Democracies at War?

Ralph Zuljan

Whether or not democracies will go to war with other democracies is an intensely debated topic in the study of international relations. The philosopher Immanuel Kant originally suggested that democracies do not make war on other democracies in the essay "Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch" penned in 1795. Acceptance of this philosophical assertion might have important ramifications for the policies of democratic leaders and the future of warfare.

Historical evidence is unclear on whether or not a democratic state will make war on another democracy. Certainly the post-World War II liberal democracies of Europe and North America have not fought against each other. Of course, there are many sociopolitical reasons for this regional peacefulness, beyond the similarity of state political institutions, and the time frame is relatively short. Nonetheless, some analyses suggest that no democracy has ever engaged in war against another democracy.

If the proposition is true then, hypothetically, once all the states in the world are democratic, there will be no more wars. Therefore, it may be in the best interests of the democracies to force democracy upon the non-democratic states of the world for the sake of world peace in the long run. The social and economic benefits in the long-term will easily outweigh the short-term costs of imposing a democratic world order. All the resources democratic states, like the United States, currently expend on maintaining armed forces could be diverted to peaceful purposes. Such is the promise of a world in which democracies do not go to war with each other.

However, if the claim of a peaceful democratic future is false, then the justification of all regime changing conflicts fought by democracies falls back on the national interests that have traditionally been accepted as the basis for such wars. There is no reason to believe that imposing democratic regimes on non-democratic states will alter their international behavior. The appropriate policy for regime changes is to impose a government amenable to the interests of the countries concerned. Whether the new institutions of government are democratic is not relevant.

With the emergence of a unipolar world order, dominated by American military power, it is American expectations of regime changes forced upon other countries that is of greatest interest. Several of the international interventions and wars fought by the United States, including the one in Iraq, have been explicitly justified as part of the realization of the ideal of a peaceful democratic world order. Many Americans still believe in that ideal. Various American presidents have energetically pursued it as a goal of their foreign policy and there have been spectacular successes and frustrating failures. Postwar Germany and Japan are widely pointed to as examples of success; US entry into the First World War is the prime example of failure. Iraq is the present test of the policy of democratization. Success or failure in Iraq has has potentially broad implications for American attitudes to the relationship between democratization and peace in coming decades.

In that time, the emergence of a relatively unified Europe and the further development of India suggests at least two democratic world powers with the socioeconomic potential to challenge American military predominance. Whether or not the hypothesis that democracies are peaceful is believed to be true will have a direct impact on American policy towards these new poles of international order since there are many plausible disputes with Europe and India. If America remains confident about the inherent peacefulness of other democracies, there is no reason to prepare for war with other democracies. Should that belief fail to continue to have resonance in the US, it may well be reasonable to expect preparations for war with emerging democratic challengers. The world will be a very different place if American faith in the democratic peace is lost.

As with all faiths, proof of a democratic peace does not exist. The possibility of internal upheaval destroying democratic institutions in any particular state may be the most significant weakness concerning the question of democratic peacefulness. Democracy is a form of government. Even if a state has democratic institutions now, that does not guarantee it will be a democracy in the future. Consider that Germany in the 1920s was undeniably a democracy, for example. In 1933 the democratically elected Reichstag chose to suspend democracy and hand over power to a tyrant -- Adolf Hitler. Six years later, the bloodiest war in history was initiated by that dictator.

There can be no certainty that a future generation of Americans, Europeans or Indians will not hand power over to a tyrant who will do likewise. While under such circumstances the proposition that democracies do not fight other democracies would retain credibility, that would provide little solace to the surviving democracies. Prudence dictates that democratic states remain prepared for war in the foreseeable future. However, faith in perpetual peace among democracies will certainly determine the scale of those preparations.

Originally published in "Articles On War" at on February 1, 2007.

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