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Democratic Peace Theory and the dangers of incomplete democratization

Updated on November 18, 2009

Since the 1990’s, past Presidential administrations have centered their foreign policy initiatives within the framework of the democratic peace theory, a theory that states that democracies do not wage war against each other. I seek to explain that the imposition of democracies on unstable regimes as a result of American foreign policy initiatives, if not done within certain parameters, will increase the chance of conflict between that regime and her neighbors.

The democratic peace theory was first set forth by Immanuel Kant and was further refined and elaborated upon by political scientists; it is the belief that democracies do not wage war with one another. Few Presidents, if any before the previous Bush administration, have so closely aligned their foreign policy, in such a theoretical approach; it remains to be seen if the Obama administration will continue this policy. Conventional wisdom, as well as scholarly opinion, holds that the spread and propagation of democracy will lead to world peace and security. It is as close to an empirical law as one can come within the field of Political Science. Both the past Clinton and Bush administrations had steadfastly maintained that the installment of democracy within unstable countries will lead to greater security for America and her allies, as it is believed that democracies will not wage war with one another. While this is certainly true for the most part concerning established democracies, the same cannot be said for emerging democracies.

It is the transitional phase between autocratic state and democratization that enhances the propensity for the newly democratic state to wage war. The reasons for this dangerous instability are not rooted simply in the normal instability that accompanies any change of government or ideology but rather in attempts to democratize without the needed and solid infrastructure of the tenets of a successful democracy, such as literacy, fair and free elections in which organized parties take part, a civilian-run military, as well as an established judicial system to keep order. Without these “restraining” factors, emerging democracies in unstable states have a greater propensity to wage war than to mark the transition peacefully. The overriding appeal to nationalism, resulting in a highly selective ruling class, may be a direct result of unstable and emerging democracies. The appeal to nationalism and its popularity rests in the fact that the ruling elite or the classes, who are more likely to be threatened by a fair and impartial democracy, will advocate nationalism in order to hold on to their dwindling power. The threat of loss of prestige and power holds sway in adhering to nationalism, as much as any altruistic desire to better the population as a whole. This in turn leads to conflict, both within the country at hand and with her neighbors. There are reasons why young transitional democracies are unstable and why such instability leads to conflict more often than peace. I will also demonstrate how using democratic peace as a foreign policy initiative (as defined by the current administration) is not only dubious but may lead to more severe consequences encountered before the advance of a democratic government within an authoritarian state.

The Clinton and the Bush administrations had expressed their endorsement for the spread of democracy as the surest path to world security, especially for the United States. American involvement in Haiti, in resulting breakaway provinces and countries following the collapse of communism, as well as increased involvement in the Middle East have resulted from adherence to this theory. However, the Bush Administration advanced this axiom to premier status within the arena of policy decisions. The Obama administration is involved in a conflict within Iraq, its primary goal (set by the Bush/Cheney administration) being the change of the repressive authoritarian regime that was overthrown there and its replacement with democracy. This is an erroneous understanding of the need to spread democracy; the tenet held so dear by political scientists has provisional demands that must be met in order to achieve the successful process of democratizing previously repressive or dangerous states. As Gerardo Munck and Carol Leff state, “The primary challenge is to explain how modes of transition matter by specifying causal mechanisms and the significance of these legacies.”

Review of the Literature

In their book Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War, Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder argue that it is extremely difficult to democratize repressive states and that such states, in the early stages of democratization, are much more likely to go to war, achieving quite a different conclusion from the one the Bush administration have embraced. Both Mansfield and Snyder bolster their argument by writing that “ill-prepared attempts to democratize weak states - such as the recent cases of Pakistan, Rwanda, and Burundi - may lead to costly warfare in the short run, and may delay or prevent real progress toward democracy over the long term.” Both authors argue that inherent dangers are present even in those countries which do have the necessary ingredients for a successful transition to democracy, but much less so that those that do not have the required template to achieve peaceful democracy.

States that are in the process of democratization are more prone to wage war because they lack the stability that political institutions provide in managing and ensuring democratic accountability. However, why are voter preferences within these transitioning states so belligerent? Why the embrace of nationalism or the desire to engage in conflict so readily? Within mature democracies, the costs of war are directly related to the voter. It is through the process of regular elections that the most important facet of democracy is realized, that of accountability. One of the first writers to realize the institutional barriers that stood in the way of unchecked aggression was Immanuel Kant who argued that while despotic kings could wage war with impunity and pass the costs to his subjects, democratic societies could remove their leaders at the ballot box if they embarked in needless wars. Only in a democratic society in which leaders are held accountable to its citizens, Kant argued, would the desire to wage war be checked by prudent self-restraint.

Contrast this against those regimes that have not yet fully democratized or are in the midst of the transition, which do not exhibit the same prudent restraint in engaging in conflict.

Dan Reiter and Allan Stam have shown in their work, Democracies at War, that mixed regimes (authoritarian and democratic), as well as transitional ones, have won only fifty eight percent of the wars that they have started, less than both the percentage of democracies (ninety three percent) and outright dictatorships (sixty percent). Why would a transitioning country’s constituents vote (indeed free elections are a major early component of democratizing states) in such an aggressive manner as to choose war? Ted Gurr (from his study, People verses States: Minorities at Risk in the New Century) found that democratizing states, in their transition to democracy, were especially susceptible to ethnic violence. Mansfield and Snyder argue that this inherent instability in the voter’s urge to support hostile action more readily within a regime transitioning to democracy is the result of a costs and benefits analysis that the average voter of a mature democracy will not indulge in. There is no restraint provided by institutional barriers within a democratizing state, instead, it is the mandate provided by ethnic and/or nationalist parties that seize power that determines the viability of acceptable risk, and more often than not, wrongly. Counter-arguments to this reasoning would suggest that transitional democracies should not be held in such testing light, since the mere idea of transition indicates an inherent instability, regardless of the safeguards in place. For example, do such emerging transitional democracies engage in war because of threats by their neighbors, either real or imagined, simply because of the fragility of such a transition? Are there economic factors involved in presaging such a transition?

Samuel Huntington points out that when political institutions are weak or ineffective, and the demand for mass participation within the electoral process is overwhelming within a democratizing regime, elites will ally or recruit other members of a ruling infrastructure in order to give the appearance of adherence to the democratic process but are in fact effectively buying out not only those that might challenge them but are escaping the necessary component of accountability to the governed. Unstable democratic institutions will also discourage rising players on the scene, as they feel their best chances for seizing power lay outside the scope of what may appear to them as a romantic idealistic failure. The conduit of nationalism, or the exercise in the rhetoric of state sponsored nationalism, is the modus operandi of choice for those that seek to manipulate public opinion while also evading accountability by the very people that they are deceiving. As in the case of Rwanda, the appeal to nationalism embroils the all-consuming war, either internally or externally.

Theory and Application: Autocratic Regimes

Which countries in their transition to democracy are more susceptible to the charge of having weak political institutions and inadequate safeguards to ensure a successful metamorphosis into a stable democracy? Primarily, it is the autocratic regimes that are repressive and that lack a supportive infrastructure. Autocratic regimes base their judicial responsibilities within repression. It is this repression that the state in question uses to deal with dissent, restrict information, as well as distribute the spoils of war to those constituents/parties within the regime that are essential to its survival. While autocracies can certainly exhibit long periods of longevity on occasion, their longevity is primarily based on authoritarian means such as repression, patronage and class distinction along ethnic/racial/tribal lines or adherence to a single party (such as Iraq’s Baath Party). When democratic processes are present but weak, the elites in power will seek to manipulate the processes in order to manipulate the emerging political system. None of these measures are dependent upon transitioning to a democracy; the autocracy lacks the basic infrastructure that is vital to sustaining a stable democracy such as a powerful judicial system, accountability and the ideology of compromise and adherence to a fair electoral process. When this democratization is incomplete, the ruling power finds it difficult to manage or control the emerging politicized masses and the various interest groups as well as trying to ensure its own survival. Additionally, economic cartels and conglomerates along with certain bureaucratic functions begin to divorce themselves from the collapsing government leaving the ruling elite few options. As the newly emerging democratic institutions are not yet powerful enough to fill the vacuum, the state loses its ability to enforce a strong internal policy to establish control. At this point of internal collapse, Huntington states, the autocracy splits into praetorian societies, with each individual group looking out for its own interests. Overall policy decisions are nonexistent as small deals brokering power are bartered within an autocratic market in which interests collide among the armed forces, students, the workers, the economic sector, etc. Powerful cartels are formed, usually along militarist, imperialist, and economic lines. These cartels can quickly produce conflict with outside interests.

Incomplete democratization within Germany

The incomplete democratization of Germany in the late nineteenth century provides a good example of the influence and destructive power of these renegade cartels, without regard to the nascent democratic institutions present within the country. The result of this incomplete democratization was the “marriage of iron and rye.” This militaristic union of both the industrial and agrarian sectors put into motion a chain of events and actions that pushed Germany closer, and eventually into, World War I. As the central government grew weaker, it began to mollify and appease certain growing factions within Germany. The growing steel industry aligned itself with the navy, demanding increased revenue and a program to increase the size of the German fleet. This in turn angered Great Britain, sparking a naval arms race. The central government also offered increased protectionist policies towards its aristocratic rye growers and the growing union of small farmers, which in turn angered Russia, an exporter of grain. Additionally, the German armed forces, especially the Army, were appeased through large expenditures for equipment, forcing an arms race with France, as well as public adoption of the Schlieffen Plan, an offensive strategy designed to knock France out of the coming war within six weeks. This drove France into an alliance with England, who only two years before had been on harsh terms with France. Powerful interest groups and cartels within Germany fought one another for control, each group afraid of being pushed aside and losing ground. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the eve of World War I, when Vienna, Germany’s Austrian ally, expressed exasperation as to who was exactly in charge within Germany - the armed forces general Helmuth von Moltke, or Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg. During the Balkan crisis in the summer of 1914, Moltke was advocating immediate Austrian mobilization against Russia while Bethmann-Hollweg was advocating a much more conciliatory tone, leading the Austrian government to ask, “Who rules in Berlin?”

Both Fareed Zakaria and Samuel Huntington have argued that transitions to democratic power only succeed when accompanied by the institution of a strong political and judicial infrastructure. Randolph Rummel has proposed re-defining what is known as a stable democracy as the following: a state "where those who hold power are elected in competitive elections with a secret ballot and wide franchise (loosely understood as including at least two thirds of adult male population); where there is freedom of speech, religion, and organization; and a constitutional framework of law to which the government is subordinate and that guarantees equal rights". In addition, it should be "well-established". He further substantiates Mansfield and Synder’s views concerning the instability of democratic transition by stating how much time should pass before the emerging democracy is considered stable: "Enough time has passed since its inception for peace-sufficient democratic procedures to become accepted and democratic culture to settle in. Around three years seems to be enough for this".

Imposition, on autocratic regimes, of a democratic system from the West (primarily the United States) as foreign policy leads to the emergence of unstable democratization, due to nationalism, which in turn leads to external conflict with her neighbors. The susceptibility of emerging democracies to go to war is that the ruling elite, the politicians of such a society, is in most cases insulated from accountability because of the emerging transition. Elections within democratic states hold every politician elected to office accountable for his decisions, whether going to war, failure to improve the economy, or even inappropriate statements within a multiplicity of areas including moral or ethical arenas. The ruling elite within autocratic and/or repressive regimes does not fear this accountability except within extenuating circumstances, such as the threat of an emerging democratic system in which they would be held accountable. It is at this point that many of these politicians in emerging democracies will cloak their policy aims within nationalism or ethnic and racial ideology.

Methodological approach

Several examples have bolstered the argument that emerging democracies will indeed embrace extremist nationalism, which leads to conflict with her neighbors. Yugoslavia, within her transition to democracy after the fall of communism, experienced a bloody war crossing ethnic lines, propagated by nationalist leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, both of whom gained power through the democratic process of free elections, leading to the bloodiest civil war in Europe in the past fifty years. Ethiopia and Eritrea went to war against each other during their own democratic transition. As Jack Snyder writes, "Democratization produces nationalism when powerful elites within a nation need to harness popular energies to the tasks of war and economic development yet want to avoid surrendering real political authority." It is precisely the advent of free elections that gives rise to ethnic class nationalism. Snyder uses examples from Nazi Germany in which Hitler was elected, to Vladimir Zhirinovsky getting a full twenty five percent of the electorate in the young Russian democracy

Elites within a collapsing autocratic regime also fear the rise of an internal democracy for fear they will be held accountable for past crimes of repression and corruption. Fearing such reprisals from a resurgent political movement such as democracy, they are much more willing to gamble their positions on re-establishing their power or resurrecting it in some fashion. In order to accomplish this, present ruling elite attempts to rally public opinion through perceived threats from outsiders as in the case of Argentina in the Falkland War against Great Britain, in which General Leopoldo Galtieri sought to postpone or eradicate the call for free elections through nationalistic fervor, resulting in the attempted seizure of the Falkland Islands. This appeal to nationalism allows the ruling elite to quiet dissent under the pretense of protecting the nation from harmful interests. Nationalism has no ideological restraints; it can be as readily used by Islamic extremists, aristocrats, juntas, revolutionaries and bureaucrats within the political spectrum to establish exclusionary rule. Additionally, the economic arena can be affected as well. The appeals to nationalism by the ruling elite usually involve the rejection of liberal economic policies (or in the case of Idi Amin, the rejection of foreign business interests within Uganda, leading to an almost total economic collapse). This economic isolationism is fueled by the fear of foreign intervention through the conduit of international business. Such contact, seen through the eyes of the paranoid state, is dangerous in possibility of greater contact with the outside world that would invite prying eyes into the state’s attempts to control the opposition. Research also seems to substantiate that incomplete democratic transitions are just as likely to lead to the re-establishment or introduction of an autocracy.

Civic nationalism

Stable and mature democracies do not go to war with one another or even enter war haphazardly without going through several safeguards inherent in almost every democratic system. Evaluative institutions that monitor and scrutinize the policy decisions of the government, and the dissemination of information through the media and the legitimacy of civic nationalism, help sustain a democracy. Civic nationalism is based on loyalty and adherence to the political institutions themselves instead of an individual or distinctive class or culture. The presence of such civic loyalty prevents the rise of competing nationalistic platforms that seek to dominate or put forth a particular rule based on ideology, religion, or ethnicity. However, civic nationalism is the hardest political platform to develop because of its strict adherence and loyalty to participatory political institutions - these institutions must be established before the citizens can develop such loyalty. The open scrutiny within every stable democracy encourages debate and accountability and the propagation of ideas.

American policy

Current American policy concerning the policy of nation building within Afghanistan and Iraq should concentrate on the creation of those institutional infrastructures discussed earlier. Special consideration should be given to those Islamic countries in which the populace is overwhelmingly supportive of restrictive policies based on Islamic beliefs, which would make the implementation of democracy difficult, if not outright unfeasible. The establishment of Shia law would prove antithetical to the tenets of democracy.

The Bush administration believed that the introduction and establishment of democracy within the Middle East would help to eventually eradicate the threat of terrorism and increase global security especially as it applied to the United States. Perversely, democratization within the Islamic world might actually increase the number of terrorist attacks. The United States saw early warning signals of this contradiction with democratic elections in Palestine. Suicidal terrorist attacks are now primarily, if not exclusively, conducted against full and/or partial democracies. Non-democratic states which are not accountable to their populations can simply “ignore” these attacks and adopt a hard line against the aggressors, resulting in even a more severe repression, as in the case of the Mubarak regime in Egypt. However, democratic states are accountable to a public that is much more sensitive to the issue of violence and other extreme acts, making the possibility of political concessions granted toward extremists (in order to reduce the exposure to such attacks) much more likely as the democratic host government is persuaded to negotiate in response to a cost weary public. Extremists and other groups who conduct such terrorist attacks know quite well the persuasive / bargaining power that their attacks may grant when conducted against a democratic society as opposed to an autocratic one.

In the case of the recent and ongoing Iraqi War, one must take seriously the prospect that present U.S. policy may create a monster that is worse than it had encountered in the years before. There are political scientists who argue that the United States, as well as many other democratic peace proponents, are the products of the particular crisis at hand. Two political scientists at Princeton University, Joanne Gowa and Henry S. Farber, argue that peace among democracies has only been statistically significant since World War II. In their view, it was the threat of the aggressive policies of the Soviet Union, not democracy that bound them together. Joanne Gowa has especially condemned the current Bush policy in promoting democratic peace, claiming that democratic peace is held together by collective security concerns and not by any shared rigid ideological adherence between democracies. With that, promoting democracy as a foreign policy initiative is a dubious foundation, some suggest. No evidence exists of a democratic peace before the advent of World War II. In fact, statistical evidence shows that democratic societies were involved in more wars (both colonial and imperialistic) that any other regime type from 1816 to 1945. Gowa’s argument is that the United States should abandon further attempts at establishing democratic regimes and instead build coalitions based on economic and strategic interests, regardless of regime type. Other researchers have found similar results, noting that while the United States has not specifically engaged in open warfare with other democracies, she has acted covertly to destabilize or overthrow other democracies such as in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, and Chile in 1973 and in Nicaragua in 1985.

Additional critiques

There are though other critiques as to the validity of the democratic peace theory, and while the ones presented below are not the primary focus of this article, it bears notice to present their criticism as no less valid than what I have already presented. It is somewhat anomalous to state that democracy causes peace as there is simply not enough evidential criteria to establish this as a statistical probability much less fact. Democracies have been shown to be war like and they are not necessarily more peaceful than their autocratic counterparts. Deconstructing this critique to a single axiom, it could be shown simply that mature democratic societies are not peaceful to one another simply because they share the same political infrastructure, but rather because they are similar. In fact, the same can be demonstrated for countries with comparable political systems. There is less chance of war between states that are democratic as much as there is a reduced probability of war between states that are not democratic. This particular critique has caused several political scientists to question the empirical value of analysis done on what may amount to nothing but a generalized similarity. It is argued that it is useless to analyze subsets of states, which are very similar. Several authors have pointed out that only strong stable regimes, regardless of democratic or autocratic templates may be the only conclusion drawn in establishing the possibility of war.

Much of the discrepancy that exists within this field and the controversy it causes is a direct result of the methodology used. Errol Henderson for example, uses economic interdependence, geographic proximity, and similarity between political regimes as main variables in examining the impact of the democratic peace theory. Henderson finds that the proposition of the democratic peace theory is simply invalid once these factors are taken into account.

The “similarity” critique is a relatively new field of research but with simple parameters. It measures as to what effect political similarity has on state-to-state relations. If it can be shown that similarity is simply the overriding determinant in establishing lower probabilities of war, the democratic peace theory is reduced to an argument for replication within the process of nation building, regardless of regime type.


What then can be said about the Democratic Peace process as a viable theory? While scholarly consensus will display a wide spectrum as to what is beneficial about it (the majority believing it is conducive to global security), certain factors must be established before a stable democracy can be created. There must be the implementation of the proper mechanisms before such a democracy can be built. They include strong civilian control of the military and the economy, an independent judiciary, and protection for both opposition parties and candidates as well as the media and the access to information. The creation of these infrastructural institutions should precede the call to free elections or at least accompany them. Additionally, high literacy rates and relatively high per capita income enabled the host country’s population to build and maintain strong administrative bureaucracies and safeguards to protect the democratic process. Trusted institutions such as the media (in all its forms, print, television, radio) help enable a smooth process of democratization from a collapsing autocratic state to a democratic one.


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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      This is a fantastic hub!

      Ron from

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      This is an outstanding Hub, I would guess of the political Hubs the best. Certainly the best I have read here.

      I just hope that it gets the readership it deserves.

      Love and peace


    • earnestshub profile image


      8 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      What a brilliant and authorative hub. I wish all political comment was as mature and well rounded.

    • Allan Bogle profile imageAUTHOR

      Allan Bogle 

      9 years ago

      "The fact is that it's impossible to 'flick a switch' and transfer from autocracy to democracy. So we can expect countries with democratic veneers but autocratic elements during the transition phase."--You are spot on pseudonymous. A transitinal regime is simply that. Our foreign policy experts seem to have trouble grasping the concept that a nation is not fully democratic simply because it held free elections. Yet this is the benchmark that supporters of this policy have used, that the advent of elections is a miraculous cure that will seamlessly transform an autocratic regime into a democratic one. History says otherwise.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      i think of america as a corporate dictatorship

    • Pseudonymous profile image


      9 years ago

      Wow, thanks for posting this authoratative and insightful hub. Amidst all the 'Obama is stupid' hubs this is a real gem.

      I've always been fascinated by democratic (and autocratic) political transitions. I think the key problem with much discussion in this field is that the term 'democracy' can be used to cover countries with massively different conditions and differing 'quality' of the democratic process. The fact is that it's impossible to 'flick a switch' and transfer from autocracy to democracy. So we can expect countries with democratic veneers but autocratic elements during the transition phase.

      Clearly the most interesting example at the moment is the possibility of democratisation in China. While this doesn't look likely in the immediate future, there are so many potential flashpoints that could lead to another major internal event that could in turn lead to fundamental political change.

      However, as your hub points out, there is no reason to assume that this would be a good thing for the world. The chances are that China would elect a nationalist party of some kind which could be even more belligerant towards Taiwan than is currently the case. Plus there is always the case of backsliding towards autocracy, as was the case in Russia, if effective democracy could not be established.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      isn't the reason democracies dont go to war with each other because they have nuclear weapons?

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      America has destroyed democracies many many more times than it has tried to install them and only uses democracy promotion as fig leaf for regime change to something more conjucive to their national interests.

      America and UK are democracies and yet they often go to war, and continue those wars even when the electorate are opposed.


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