, further, reinforcing the ‘zone of peace’ between them. It is these transnational ties, liberal institutions and ideas, which together can account for sustained peace among the liberal states. It is also argued that liberal states are as war-prone or as aggressive in their approach to non-liberal states like other states and that they wage wars only for liberal or humanitarian purposes (Doyle, 2005).

The Democratic Peace thesis has found considerable support among a number of theorists. Jack S. Levy stated “absence of war between democracies comes as close as anything we have to an empirical law in international relations (Levy, cited in Chan, 1997, p.60).” However, it has been heavily criticised on the grounds that it oversimplifies the explanation of the existence of peace. Moreover, they believe that this thesis itself may be used by some nations as intellectual justification for the belief that spreading democracy abroad will perform the dual task of enhancing their national security and promoting world peace (Rosato, 2003, p.585).

This essay will attempt to evaluate liberalism as a force for peace in light of criticism against the Democratic Peace Thesis. My main argument is that liberalism by itself is not enough to create, preserve or explain the existence of peace between nations. While liberal states themselves do not always stay away from conflict, there are also other factors that play an important role in creating peace. Moreover, I will also show how the belief of liberalism as a force of peace can create war.

Democracies and the Use of Force

Do democratic states stay at peace with each other when their interests clash? If one looks at empirical examples then it can be said that democracies are still willing to use force in order to achieve their ends even against democracies (Macmillan, 1996, p.281). When interests clash even liberal states tend to behave like any other states, bargaining hard, issuing threats and, at times, using military force. In such situations, the nature of the adversary regime is of very little value as vested interests tend to outweigh the liberal principles. The US intervention in the developing world during the Cold War period testifies this fact as the containment of Communism took precedence over respect for fellow democracies. The CIA helped in overthrowing democratic governments in Chile, Iran, Guatemala and Nicaragua replacing them with more authoritarian regimes (Rosato, 2003, p.590).

Wars between democracies have also taken place due to the fixity in the definition of democracy. As a result, a “hegemonic liberalism” defines out other historically valid democratic claims and may license violence against them (Barkawi and Laffey, 1999, p.409). This is how the invasions of a number of democracies, as stated above, during the Cold War were justified by the US. Moreover, the mutual respect and trust between democracies can be maintained only if they consider each other to be liberal. But in the absence of any coherent mechanism to categorise democracies, the perceptions of states regarding the regime type of another state comes into picture. They often get another state’s regime type wrong, thereby, lessening our confidence in the fact that objectively democratic states will not fight one another (Rosato, 2003, p.592).

It should also be noted that democratic norms and institutions do not cause democracies to behave differently from non-democracies in systematic ways (Rosato, 2005, p.467). The public constrain, for instance, acts as a very small deterrent on the state’s decision to go to war. If it was a major constraint then it would be able to prevent them from going to war even against the non-democracies (Rosato, 2003, p.594) as the public should feel sensitive about the human and material cost of war with any state. At times, the public may actually welcome war as was seen during WW1, which was welcomed by the public in all participating countries of Europe, even though, some of them were fighting other liberal states.

Moreover, these democratic structures are as likely to drive states to war as to restrain them from it. Cabinets, legislatures and public were often more belligerent than the government heads they were supposed to constrain (Owen, 1994, p.91). These can be belligerent towards democracies as well. This was evident during the build up to WW1.

Apart from looking at such constraints that could prevent war between democracies, it is also important to investigate the deepening of a democratic ethos within specific countries (Chan, 1997, p.66). While stable, well established democracies may not fight one another, a nascent democracy or rocky transition towards a fragile democracy may not necessarily imply that countries become immediately more peaceful. The transition phase of democracies is supposed to be quite dangerous and the nascent democracies are more likely to be caught up in wars (Ward and Gleditsch, 1998, p.53). The transition in Eastern Europe, for instance, had left the population “free to hate” (Ward and Gleditsch, 1998, p.54) resulting in large-scale ethnic cleansing of minority groups.

The instability in such new regimes can hardly create a spirit of mutual trust and respect that may prevent war between nations. In fact, at times, stable autocratic regimes are less prone to conflict and escalation to war. This can be seen with a number of non-liberal states like Cuba, Belarus and more recently, China that is emerging as a potential superpower through the use of its “soft power”.

Along with chaos in new democracies, the existence of civil wars and insurgencies in liberal states create obstacles in viewing them as symbols of pacifism. If democratic norms and culture fail to prevent the outbreak of civil war or insurgency within democracies, what reason is there to believe that they will prevent the out-break of interstate wars between democracies (Layne, 1994, p.41). Moreover, the states may use coercive and violent means to put an end to these movements and if they can resort to such methods against their own people then there is no guarantee that they would be not resort to such methods in the context of international relations. The independent history of some democratic nations like Sri Lanka, Algeria, Nepal, Lebanon among others have been seriously affected by such violent movements, which tend to seriously undermine the claim that democratic nations are inherently more peaceful.

The failure to recognise the changing nature of ‘war’ and the various implications of the word ‘peace’ have also strengthened this belief of peace among nations. The perception of war being a sustained violent conflict fought by organised armed forces, which are directed by a governmental authority (Starr, 1997, p.154) cannot hold in light of the changing nature of warfare. The liberal states may not confront each other through conventional warfare but through proxies or the armed units of the indigenous nations, who were armed by the superpowers themselves. Thus, while, the occurrence of overt conflict maybe extremely rare, states- even the liberal ones- have started to confront each other through covert means (Barkawi and Laffey, 1999, p.412).  In recent times, India and Pakistan are said to confront each other through such means. It is alleged that they try to destabilise each other by arming insurgent or militant groups in each other’s territories rather than confront each other through conventional means.

It is for this reason that the absence of war should not be equated with peace as the two phenomena are conceptually different (Chan, 1997, p.66). The absence of violence may be replaced by hostile diplomatic relations and constant threats of war. The Indo-Pak relations have followed such a pattern for the last sixty years, wherein, the threat of war or use of force has generally overshadowed all other forms of conflict resolution. This situation of ‘negative peace’ that creates a war like atmosphere can hardly be conducive to a more literal form of peace and harmony.

Why are Democracies Peaceful Towards Each Other?

If we were to accept the hypothesis that liberal states may actually be more peaceful towards each other than with a non-liberal state, it is unlikely that this can be explained by their liberal democratic norms or political institutions alone. Liberal states employ factors other than liberalism in deciding questions of peace and war (Macmillan, 1996, p.280).

These factors could be borne out of a common culture that tends to bind states together irrespective of the nature of their regime. The states are often caught up in geo-strategic and socio-economic relations because of which they tend to maintain the equilibrium through peaceful non-violent means (Barkawi and Laffey, 1999, p.421). This is highly evident in case of International bodies like the European Union, NATO, SAARC and ASEAN. It is the shared interests of the member nations of these bodies that prevent them from going to war against each other as the maintenance of peace is imperative for the cultural and economic development in this region. Moreover, in case of ASEAN, the member states are not always democratic in nature, yet, wars are avoided between the member nations clearly showing that states are motivated by factors other than liberal norms.

The existence of the democratic zone of peace can also be achieved by the presence of a local hegemon, which imposes a peaceful order in the concerned region and satisfaction of the states with territorial status quo. The existence of the ‘zone of peace’ in North America can be explained through this idea. The countries of this region are satisfied with the existing balance of power in which the US is the leading nation and have no territorial ambitions of their own. This has helped in maintaining peace between the concerned nations (Kaeowicz, 1995).

One also needs to realise that wars are so rare that random chance could account for the democratic peace (Owen, 1994, p.88). A dyad of nations becomes significant only if there is a real possibility of two states going to war (Layne, 1994, p.39). If motives, means and opportunities are absent then it is only natural that there would be no war between those nations. For instance, Senegal and Costa Rica both are liberal nations but the lack of warfare between them should be understood more in terms of the lack of any significant external relations between them (Macmillan, 1996,p.281).

Liberalism: A Barrier for Peace   

We can, finally, turn our attention to some of the practical implications of this thesis, which act as serious obstacles in the attainment of world peace. The belief that democratic nations do not go to war against one another has become an important aspect of the western policy. The logic of this discourse is that if democratic nations alone do not go to war against each other then it is important to create more of them, thereby, creating a more peaceful world (Barkawi and Laffey, 1999, p.423). This can fuel a spirit of democratic crusade and be used to justify covert or overt interventions against others (Chan, 1997, p.59).

According to many observers, the spread of democracy to different parts of the world has become the central focus of the American foreign policy post the Cold War and especially post-9/11. The US has taken up the moral responsibility of ensuring that a global liberal order is created, which is crucially linked not only to its own security but also to that of its allies. For this they will not hesitate to use their military power in a more aggressive and pre-emptive manner (Rhodes, 2003, p.134). The war against Iraq was also justified on these grounds.

This liberal interventionist role can have serious repercussions for world peace. It can be viewed as efforts to create an empire that would naturally offset a reaction against it. In the mid-90s, the attempts to create liberal states in Central and Eastern Europe to facilitate the expansion of NATO had seriously strained the US-Russian relations (Layne, 1994, p.47). Such extension into “Russia’s backyard” can also lay the foundation for future conflicts.  The deterioration of relations between Russia and Georgia, which ultimately resulted in the outbreak of war between the two in 2008 can be said to be rooted in the US efforts to include Georgia in NATO.  Similarly, the US image has taken a severe beating among the Arab states following its invasion of Iraq. The efforts to set up liberal institutions in Iraq and Afghanistan have acted as a catalyst for a number of non-state entities to carry out acts of terror in the region against the American presence and her backed regime.


The Democratic Peace Thesis seems to be based on hope and on the image of an idealised notion of what the world ought to be like. In reality, nations tend to maintain peace with other nations- irrespective of the regime type- as long as their own vested interests are not being compromised. The normative and institutional mechanisms that are meant to constraint the liberal nations from waging war can hardly override the pursuit of national interests. Even when peace is maintained it is probably explained more by these vested interests than commonality of a political culture.
Finally, it is important to note that peace is not the sole prerogative of democracies alone. Peaceful relations have also characterised many non-democratic polities throughout history and authoritarian regimes, at times, are more likely to maintain peace as compared to nascent democracies.

The essay hence establishes that the link between peace and liberalism has been over glorified by the Democratic Peace thesis. Peace is a complex issue that only a complex web of factors can explain and Liberalism maybe just one aspect of it.


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  • Ward, M. D. and K.S. Gleditsch, 1998. “Democratizing for Peace”. The American Political Science Review, 92 (1),pp.51-61

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