The Impacts of Democratic Peace Theory

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“Democracy is a loose term. Many varieties of folly and injustice contrive to masquerade under this designation,” wrote George Kennan in his 1985 essay Morality and Foreign Policy, warning against a trend of American interventionism in the name of morals and values. And indeed, the concept of democracy is a very ancient one. Created in the middle of the 5th century BCE from the combination of the Ancient Greek words “dēmos”, which designates the citizens of a city-state, and “kratos”, the god of strength and power, it stands for, in its simplest definition, ‘rule by the people’. Because the word ‘democracy’ is historically, conceptually and perceptually laden, its utilization in theory as well as in practice can become problematic. From a historical perspective, Athens is consensually regarded the birthplace of democracy. The different meanings, connotations and images-that is, the conceptions of democracy- find their source in the thinking of Ancient Greek philosophers, which was enriched and transformed by Enlightenment philosophers and political thinkers, and has been constantly evolving since. This has influenced the perception that governments (and their leaders), people, and institutions alike have of other states’ regime.

Differing conceptions and perceptions of democracy raise theoretical and practical questions. From a theoretical perspective, not enough questions have been raised concerning the definition of democracy and the problematics aspects this definition can have on the relevance of the Democratic Peace Theory. From a practical perspective, many a foreign policy has been engaged based on the findings of the Democratic Peace Theory (from governments and international organizations). It seems essential, then, to call into question this fundamental notion of democracy, center to the debate. What are the conceptions and perceptions of democracy and what can they contribute to Democratic Peace Theory? We will first discuss the historical and philosophical conceptions of democracy as well as its theoretical one in the context of the field of International Relations; then how this has influenced the measure and perception of democracy in the modern world; and finally discuss their impact on Democratic Peace Theory.

The contemporary definitions of democracy are rooted in the ideas of Enlightenment, a European philosophical movement of the 18th century. One of its core ideas is the concept of the self and individual freedom, which in turn led to political conceptualization. “Je pense, donc je suis”, Descartes’ famous phrase, is foundational in the West’s conception of the self. In Europe, starting from the Middle Ages, the individual increasingly came to be defined as a subject, with his or her own thoughts, and by extension, capable of reason. This progressively led to the definition of natural rights: inalienable rights which human beings possess by virtue of their nature. Central to these natural rights is the notion of perfect equality and freedom, and the right to preserve life and property, a notion which has remained crucial in contemporary times. Building on these foundations, Enlightenment philosophers produced a body of thought which aimed to describe the best possible government for human beings. They advocated the inalienable sovereignty of the people over their government. John Locke’s political liberalism underlines the necessity for the separation between an executive body and a legislative body within governing bodies. Montesquieu argues for a “tripartite system”, the distribution of powers between legislative, executive and judiciary.

Though Jean-Jacques Rousseau states that only direct democracy can, to a certain extent, embody the will of the people, he also explains that, in practice, such a government is impossible to put in place, and that, consequently, the ‘least bad’ form of government is a representative democracy, in which governing bodies are elected by the people. For Immanuel Kant, the natural extension of human rights and progressing faculties of reason is the progressive transformation of societies into republics, which are to protect those rights and culminate into the best society. The idea of freedom is also key to Kant’s political philosophy. It includes freedom from arbitrary authority, in the form of freedom of speech, conscience, and the right to own and exchange private property. Kant’s Republic comprises four institutions: the juridical equality of citizens and freedom of religion and the press; a rule by representative legislatures; private property; and a market economy driven by supply and demand.

Within the field of International Relations, Kant’s thoughts are the foundation for much of Democratic Peace Theory. Subsequent authors have emphasized different characteristics of liberal democracies, but most agree that they combine institutions and ideology, that is to say, democratic processes and practices as well as norms. For Bruce Russett, they are states with “a voting franchise for a substantial fraction of citizens, a government brought to power in contested elections, and an executive either popularly elected or responsible to an elected legislature, often also with requirements for civil liberties such as free speech.” He draws from Huntington and Ray who both insist on the importance of fair elections “in which candidates freely compete for votes”. John M. Owen defines democracies as states “where liberalism is the dominant ideology and citizens have leverage over war decisions,” and also cites “regular competitive elections”, but specifically “of the officials empowered to declare war.” Some main characteristics such as, predominantly, election of representatives to rule the people, are shared by all authors. While most authors offer their definition of democracy before detailing their arguments for Democratic Peace Theory, it is historically and perceptually biased. As Bruce Russett readily admits, “the precise application of these terms [democracy and autocracy] is to some degree culturally and temporally dependent.”

The main indicators of democracy today were developed in the Western world, specifically in the United States. They consist of evaluating different criterias for democracy and assigning a grade, or a rank, to each country of the index. In essence, they necessitate the construction of an ideal benchmark against which all countries are graded. This implies assigning a range of numbers from which to choose when deciding the level of ‘freedom of the press’ a country enjoys, for example, or ‘quality of its institutions.’ One such is the Freedom In The World index developed by Raymond Gastil’s Freedom House and launched in 1972. The index is released yearly and has been one of the most cited ratings for measuring democracy by politicians, journalists and organizations alike. The United States uses it to decide which countries it will provide funds to in the context of the Millennium Challenge, for example. But how are these ratings calculated? For the first twenty years, at least, the methodology constructed by Gastil was obscure, and, as he affirmed himself, by “working alone [he did not have] to integrate the judgments of a variety of people”; he emphasized “hunches and impressions” as “so important in a survey of this kind,” resulting in a “loose, intuitive rating system for levels of freedom or democracy, as defined by the traditional political rights and civil liberties of the Western democracies.”. This assured the methodology was to be biased. Even further, the index possibly gain so much popularity because it confirmed to the American public what they already believed. As for academicians, they mainly use the Polity data series, which grades countries’ political structure. The Polity II score ranges from 1800 to 1986 and integrates a range of characteristics to define democracy, all graded then aggregated to produce a single score for a country.

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Democracy is the key independent variable in Democratic Peace Theory, and yet its main theorists fail to agree on its measure across countries and time. Doyle and Zeev Maoz, for example, coded few countries in the same way when they constructed their dataset, which they used to support their theory. While Maoz uses Polity II, Doyle uses his own criteria and this results in their disagreement over the nature of the political system of two-thirds of the states. Going into the data is enlightening. Doyle classifies the United States as a democracy in the 18th century, a time in which slavery was legal, going against the first Kantian principle of freedom of the individual. As for James Lee Ray, he justifies excluding the American Civil War from being a war between democracies by contending that the Confederacy was not democratic- precisely because women and slaves could not vote, a quality that the North also suffered. These examples show the difficulty of measuring political systems against a concept as historically charged and changing as democracy. What definition of democracy is, and should be used? Which specific norms and values should be compared? From an American point of view, it may well be American norms. Ido Oren argues that what is considered a democracy can shift and that this perception is due both to American centrism, and relations between states.

America sets the norm for democracy, and it seems that in Polity II, it serves as the benchmark for a perfect democracy – getting a perfect score overtime – from which the other states are defined. And the level of democracy that other countries are assigned depends largely on the quality of their foreign relations with the United States. Before World War I, Imperial Germany was considered by American leaders as one of the most modern European countries, with a strong constitution and administration. In fact, Woodrow Wilson considered Germany to be a more mature democracy than France. But as Germany became increasingly hostile to America, culminating in America’s participation in World War I with the Allies, thus changed America’s perception of Germany. Today, Imperial Germany is not coded as a democracy, and World War I conveniently not coded as war between democracies. Challenging the conceptions and perceptions of democracy opens Democratic Peace Theory to a reassessment of its internal consistency, by bringing in a Constructivist ontology. That democracies do not wage war at all – monadic peace – or do not wage war with other democracies – dyadic peace – is explained by two main arguments. According to the first argument, the main reason democracies do not go to war is because they are more likely to deal with conflict through diplomacy and compromise. According to the second, structural and institutional constraints specific to their political system prevent them from going to war.

Some of Democratic Peace’s main theorists advance the argument of shared democratic norms as a cause of dyadic democratic peace. The value these countries place on negotiation and compromise when conflicts arise help de-escalate them and prevent war. Here, a Constructivist ontology comes into play. How are those pacifying diplomatic norms and practices constructed? Can knowing their origin improve the descriptive and predictive power of Democratic Peace Theory? The case can be made. Furthermore, because citizens have “leverage over war decisions”, public opinion affects the propensity of democracies to wage war. Therefore, when citizens of a country view another country favorably- when they feel a sense of shared values of freedom and equality- they are less likely to approve an invasion of its sovereignty, which is to say, freedom. Again, Constructivism asks: how is this public opinion constructed? If public opinion is defined as an aggregate of individual beliefs and preferences, which are intersubjective- as in, which constitute collective memories- and institutionalized – integrated into processes- then it answers: through shared ideas and assigned meanings about the world. Perception is a key intervening variable, because a country need not only be democratic for D.P.T. to work- it needs to be seen as democratic. Finally, institutions constrain democracies: their decision-makers are structurally constrained in the number of choices they can make regarding courses of action. How decision-makers are chosen, how many there are- all with their own opinion-, and which bureaucratic process they must go through, all determine the facility with which they can declare war. The constitution of a state, which lays the legal foundation for its organisation, can be such a constraint: it codifies the form of election, the process of declaring war, e.t.c.

Understanding how these structural constraints affect a specific democracy’s probability to go to war improves DPT’s predictive power. Miriam Elman distinguishes four types of democratic governance leading to different behaviors at the international level: Westminster parliamentary and semi presidential are more majoritarian, and coalitional parliamentary and presidential less majoritarian. For each type, more or less hawkish and dovish executive and legislature lead to more or less peaceful or belligerent foreign policies. Additionally, domestic and international levels of analysis intersect when we consider the spread of domestic democratic norms to international institutions. If we admit the constructivist statement that structures and agents are co-constituted, then the liberal institutions that make up the international scene have been heavily influenced by the ideas of those states that created them, and in turn shape the states which accept their governance. The United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union, all have governing bodies which advocate for peaceful resolution of conflicts through diplomacy and negotiation: precisely the norms which proponents of DPT contend explain peace between democracies.

Finally, another potential path to evaluating and reinforcing the internal consistency of Democratic Peace theory is to strive for an ideal-type model of democracy as free as possible from bias – the essence of democracy, to use the Platonic term. In his theory, ideas have a nature which is absolute and unchangeable, and therefore perfect. Though humans immediately distort these ideas through perception and cognitive constraints, true knowledge comes from attaining the clearest depiction of the essence of ideas. Importantly, ideas are atemporal in the sense of not being attached or influenced by a time period. Uncovering a model of democracy with these characteristics is certainly very appealing because it would solve the problem of perceptual as well as historical bias. In practice, though, this enterprise assumes the existence of a perfect, essential model for democracy – as far as we know, more of a man-made concept than a natural occurrence- as well as the possibility for humans to rid their minds of their cognitive biases to attain it. The danger is ontological: to treat the field of International Relations and its objects of study as a purely scientific field like maths or physics and use the same hard science methods. Doesn’t the differential evolution of democracy across countries and time teach us something about what citizens and leaders have learned from experience, from trial-and-error? And can a theory of International Relations truly be atemporal and transcend our world and human interactions, when it studies precisely that?

“Most Presidents who followed [Wilson], Republicans and Democrats alike, understood we must promote democracy and market economics in the world-because it protects our interests and security; and because it reflects values that are both American and universal…” said Anthony Lake, National Security Advisor to Bill Clinton, in a speech given to John Hopkins University students in 1993. Democratic Peace Theory has been the basis for many a policy, and Bill Clinton made the promotion of democracy the third pillar of U.S. foreign policy during his tenure as President. It has informed practice- genuinely or not- to a degree other theories of International Relations have not. However, the very definition of what constitutes a democracy, the theory’s independent variable, is debated among academicians. Few agree on how to code each country. A democratic system is complex and multi-faceted, and different characteristics have had different importance overtime. Explanations for the empirical observation that democracies are more peaceful than other regimes, such as the role of democratic norms and public opinion, contain an element of constructed meaning- from a Constructivist ontology- as well as an element of perception- how a country is seen and not necessarily what it is. Refining these definitions and fully integrating the role of perception into the theory can lead to a reevaluation, and, if applicable, a reinforcement of Democratic Peace Theory.

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