I’ve been reading Kissinger’s ‘World Order’ recently and in the opening pages much is made of the impact of pluralism on peace within the international system. In light of recent discussions within Parliament about potential conflict in Syria where we see a discussion, essentially, of the likelihood of a victorious outcome, I am reminded of some of the discussion around Democratic Peace Theory that I engaged with whilst in Oxford.
Democratic peace theory is a central strand of the study of International Relations. It initially posited that democracies are, on the whole, reluctant to engage in armed conflict. Later versions revised this view by stating that democratic systems produce just as much armed conflict as other systems, they are just less likely to wage war on other democracies. The acceptance of this theory has brought a call for further democratisation within the World Order to produce, at it were, a ‘social peace’.
Any early proponent of DPT was philosopher Emmanuel Kant in his essay, The Perpetual Peace (1795), where he noted that republics were less likely to be aggressors. Thus a world comprised of republics, and therefore lacking aggressors, would be peaceful. This view persisted through the 19th Century through proponents such as Alexis de Tocqueville in ‘Democracy in America’ (1834-1840) and then was rigorously tested in the late 20th Century through Small & Singer (1976) who doubted the statistical significance of the relationship between democracies and peace and then Doyle (1983) who associated peace with the ‘liberalism’ aspect of democracy (as many countries can be called democratic, but certainly not liberal or peaceful; see Russia).
As academic debate churned the subject in the 20th and now 21st century, a central pivot has been between the ‘monadic’ and ‘dyadic’ versions of the theory. ‘Monadic’, as in democracies remain peaceful regardless of the system of other countries. ‘Dyadic’ in the sense that peace is determined by the presence of a democratic ‘dyad’.
From my own experience in university studying International Relations I’ve yet to find a paper that focuses on the comparative assessment ability of democracies versus other systems. By this, I mean that democracies are, by their nature, better able to compare themselves versus potential competitors – thus making war against more powerful entities less likely. Democracies may also be more concerned with this power imbalance in the sense that decision-makers in a democratic system are more accountable should they lose any conflict – thus creating inherent risk-aversion within the foreign policy of a democracy. I would welcome the opportunity to read a paper that discusses this angle so please do point one out if I’m missing an obvious part of the literature. In my head, this strand of thought bridges the gap between the monadic and dyadic versions of democratic peace theory. Firstly it shows the ‘monadic’ aspect by allowing democracies to be more ‘able’ in choosing whether to engage in armed conflict (lessening the probability of war in some cases). Secondly, I observe that, on the whole, democratic countries tend to be more prosperous and, in most cases, better equipped for war, with larger military budgets in absolute terms.
These two thoughts together would mean that if a democracy is contemplating armed conflict versus another nation, the probability of conflict is inversely proportional to the perceived military power of the opponent, or more simply the probability of that opponent winning the conflict (as in a supranational world order many entities have little military might, but tactics which lend themselves to success. See Vietcong, Taliban, ISIS). Then, the probability of that country winning is proportional to the likelihood of its political system being democratic.
Thus we have an observation where democratic dyads are less likely to engage in armed conflict but a mechanic which roots this in terms of power and domestic politics, rather than through anything intrinsic to democracy or liberalism as systems of politics.
This is certainly not a mind-blowing result, and isn’t going to enlighten anybody more versed in International Relations. But such an observation seems like an interesting way to frame the sudden reticence to engage in conflict from some Western countries considering the bloodlust we saw for conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.