Monday, July 04, 2005

Brad DeLong's Grasping for the Democratic Peace Theory

Brad DeLong has asked a question that many people grapple with nowadays: why is it that war seems so rare nowadays?

Now, of course, that has to be qualified.

Before I read any more "realists" writing about a Chinese-American cold (or hot) war in Asia, I want them to come up with an explanation of why the War of 1812 was the last Anglo-American war. Why not 54'40" or fight? The claim that "wars are almost never worth the costs, and yet states keep on fighting them" doesn't seem to apply to relationships between some states since 1850 or so.

The "realist" school has absolutely no clue as to why there has been no Franco-British or Anglo-American war in 190 years, no Mexican-American war in 85, and no Franco-German war in 60. The language of administration in Strasbourg is simply not something that people are willing to kill or die for these days. Which kinds of states study war (against each other at least) no more? And why not? Those are, I think, the most interesting questions in the academic study of international affairs.
Generally, realists respond simply with "democracies don't fight one another, and we don't know why, but neo-liberals don't know why either". Most of the liberal arguments in favour of their position (that war is irrational, that people generally are rational, and will restrain their leaders from war if given a mechanism) doesn't make sense if you consider that democracies are perfectly willing to war against non-democracies, and that leaders do tend to reap substantial popularity and elites substantial wealth from the enterprise.

(DeLong contends that warfare used to be less costly but now is more so. He cites 1850 as the date when it changed. That's erroneous- Japan profited tremendously from the Sino-Japanese war, the United States seemed to profit quite well from the first Iraq war, and there were certainly enough "dirty little wars" during the Cold War that somebody was profiting from them. Systemic warfare is useless because of nuclear weapons, but that's only one kind.)

It also runs into a significant and substantial problem, which is defining what, precisely, a "democracy" is. Define it too narrowly and you have too small a sample set to mean anything; define it too broadly and the rule is violated. More important is the passage of time: today's democracies may become tomorrow's authoritarian regimes, and the unpredictability of these changes forces democracies to arm themselves against possibilities.

There is a possible answer, though. Why don't democracies fight democracies? They have an army, and there are benefits to reap from warfare. I believe the answer is identity- citizens of democracies derive a measure of superiority from being such, and that shared identity helps mitigate conflicts between them, as long as there are non-democracies around. A democracy need not engage in war against another democracy if the benefits of war can be gained from attacking an authoritarian regime, which can be used to reaffirm the superiority of the citizenry through the simple rhetoric of "liberation". This is the core critique of the newest Gulf War- that it was used to make America feel better about itself; and solves the question. Democracies fight non-democracies.

The remaining problem, though, is this: what happens when there are no non-democracies left?


  1. Anonymous3:23 PM

    Perhaps the reason that democracies don't make war upon one another, but will happily wage war upon totalitarian nations is that the policies of democracies are, to some degree, in a constant state of flux. As new administrations come and go, the diplomatic playing field changes providing new possibilities for international interactions other than warfare (e.g. diplomatic negotiation). This happens quite often with democracies, but in totalitarian states, there is one administration in power for an extended period of time. Diplomacy is still possible with a dictatorship, but since you are dealing with a somewhat static system, there is less basis for a policy shift. Tensions build to greater heights because the factors contributing to them remain constant for longer. Tensions between democracies oscillate more and thus frequent relief of tension averts war. This is parallel to marital relations: couples who have sex regularly tend to get along better with each other, whereas couples who have sex seldomly are constantly crabby.

  2. Anonymous9:21 PM

    I'm afraid I'm a bit of a cynic, but I believe the question of why democracies don't war on other democracies boils down to the acquisition and maintenance of power. Other democracies are generally not a threat to each other, and in fact, are usually part of the same power structure since power is both political and economic. Non-democracies can be a threat to stability and offer increases in power (both political and economic) to a victor.