The Best Discovery Since Fire—Pax Democratica

December 9, 2008

[First published April 27, 2006] Support for the democratic peace proposition that democracies don’t make war on each other continues to accumulate from social scientific research, while the information gatekeepers continue to ignore it. This is an incredible gap. On the one side there are these well accepted empirical findings about this solution to war, democide, and famine; on the other side there is American foreign policy based on these findings; but in the middle there is a vast ignorance and misunderstanding of the democratic peace. So, I will continue to harp on it in the hope that I will help make more widely known this incredible power of democratic freedom. That is the purpose of this blog, my website, my novels, and all else I’ve written in the last 25 years.

Also to this end, I want to present the best work I’ve read on the democratic peace, which is the Ph.D. dissertation by Harries-Clichy (Pete) Peterson, Jr., titled PAX DEMOCRATICA: IMPLEMENTING THE INTER-DEMOCRATIC PEACE PROPOSITION (University of Hawaii, 2001—I had retired well before then and was not a member of his dissertation committee). The date is crucial, since it was written the year of the 9/11 attack, and thus before President Bush announced his democratic peace based, Forward Strategy of Freedom. Anyone reading both Peterson’s dissertation and Bush’s speeches since then might conclude that Bush had studied what Peterson had to say. I don’t think so, but it is clear that both are eating at the same social scientific table.

Below is the abstract of Peterson’s dissertation:

The democratic peace proposition (well-established democracies do not war against each other) has been studied intensely over two decades. A comprehensive review of the literature finds the proposition extraordinarily robust over time and throughout the world. Tests, challenges, analysis, and theoretical explanations of an extensive body of evidence have been reported in over two hundred articles, papers, monographs, and books. Confidence in the validity of the proposition is strongly warranted: the democratic peace is both powerful theory and a reality of international relations.

A persuasive implication of the proposition is that promoting democracy should be central in foreign policy, in order to achieve a more democratic and therefore more peaceful world. The democratic peace is fundamentally about national security.

Has the proposition been used in American foreign policy? Evidence from the Clinton administration hints that the democratic peace assumed an important role: the President and senior advisers said that “democracies don’t fight each other,” and “promoting democracy” became one of three pillars of American national security strategy. Closer examination, however, shows that while “democracy” was mentioned frequently, the goal of promoting democracy was more rhetorical than practical, and that promoting democracy was rarely been connected with the democratic peace. The administration’s eight years were marked by countless missed opportunities to make use of the democratic peace proposition in motivating, explaining, and constructing international relations. The democratic peace has not been an organizing principle of American foreign policy. It has likewise been absent from international use, although the recent establishment of the Community of Democracies, and the Democracy Caucus in the United Nations, point to the beginnings of Kant’s “pacific union.”

Making use of the democratic peace proposition in practical foreign policy will require much work, from creating the vision of an all-democratic-therefore-peaceful world, to formulating a grand strategy from that vision, making the strategy operational through campaign plans, and doing the day-to-day tactics of promoting democracy in order to achieve a democratic peace. This dissertation outlines how this work might be done, and argues that such work should be done in order to establish a worldwide pax democratica.”

After a through study of the literature pro and con on the democratic peace, Dr. Peterson concludes over 1,400 pages later:

I set out in this dissertation to look at one of the most remarkable findings in political science, that well-established democracies do not make war against each other. When I first encountered the democratic peace, my reaction was skepticism, but after reading most of the democratic peace literature, my view changed. I accept the finding. But so what?…. Carried to its conclusion, if all the major powers were democracies, there would be no more major wars; if all the countries in the world were democracies, there would be no more wars.

Therefore, the proposition holds out the hope of world peace. A few years ago I would have laughed at this statement as yet another dream with no substance, or a nightmare utopia depending on the imposition of “order” at the cost of life and liberty. But what sets the democratic peace apart as a utopian vision is that it is based on a political system that allows discussion and disagreement, features peaceful changes of political leaders, and by definition cannot be imposed—if it is imposed, then participants can’t disagree and change it, which means it is not democracy….

Internationally, the democratic peace has hardly surfaced at all: the former Secretary General of the UN, Boutros-Ghali, made some use of the democratic peace, and both he and his successor, Kofi Annan seem to realize the importance of democracy, but not from a democratic peace point of view. So, a few politicians (no, not just politicians, but foreign policy leaders at the highest levels of government!) had pointed out that democracies didn’t fight each other. Fine. But this did not reflect a general understanding of the democratic peace. Even the momentous and encouraging establishment of the Democracy Caucus at the UN had no democratic peace roots.

And beyond a handful of politicians, the democratic peace seemed absent from the general foreign policy discourse in America. Not only was the democratic peace largely absent from journalism and news reporting, but it was also largely absent—except as a matter of realist criticism—from the foreign policy academic literature. Even the Journal of Democracy had only one specific article dealing with the democratic peace (Ray 1997), and his article was merely an explanation of the proposition. I say “merely” deliberately, since it was only an introductory piece (although well written and excellent for its purpose: introduce the readership to the democratic peace).

The democratic peace has been completely absent, as best as I can gather, from any analysis of world events, even absent from any consideration of the interplay between democracy and world politics. Although there were occasional articles critical of the proposition, there were no in-depth articles using the democratic peace or its perspective in [the journals] of Foreign Affairs or International Security. Although there have been plenty of analytical articles dealing with democracy, democratization, the fate of democracy in various countries and regions, the democratic peace was not a basis for foreign policy analysis in any significant article in [such magazines as] New Republic, National Review, Dissent, Commentary, Weekly Standard, New York Review of Books, Economist, National Interest, Foreign Policy, Washington Quarterly, and on it goes.

There may very well be “good” (that is, they reflect an understanding of why) reasons for this. One may be the erosion of the classical liberal worldview. Another is probably the lingering habit of thinking monadically rather than dyadically, which means that analysts still tend to focus on the characteristics—rich, poor, large, small, democratic, dictatorial, aggressive, non-belligerent—of individual states rather than the relationship between types of states. Moral equivalence may be another reason: no state or form of government is privileged, as well as the rejection of all that is—or appears to be—ideological. Another reason, though is the failure to keep up with—or understand—the academic literature, and the difficulty of following “shifting paradigms.”

Whatever the reason, the fact is that the democratic peace is not a factor in the analysis or understanding of contemporary world politics.

What does looking at democracy as the most important factor in international relations mean?

One consequence of this view is that all countries of the world can be categorized into one of three groups: well-established democracies, emerging democracies, and currently non-democracies. From this perspective, all countries are either actualized democracies of various sorts, or potential democracies. There are no countries, no matter how they may be under the dictatorial rule of a despot, or a despotic dynasty, without the potential—and hope—for becoming democratic. This means that promoting democracy is a foreign policy prescription that applies to every country in the world, that it should be done by all democracies, and that all nondemocracies should realize that they will become democracies eventually….

To get to the Goal of an all-democratic world from the Actual world of mixed regimes, the Drift of world politics must be influenced and affected by foreign policy which seeks to promote democracy in order to achieve the widest possible zone of democratic peace. This “meta-instruction” is basically a call to promote democracy—through any democratic means.

The most important component of this imperative to promote democracy in order to achieve a world of democratic peace is to establish this as a grand strategy. Although the supporting strategy and tactics of promoting democracy are also essential, getting the grand strategy established and accepted is the most important task since it guides and drives all others. The strategies and operational plans of how to promote democracy in order to further democratic peace flow from a coherent and well-established grand strategy. If the grand strategy is weak, wrong, or not accepted, then nothing good flows from it….

This is not the task of a few years, or of a new presidential administration. The task is not uniquely American, but is must include America. And it will not happen without the insight and power of the democratic peace. But if the democratic peace findings remain the subject of academic discourse and only marginally enter the policy arena, then achieving this Pax democratica will take much longer, and suffer much more postponement and reversal. The consequences are not trivial: more war.

It is to this end, expediting the realization of the centuries-old vision first seen by Kant of perpetual peace, that the robust and reliable findings of the democratic peace research program should be put to work.

Promoting democracy in order to achieve democratic peace, must be the center of American foreign policy.

And so it is now, thanks to Bush, Rumsfeld, and Rice.

Books, articles, papers, data