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Democracy – A Condition for Peace?

December 6, 2014

Earlier this week I published an essay about why military power was very important in keeping peace. I mentioned in that essay that I had only a 1000 word limit, and thus my capacity to address democracy was limited. Today I want to talk about whether democracy is a condition for peace, in what situations democracy may act to peace, what situations democracy increases instability, and whether – to use some jargon – Democratic Peace Theory is true.

My argument for today can be summarised as:

Stable democracies are a force for peace in the long term. However, democracy should not be spread by force as democracy can exacerbate short term instability. Furthermore, democracy does not automatically ensure peace. Democracy is something that is one of many factors that makes future peace more likely, but military power is still prominent in the short term. However, in the longer term, it is developments in areas other than military power that make peace more likely.

Does Democracy Promote Peace?

Lets be clear – democracies are not pacifist. They fight wars. They have a penchant for fighting wars of liberation against authoritarian regimes, in fact. They also have a penchant for fighting wars that are not necessarily democratic. So lets get eternal peace out of our thoughts.

The argument is not that democracies are peaceful. Its that they are more peaceful than other types of government.

One strong point of evidence here is that stable democracies have never gone to war against each other. In general – though this is a disputed point – democracies are generally more peaceful.

The question though is why? Take Europe post-WWII. War didn’t break out between traditional rivals. But was this because of democracy? Realists would argue that it was the common enemy of the USSR that united Europe together and brought peace. Democracy was coincidental. Others would argue that it was trade and prosperity that created a deterrent against war. The Marshall Plan of the US was to rebuild Europe, for instance. Others would argue it was domestic anti-war politics – there’s our pacifist view. Really, do we know it was democracy that kept the peace?

I mean, if by democracy we refer to countries like the US or Great Britain, yes, they are democratic countries. But they are also countries that are rich, have rule of law, have allies, are developed… and these conditions bring stability. So, maybe its these conditions, and not democracy that promotes peace.

So, what are the arguments for democracy promoting peace?

The first argument is that democracies share common values, and that this similarity in culture, history etc. promotes peace. Democracies may have rule of law (these are not the same!) , freedom of expression etc. These shared values create alliances, and explain why democracies don’t go to war with each other. Its not a very strong argument in my view, though I do think that there is a reasonable correlation between democracy and values like the rule of law. Liberalism, for instance, is defined in part by its political pluralism, and this overlaps with democracy and universal suffrage.

The second argument is more interesting, and is that the institution of democracy moderates high risk decisions. Citizens are aware of the dangers of war and its cost. In a democracy, they are represented in the institutions of government, so government is more cautious. No personal wars of pride or conquest, no militarist blood hounds. No wars the people don’t support. So the argument goes.

This is sort of true, sort of not.

The idea is that militarism doesn’t arise if democracy reigns (eg. Militarism in 1930s Japan was the failure of democracy). Domestic politicians are meant to rein in adventurous military leaders. This, I think, is not a very good assumption to make. I’d argue that the military have an internal professionalism and code of conduct which restrains them. I’d also argue that experience teaches. The person least desiring to unleash violence is he who knows the consequences – he who has seen comrades killed in action. Indeed, the military is not necessarily eager to fight wars. We say that civilians fear the consequences of wars. That too applies to the military, except it applies much more – the military are the ones in the fighting!

Finally, democracies are beholden to the will of the people, for good or ill. Unstable democracies like Weimar Germany helped foster nationalism! Furthermore, domestic politicians can instigate wars by themselves – eg. The war on Iraq in the early 2000s.

Ultimately, I think that democracy does have some positive impact on the peace-building process, and that giving the reins to domestic politicans is a good idea, though we should always be listening to the military. If the military is against a war it should not be pursued, unless we have extremely serious reason to doubt their conclusions.

So, democracy is a good that promotes peace in the long run. Should we spread it?

Should we Spread Democracy to Other Nations?


I have agreed so far that democracy spreads peace. The key caveat is that it spreads peace in the long run. Democracies do not fight each other, and their institutions moderate against violence. These reasons are powerful, and why many wish to spread democracy to the wider world.

But all this takes significant time to develop, and the process is fraught with risks.

Bringing about ‘regime change’ and instituting democracy forgets that in the short term democracies provide no peace. Indeed, wars of liberation can simply enflame nationalistic tendencies and arm extremists. Its also not a task that a military can easily achieve – militarieslike more specific goals. Furthermore, the decentralisation of power via political pluralism creates significant instability because it creates a power vacuum – there is no order, and the new government is a product of vested interests wishing to protect their own interests… a classic security dilemma. Indeed, research shows that its not the first election that threatens peace in a country, but the first handover of power afterwards (eg. The 2nd election sometimes). Democracy, here, has simply split power among different factions, and they squabble for scraps.

In short, democracy can greatly contribute to short term instability in the face of sudden regime change. It should not be pursued lightly.

Note I said lightly. I firmly believe that democracy can be enforced, but its an extremely dangerous and lengthy process. You can’t just win the military fight and destroy an authoritarian government militarily and declare democracy. You’ve then got to completely recreate or modify existing institutions (though not destroy them, eg. Americans in Iraq) . Meanwhile, you’ve got to maintain order. The Americans spent 10 years in Iraq doing this. That was too long for the public.

But the military knew it was nowhere near enough.

The military demanded many more troops to police Iraq, because it was order that had to be maintained. And 10 years isn’t enough to enshrine democracy in a country. It must be at least a generation. You’ve got to create an institutional process memory – a memory og government as democracy. People in Afghanistan have had no unified government for decades. To recreate unity and order takes decades. People must feel that democracy has been, and always will be – that it has existed for generations. If you only enshrine democracy for 10 years, “it’s the Americans” pulling the strings, so some would say, and democracy flounders after the US fallout. It doesn’t help that 10 years isn’t enough time to educate the populace, build infrastructure and reform the army, so as to combat extremism.

To look at installing democracy by force, look at colonialism. Whatever its faults, the British Empire instituted seeds of democracy in many places. And how long did they hold onto colonies for? Not a decade, not a generation, but many, many generations. And it didn’t always work.

Of course, much research has been done, and we could do it better now. But it still remains that enforcing democracy is a very difficult task.

My rule of thumb for democracy and a nation is this. You can butter the bread to make it palatable, but you can’t force somebody to eat it.


Democracy acts as a long term force for peace. When it comes to building the peace of tomorrow, democracy matters. But democracy should not be enforced as it creates instability in the short term. Furthermore, many other factors besides democracy keep the peace, not least the military who are required to provide stability to new democracies. So yes, democracy is a condition for peace, but only in the future, and only if we do things right


From → Foundations

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  1. Paths to a Durable Peace | The Holistic Thinker

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