Man, State and the Myth of Democratic Peace

Atul Bharadwaj, Research Fellow, IDSA




This article examines the role of 'democracy pacifist' theory advocated by the West in international relations. 'Democratic peace' is an idea, which is closely related to political globalization. It is an instrument ostensibly to create a politically homogenous world. 'Democratic peace' is merely an adjunct of the American foreign policy based on the vision of the 'two worlds', and is just another tool in the hands of western powers to challenge the sovereignty of the states in the era of globalisation. The paper also attempts to understand the growing tendency among the West to target individual leaders in various countries for human rights violations. A closer scrutiny of the American policy suggests that its main function is to reform the rogue states by targeting first the territory of that state through an armed attack and then blaming the leader of that distraught nation for all the destruction and war. Therefore, it is apparent that what seems to touch the heart, soul and the basic interest of the American foreign policy is Man, State and Democratic Wars. It is in this light that the study of democratic peace or war gains added significance in the post-Cold War world, where the absolutes of state sovereignty are being constantly challenged.


      "The anarchical condition inherent in any system of multiple sovereignty constitutes one of the prerequisites of international conflict: without it there could be no international relations, peaceful or non-peaceful, the division of the world      into sovereign states is a precondition for international cooperation as well as      conflict."


Arnold Wolfers1


      In a largely unipolar world, the American foreign policy is beginning to deal directly with the individuals as international players, thus subverting the seventeenth century concepts of nation-state. The neo-liberal ideology is fully aware of the inherent dangers to the sustainability of globalisation, which according to Karl Polanyi's 'double movement' theory, "encapsulates unprecedented market         expansion entailing massive social dislocation and a sharp political reaction in             the form of society's demands on the state to counteract deleterious effects of the market".2

      Therefore, the management of globalisation-induced international anarchy is the prime concern of the core countries. This management of anarchy is envisaged to be carried out by establishing a global hegemonic world order in two ways.  As a first step the core countries gain the leverage to intervene in peripheries on the pretext of lack or paucity of democracy. Subsequently, the core country directly targets the          individual leaders in the developing world for violating the human rights. By doing this the core country intends to control both the war-producing elements identified by Kenneth Waltz.

      The realist school of thought in international politics contends that anarchy gives international politics its distinctive flavour. In the absence of any central body governing the world, each nation works primarily for its survival and is compelled to seek 'self- help'.3 As Kenneth Waltz says, "In self-help systems, the pressure of competition weighs more heavily than ideological preferences or internal political pressures."4

      In a departure from the realist paradigm, the liberals advocate the 'democratic peace' theory, which states that democracies do not fight wars with one                 another. According to this theory, democratic dyad refrain from using force against each other, because they are accountable to their citizens. However, the democratic          peace theorists, do not claim that democracies are less war prone than non-democracies.

      The end of the Cold War has given a new lease of life to the scholars who have been assiduously propagating the peaceful attributes of a democracy. Most of these scholars and researchers resort to coding various states as autocratic, 'ripe democracy', or 'half-baked democracy' to empirically prove the absence of wars between democracies. For the proponents of democratic peace, a democracy's cause in its fight against a non-democratic nation is always just and devoid of any bad intentions.


America and Democratic War


      The Americans proclaim that democracies do not go to war with each other.5 From Woodrow Wilson to Bill Clinton, democracy has been the ideological backbone of the American foreign policy. The tactics adopted by the various presidents may have differed but their strategy has been the same, i.e. to promote democracies in the world and to prevent any competing ideology from making an impact on              people's mind. According to the former American Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, "majority of the American leaders were convinced then as they were now that America has a special responsibility to spread its values as its contributions to world peace."6

      The idea that peace depends above all on promoting democratic institutions has been central to American thought till the present day. The Americans consider Woodrow Wilson's presidency a watershed. Wilson's vision accorded some semblance of direction and morality to their foreign policy, in the wake of the emotional appeal of Communism and the European concept of raison d'etat, which asserted that states, actions can only be judged by their success. As early as 1915, Wilson envisioned American security interests to encompass the security of all mankind. He justified the American declaration of war on Germany as the war for democracy. Wilson argued, "We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling towards them but one of sympathy and friendship. It was not upon their impulse that their government acted in entering this war. It was not with their previous knowledge or approval. It was a war determined upon in the old, unhappy days when peoples were nowhere consulted by their rulers and wars were provoked and waged in the interests of dynasties."7 Echoing Wilson, Harry S. Truman said, "Totalitarian regimes imposed on free peoples ....undermine the foundation of international peace and hence security of the United States".8 However, one fails to understand the volatility of the American love for 'people', which vanishes as soon as the war begins to kill civilians. The collateral damage and killing of civilians is explained in terms of 'military necessity'. More than 1000 civilians were killed in the American endeavours to catch Osama bin Laden 'dead or alive' in Afghanistan. The starvation of innocents in Iraq is of much lower concern to the US than the removal of Saddam Hussein. Therefore, the people of Iraq would have to bear till their leader becomes an American 'kind of guy'. Similar apathy towards the welfare of the people was witnessed in Kosovo where the NATO bombing caused an unmanageable refugee crisis in 1999. However, once the USA begins to smell victory in a war, it brings people back into its strategy and directs its overwhelming wrath against their leader. This is done to prove two things. First, the war being waged is for a just cause and to free the nation from the clutches of a despot. Secondly, to impress upon the people of a bombed country that the ideals of liberalism are best suited for the growth of humanity.

      To understand the American mind one needs to take a close look at Kenneth Waltz's assertions on war. Waltz in his classical work, Man, State and War: A Theoretical Analysis (1959) makes a tripartite classification on the causes of war. He has identified three levels of analysis. These levels are the level of man, the state, and the international system. According to Waltz the first major level of analysis covers the man. He considers human nature and the personality traits of individual leaders to be one of the major causes of war. The second image considers the immediate cause of war to be inherent in the internal political structure of a state. Waltz's two levels are based on the premise that the decision-makers of a country are human beings and what they think and do can be imputed to the state. The third level of Waltz's analysis suggests that 'international anarchy' is the underlying or what he calls 'the permissive' cause of war.9

      On assuming the office of United States Secretary of State, Colin Luther Powell articulated his policy stance in the following words: "The United States will care for like-minded countries that believe in and practice the virtues of democracy and free enterprise. Those nations that are poorly led by failed leaders pursuing failed policies that will give them failed results had better watch out."10 A closer scrutiny of Powell's statement suggests that the primary mission of the American policy is to reform the rogue states by targeting first the territory of that state through an armed attack and then blaming the leader of that distraught nation for all the destruction and war. Therefore, it is apparent that what seems to touch the heart, soul and the basic interest of the American foreign policy is Man, State and Democratic Wars. It is in this light that the study of democratic peace or war gains added significance in the post-Cold War world where the absolutes of state sovereignty are being constantly challenged.

      The post-Cold War world with an increasing number of internal conflicts offers America suitable ground to practice its foreign policy objectives. In today's world it is difficult to argue that America is not the most powerful nation in the world. There is no state which can militarily challenge it. By and large most of the nation-states have been made to reconcile to the fact that there is no alternative (TINA) to liberalism and democracy. Therefore, any nation, which tends to follow anything other than what has been prescribed by the West, draws the wrath of the international (western) community. Furthermore, by projecting the leader of that country as the villain or a Hitler in the whole drama, the fight is turned against a single man rather than the nation. First, it was Saddam Hussein, then Milosovic and now it is Osama bin Laden. In fact, the direct involvement of an individual minus the state makes the task of justification for the use of force, much simpler.

Democracy and War


      The idea that democracy is the best bulwark against war and democracies maintain mutual peace, is very old: Kant (1795) in his essay Perpetual Peace had argued that republics would be less inclined to war than monarchies, because representatives of people would treat wars as hunting expeditions.11 According to Kant, in democratic states, the general public opinion will oppose war due to the costs that the mass population would be compelled to bear, hence leaders who make decisions for war will be removed and replaced with more pacifist individuals. Autocratic leaders, Kant reasons, do not hold power on the basis of election and therefore are unconstrained in pursuing a belligerent and violent foreign policy.12

      Those who argue in favour of democratic peace offer two explanations in support of their hypothesis. One explanation hinges on the political culture of the democratic state (i.e. non-violent norms). The other explanation focuses on the democratic political structure (i.e. decision-making constraints).13 The crux of the first explanation offered by the normative school is that the decisions in a democratic polity are arrived at through consensus and compromise. The decision-makers who resolve their dispute through non-violent methods at home display a propensity to apply a similar methodology when dealing with conflicts with other democracies. This quality of peaceful resolution of conflicts makes the democratic leadership more peace loving as compared to their counterparts in autocratic states. As a result of the common values which two democracies share, they tend to resolve their disputes through non-violent means.

      The second justification, which is based on structural or institutional factors, posits that the pressure of various groups on the government imposes certain restrictions on a democratic government on engagement in war. According to Kant, an absolute ruler could plunge his country into war on a whim and expect to be largely insulated from its effects in his everyday life. This argument of Kant may hold good in the case of Saddam Hussein. However, one should not forget that  USA, one of the largest democracies in the world, is the pioneer in the use of nuclear weapons. When the bombs were dropped, the American public was completely oblivious of their government's decision to use weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

      Moreover, recent history gives many examples in which the compulsions of election in a democratic set up have led to a display of jingoistic instincts. In most democracies, popular support for the head of the government invariably goes up after the use of force. The dwindling popularity of Mrs. Indira Gandhi and former Pakistan Prime Minister Z.A. Bhutto in 1971 received a fillip at the end of the India-Pakistan conflict. Similarly, Margaret Thatcher was hailed as an effective leader after the 1982 Falklands conflict. Furthermore, the decisions and debates on the nuclear issues in all countries irrespective of the type of regime is always shrouded in secrecy. In a democratic country like India, the national interest dictated that the Pokhran II, nuclear tests be kept a secret except from a few important ministers in the government. George W. Bush Jr. who won the US presidential race with a wafer thin majority had no qualms about announcing the continuation of the National Missile Defense (NMD) Programme. Therefore, one could safely argue, that nationalism which favours war is actually nurtured by democratic norms as well as institutions. Moreover, democracies are also known to use one of the strongest pillars of freedom-the media-to achieve their war objectives. The dictation to the much-touted free media in the USA by the government is a well-known fact. The rebuke which the US media received for showing unedited video clippings of Osama bin Laden during the Afghan war is a case in point. The September 11, 2001 attacks on American cities exposed the fragile relationship between security and liberty. Commenting on Bush's push to patriotic action, The Washington Post wrote, "After the attacks of September 11, many predicted that the demands of domestic security would eventually clash with traditional American reverence for civil liberties. Few predicted that the clash would come down so decisively on the anti-liberal side."14

      Note that, public opinion in America, which favours a nuclear test ban, has been shunted aside. A 1988, 'Americans talk security' poll for example, revealed that 85 per cent of those polled favoured a test ban, with 67 per cent 'strongly' favouring it. George Perkovich has pointed out that this was before the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union had collapsed.15 He further suggests that, in the wake of the present geopolitical scenario in the world, "the USA must devise a decision-making process that befits a great democracy. Some call for a direct referendum to decide such issues. If this is too simplistic, citizens should at least be given the opportunity to hear all presidential and congressional candidates explicitly debate the testing issue."16 It is a well established fact that defence is still considered to be a 'holy cow' in all countries of the world. Citizenry is rarely taken into confidence on security issues. Had citizenry ever been consulted on the question of war then the world would never have experienced 416 wars between 1816-1980. One of the finest examples of people's solidarity against war was witnessed at the time of war between Prussia and France in 1870. The war was denounced both by the German and French workers as a crime committed by their respective dynasties. However, the protests were brutally curbed and Germany went ahead and annexed Alace- Loraine from France.

      Of the 416 wars between sovereign states recorded between 1816-1980 only 12 were fought between democracies.17  Such empirical findings are cited to support the idea that democracies rarely go to war with one another. The empirical basis of the findings is largely the behaviour of democracies at the end of the twentieth century. As Bruce Russett notes, "Only twelve to fifteen states qualified as democracies at the end of the nineteenth century. The empirical significance of the rarity of war between democracies emerges only in the first half of the nineteenth century." According to Thomas Schwartz and Kiron K. Skinner, if one uses the high bar to gauge the democratic characteristics in various countries, then the result is that very few could qualify as democracies until the Cold War era.18

      The growth of democracies gained momentum after the end of World War II, when many of the third world countries also embraced democratic form of polity. In the Cold War era or during the World War II, anti-fascism and containment of communism was the common ideological thread which bound most of the democracies and therefore they were strategic allies. Moreover, "much of the post-1945 world had been exhausted by war, and no causus belli was evident."19 So, the defeat of communism has drawn more nations towards liberal democracy. The net result of the spread of democracy is that now more democratic nations would share common borders, and the strategic compulsions which had dissuaded them to go into war with one another may get diluted.


Communism and War


      Margaret Thatcher, on a visit to Czechoslovakia in 1990, said, "If we can create a great area of democracy stretching from the west coast of the United States to the Far East, that would give us the best guarantee of all for security because democracies don't go to war with one another".20 Bill Clinton, during his presidency had also advocated that, "ultimately, the best strategy to ensure our security and build a durable peace is to support the advance of democracy elsewhere, because democracies don't attack each other".21 These statements were made by the leaders of the western world who were obviously euphoric about the defeat of communism at the end of the Cold War. It is interesting to note that such noble sentiments against war and establishing peace had been expressed when socialism entered the stage of history as a world movement and was in the process of globalising its ideology. The most significant achievement of the second Communist International was its opposition to growing militarisation and the menace of war. The socialists believed that capitalism was the reason behind wars. According to V.I. Lenin, the states with competitive profit driven capitalist economies must pursue an expansionist foreign policy in order to secure access to new sources of raw materials, cheap labour and external markets; a natural concomitant of an imperialist foreign policy is conflict and war.22 The communists had resolved that while wars could be ended only with the destruction of capitalism, it was for the socialists to prevent the war from occurring. This International reiterated that socialists should utilise the economic and political crisis created by war to arouse the masses and hasten the downfall of capitalist rule. However, the outbreak of World War I in 1914 deeply divided the European socialist movement. The nationalist fervour won over the Marxist rhetoric and the moderate wings dominant in the most socialist parties put national defence ahead of social change and supported their respective governments. The Communist International disintegrated over the question of war.23


Regime Type and War


      Dismissing any correlation between state type and its war proneness, Dr. Akhtar Majeed argues: "If some states have been able to pursue policies concentrating on cooperative behaviour, then this is not due to the advanced nature of their domestic structure but due to certain geopolitical situations which may not remain the same always."24 According to the Realists, proximity, power status, alliance, militarisation, economic development and capability differentials are some of the war bearing factors between two states. The liberals hold the view that the state and sub-national level factors presumably associated with foreign policy behaviour and war proneness include government variables such as political system type, the distribution of influence within regimes, bureaucratic characteristics,  organisational processes and electoral cycles.25 Conceding a point to the Realists, the liberals say that although, proximity is the strongest predictor of war probability, the absence of democracy (one or both states non-democratic) in a dyad is second in salience.


Democratic Interventions


      The biggest paradox of the present times is that the liberal democracy, which emerged victorious after defeating communism is aping the tactics adopted by its opponents to woo people. According to Trudy Rubin, "Peace requires a vigorous interventionist policy aimed at spreading democracy." Hawks in America are of the opinion that for peace to prevail, democracies would have to be established, even by violent means. As Anthony Lake, the former National Security Adviser to President Clinton, argues, "As the sole superpower, the United States has a special     responsibility for developing a strategy to neutralise, contain and through selective pressure, perhaps  eventually transform these 'backlash' states into constructive members of international community."26 This reminds one of Mao's tactics to establish socialism.

      It is indeed beyond one's comprehension, how a mature democracy like the USA conveniently turns a blind eye to the excesses committed by a belligerent democracy like Israel against the raw people's power on the streets of Palestine.

      Scholars like Margaret G. Herman and Charles W. Kegley Jr. support the idea of democratic peace. However, with regard to interventions by liberal states, Herman and Kegley have expressed their fear in Kant's words: "In pursuing intervention liberal states might be driven to use illiberal methods and, thereby, undermine international law and peace".27 Interventions are being regularly made by the big powers in the world with impunity. Interventions are intended not just to reform the state behaviour but also to tame the bellicosity in the human behaviour. As one of the biggest proponents of liberal democracy, Francis Fukuyama, argues, "The most radical outcome of the ongoing research in biotechnology is its potential for changing human nature itself". He further adds, "If propensity for violence is genetically controlled, then why not intervene to correct that?"28 Thereby, ensuring that the    sole superpower in the world is able to manipulate all the three levels of Waltz: segregate the nation from the state, tame the human being and subvert international organisations.


In Pursuance of Peace


      Why is USA so keen on pursuing democratic peace? One could trace the answer to this question in the idea of globalisation. Globalisation is a multi-dimensional phenomenon which operates in the realm of politics, culture, economics and security. Democratic peace is an idea which is closely related to political globalisation. However, deep tensions exist between globalisation and democracy. As the state's monopoly over its national economy reduces, its power to provide social security diminishes. As governments fail to deliver on promises, the gap between them and the people widens, producing a large 'democratic deficit' in the process.

      According to Prem Shankar Jha, "to contain the growing conflict within the winning nations, their governments may launch a successful attempt to project the blame on 'outsiders'-be they rogue nations or rogue individuals from 'alien cultures'.29 The shifting of the blame for international recession and slump in the US economy on Osama bin Laden to keep the domestic audience in America calm, proves Jha's assertions to be right, at least partially.

      The ideology of globalisation believes that irrespective of the inequalities it generates, the conflict can still be contained through the use of superior technology. The idea that globalisation is the panacea for the ills afflicting the third world countries and needs to be pursued with a  'hidden fist' in the form of US economic and military capability is promoted by globalists. The anarchy management model uses two  methods to create the global hegemony of the core group. In the first phase (begun in 1990s) the states were exposed to advantages of globalisation. However, the entry for the developing world into the  core group came with a price. Apart from carrying out economic reforms advised by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, countries are also required to conform to the political agenda of the neo-liberal global economy by adopting the democratic form of governance. Samir Amin, who does not consider free market and globalisation to be synonymous, says, "the traumatized societies of the periphery will sometimes lean towards the adoption of the values of the capitalist culture in question... Alternatively, the disappointment and chaos that follow the failure of the liberal bourgeois (or para-socialist) attempts to implement capitalist democratic ideas can lead to a relapse into neurotic celebration of the past. Religious fundamentalism and the resort to ethnicism are both manifestations of this".30

      The second phase begins when partial hegemony has already been established. During Phase-II (late 1990s) the state becomes redundant and the international order is maintained by controlling the individuals and leaders perceived to be causing anarchy.  In this phase, the ideals of democracy which had been associated with economic liberalisation are abandoned for the more lucrative tool-'governance'. In the latest phase of globalisation, a new basis for categorisation of the states is beginning to emerge-"pre modern, modern and post-modern states."31




      The logic of democratic peace is hard to comprehend. It lacks intellectual clarity. In the absence of any global consensus on the definition of democracy it is hard to ascribe the degree of democracy to the nations. Countries like Malaysia and China view the western concept of democracy as being far from comprehensive. Furthermore, the spread and the acceptability of the idea of democratic peace could have a detrimental impact on the stability and peace in the world, because it promotes the trend-'with me or against me.' The stratification of nation-states on the basis of their polity challenges the equality between nation-states and their political sovereignty. The legitimisation of 'interventions' and the use of force against non-democratic states, to promote political homogeneity in the world do not augur well for world peace, because of its potential to push the world towards the medieval age, 'just war' paradigm.

      With so much of destructive material in the arsenal of both the autocrats, democrats, and also terrorists, it is increasingly difficult to trust any of them to be peace loving. Like all religions, all ideologies also talk about establishing peace. But the harsh realities of nationhood, nationalism and the lure of lucre always emerge stronger, to scuttle most of the peace initiatives. Therefore, one could safely argue that peace cannot be tied to any ideology, because peace itself is an ideology and needs to be promoted rather peacefully.


References/End Notes


      1.    Hidemi Suganami, On the Causes of War, 1996, Clarendon Press Oxford. p. 25.

      2.    James H. Mittelman, "The Dynamics of Globalization". In James H. Mittelman Ed. Globalization: Critical Reflections, 1997, Lynne Rienner, London, p. 3.

      3.    Christopher Layne, Kant or Cant, The Myth of Democratic Peace. In Andrew Linklater,                  Ed., International Relations: Critical Concepts in Political Science. 2000. Routledge; London,        p. 964.

      4.    Ibid., p. 965.

      5.    Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy: 1994. Simon & Schuster; New York. p. 33.

      6.    Ibid.

      7.    Ibid., p. 49.

      8.    Mark Rupert, Ideologies of Globalization: Contending Visions of  a New World Order. 2000. Routledge; London, p. 27.

      9.    Hidemi Suganami, no. 1, pp. 5-17.

      10.   Chidanand Rajghatta, "Powell is the good man who doesn't mince words and wields big stick", The Indian Express. New Delhi. December 17, 2000.

      11.   Christopher Shea, Who Wars With Whom. The Chronicle of Higher Education. July, 5, 1996.

      12.   Daniel S. Geller and J. David Singer, Nations at war: A Scientific Study of International Conflict. 1998. Cambridge University Press; p. 85.

      13.   Ibid., p. 88.

      14.   Cited in Amulya Ganguli, The US treatment of captives from Afghanistan violates all civilised norms: Imitating the Taliban. The Hindustan Times (New Delhi). February 4, 2002.

      15.   George Perkovich, Weapons Complexes v. Democracy, Perspectives, June 17, 1992.

      16.   Ibid.

      17.   The Politics of Peace, The Economist, April 01, 1995, p. 17.

      18.   Thomas Schwartz and Kiron K. Skinner, "The Myth of Democratic Peace", Orbis, Winter,             2002.

      19.   Ibid.

      20.   The Economist, no. 17, p. 17.

      21.   Ibid.

      22.   Geller and D. Singer, no. 12, p. 21.

      23.   Robert V. Daniels. A Documentary History of Communism: Volume 2, Communism and the World. 1985. I.B. Tauris & Co; London, p. 3.

      25.   Akhtar Majeed, Military Force in the post-Cold War era-The myth of change. Strategic Analysis, November, 1994.

      26.   Geller and Singer,  no. 12, p. 46.

      27.   Prem Shankar Jha, Democracy, Globalisation and War: New myths to save the West from the rest. World Affairs, Apr-Jun 2001, 5(2), 34.

      28.   Margaret G. Herman and Charles W. Kegley Jr , Democracies and interventions: Is there a danger zone in the democratic peace, Journal of Peace Research. 2001. 38(2), 238.

      29.   Francis Fukuyama, Second Thoughts: The Last Man in a Bottle. The National Interest. Summer 1999.

      30.   Jha, no. 26, p. 46.

      31.   Samir Amin, "Economic Globalization and Political Universalism: Conflicting Issues?". In Barbara Harriss-White (Eds.) Globalization and Insecurity: Political, Economic and Physical Challenges. 2002. Palgrave; Oxford. p. 63.

      32.   Hassan Suroor, Back to the Empire in New Clothes. The Hindu (New Delhi). April 25, 2002. The article discusses the monograph titled "Reordering the World: The Long Term Implications of September 11" by Robert Cooper.



Lt Cdr Atul Bharadwaj is a Research Fellow at IDSA. An alumnus of the National Defence Academy, Pune, he was commissioned in the executive branch of the Indian Navy in 1987. He has served onboard various ships and establishments. He has published articles on defence matters and is presently working on "globalization and national security".