The Mother of All Foreign Policy Myths That Refuses to Lie Down and Die

Having thoroughly enjoyed Aaron Friedberg’s magisterial analysis of Britain’s experience of relative decline in The Weary Titan, the Policy Tensor was looking forward to reading A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia. His treatment of the history of Sino-American relations is impeccable. And his trepidation over the upcoming struggle for Asia is shared by nearly every well-informed observer. But for some reason he seems to have convinced himself that were China to become democratic the United States would be happy to, and ought to, surrender its position in Asia without a fight. Aaron Friedberg has fallen for a zombie idea: The myth of the democratic peace.

Proponents of the strong version of the democratic peace thesis claim that democracies are inherently less war-prone than autocracies (the monadic version of the democratic peace “theory”).  This doesn’t even pass the laugh test to anyone even remotely familiar with the history of Anglo-American foreign relations; or the international behavior of France, Israel, and India; not to speak of Athens or Rome. Other, more serious, scholars claim that the empirical record demonstrates unambiguously that democracies don’t fight each other, even if they fight nondemocratic states as often as the latter (the dyadic version). Or as Jack Levy observes, the “absence of war between democracies comes as close as anything we have to an empirical law in international relations.”[i] Democratic peace “theory” holds that this apparent “fact” is explained by the very nature of democratic polities—that democracies do not use force or threaten to use force because they respect each other and try to resolve their differences by other means.

Not only do a large number of liberal internationalist scholars subscribe to these views, the overwhelming majority of American foreign policy elites suffer under the same illusion. Indeed, it would not be a stretch to describe it as the hegemonic ideology of US foreign policy—it is seen as so utterly self-evident as to require no support for the assertion. The problem, to put it mildly, is that it is simply not true. The logic of the underlying theory is flawed. And the empirical record is, at best, ambiguous.

In the original Kantian version, democratic governments are reluctant to go to war because they must answer to their citizens who are usually unwilling to pay the price in blood and treasure. If Kant was right about this, democracies should go to war less often than autocracies in general and not just against other democracies. But this is simply not the case. If anything, democracies have historically gone to war more often than autocracies.

In the modern version, the claim is that democracies don’t fight each other because of shared norms of peaceful resolution of unavoidable conflicts. The apparent empirical “fact” that there is not a single instance of democracies fighting each other in the modern era is achieved by (a) coding at least one participant in any conflict as nondemocratic, (b) by choosing arbitrary cutoffs for which confrontations qualify as conflict, and (c) ignoring interventions by (democratic) major powers in (democratic) minor states. For instance, Finland, a German ally during World War II, was at war with the Allies. But it is excluded from the count because it did not suffer enough combat casualties. American interventions in democratic states (Iran ’53, Guatemala ’54, Indonesia ’57, British Guyana ’61, Brazil ’61 and ’64, Chile ’73, and Nicaragua ’84) supposedly do not qualify as “wars.” The six Anglo-French wars don’t count because one or the other was insufficiently democratic until a suitably later date. The three Anglo-Dutch naval wars ditto. The War of 1812 between the nascent American Republic and the United Kingdom doesn’t qualify as a war of democracies because the latter didn’t qualify as a real democracy until mid-century. Same for the Spanish-American war of 1898. The fact that Spain was regarded as no more or no less democratic than many other European states by contemporaries is ignored.

The most glaring counterexample—one that completely disqualifies the entire enterprise—is the coding of Germany as autocratic in 1914. In fact, in the late-nineteenth century and all the way to the outbreak of war, Germany was regarded as more democratic than France, if not England, on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, it was seen as the most advanced polity in the world where the rule of law, constitutional government, and popular government had attained its highest form. Woodrow Wilson himself, who was to later espouse the cause of Kantian peace, studied German state institutions and argued for their emulation in the land of the free. When Germany, France, and Britain went to war a hundred years ago, it was a war of democracies. It was only after war broke out that American elites came to regard Imperial Germany as autocratic; prompted wholly by the need to mobilize a reluctant public for the war.

What of the claim that democracies resolve their differences peacefully out of mutual respect? If the claims of democratic peace “theory” are right, then statesmen should not threaten war against another democratic state; the public should, at the very least, not be baying for blood; and disputes should be resolved with reference to shared norms not the dictates of straight power relationships. In a seminal article, Christopher Layne looked at four crises when democracies almost came to blows (the Trent affair of 1861 between the United States and Great Britain, the Venezuela crisis in 1895-1896 between the United States and Great Britain, the Fashoda crisis between France and Great Britain in 1898, and the Ruhr Crisis between France and Germany in 1923).[ii] His findings are stark:

In each of these crises, at least one of the democratic states involved was prepared to go to war (or, in the case of France in 1923, to use military force coercively) because it believed it had vital strategic or reputational interests at stake. In each of these crises, war was avoided only because one side elected to pull back from the brink. In each of the four crises, war was avoided not because of the “live and let live” spirit of peaceful dispute resolution at democratic peace theory’s core, but because of realist factors. Adverse distributions of military capabilities explain why France did not fight over Fashoda, and why Germany resisted the French occupation of the Ruhr passively rather than forcibly. Concerns that others would take advantage of the fight (the “waterbirds dilemma”) explain why Britain backed down in the Venezuela crisis, and the Union submitted to Britain’s ultimatum in the Trent affair. When one actually looks beyond the result of these four crises (“democracies do not fight democracies”) and attempts to understand why these crises turned out as they did, it becomes clear that democratic peace theory’s causal logic has only minimal explanatory power.

But you say, surely, the essentially peaceful relations amongst the Western allies (America, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Korea) since 1945 can be accounted for, at least partially, by the fact that they are all liberal market democracies? Not so. The “liberal peace” is an artifact of the “American pacifier.” Basically, the United States has been so preponderant in either extremity of Eurasia and in Oceania that none of these states can challenge it militarily. Nor could they credibly threaten the use of force to settle disputes amongst themselves. For the same reason, states in the Soviet sphere of influence had peaceful relations. The rule of force in world affairs is suspended in regions that are dominated by a single power for the simple reason that it is no longer characterized by anarchy (there is someone to turn to for help if you are attacked). Similarly, the threat of war will disappear from the center of international politics with the establishment of a world state.

The democratic “zone of peace” is an American invention. Those who want to fight America are by construction nondemocratic (for instance, since the Putin restoration, Russia is no longer regarded as a “nascent democracy” but rather as an authoritarian state). In this sense, the democratic peace thesis is irrefutable. But wrong ideas have a way of influencing actual policy. In particular, ideological zeal makes democratic states more likely to launch misguided wars to “enlarge the zone of peace and freedom”: witness the debacle in Iraq. This doesn’t mean that American policymakers suffer such delusions when it really counts. When push comes to shove, policymakers base their decisions on the calculus of power and interests. It would be foolish to expect America to surrender its position in Asia were China to become democratic. More likely, were it to seek an American withdrawal from Asian waters, China would no doubt be quickly reclassified as an autocracy with only a thin façade of democracy.

[i] Jack S. Levy, “Domestic Politics in War,” in Robert I. Rotberg and Theodore K. Rabb, eds., The Origin and Prevention of Major Wars (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 88.

[ii] Layne, Christopher. “Kant or Cant: The myth of the democratic peace.” International Security (1994): 5-49.


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