Democratic peace theory

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The democratic peace theory is a theory that claims that (liberal) democracies are hesitant to engage in armed conflict with one another.

Those who dispute this theory often do so on grounds that the definitions of "democracy" and "war" can be manipulated so as to manufacture an artificial association, and, even if there is some kind of association, then there are less politically correct explanations for this.

The democratic peace theory has been used as a justification for starting wars against argued non-liberal democracies.

Possible examples of wars between (liberal) democracies

Most human group conflicts have involved conflicts between bands/clans/tribes, who not infrequently have used some form of democratic decision-making. There are also many conflicts between city-states using some form of democracy during Antiquity and the Middle Ages. However, as not involving liberal democracies, these conflicts are ignored by democratic peace theory supporters. Some involved direct democracy and with this including participation in the voting on whether to start of a conflict or not by those who would do the actual fighting (and their relatives), possibly giving them a greater influence than in liberal democracies. Some notable examples include:

  • The 415-413 BC Sicilian Expedition by Athens against Syracuse. It involved the two largest Greek democracies and several allied democracies. If counting city-states such as Sparta as democracies (traditionally classified as an oligarchy, but having various democratic elements, such as elections by the full citizens), then the number of wars between democracies in Ancient Greece is very large.
  • The 264-146 BC Punic Wars between the Roman Republic and Carthage.
  • The 1256-1381 Venetian–Genoese Wars between the Republic of Genoa and the Republic of Venice.
  • Warfare between the Hurons and the Iroquois causing the destruction of most of the Hurons in 1649. Both tribes have been argued to have used forms of democratic decision-making. The Iroquois system of government has been argued to have influenced the development of the United States's government.
  • The American Indian Wars involving parties such as Great Britain, the United States, and the Iroquois.
  • Bands of pirates have often used forms of democratic decision-making (including having elected leaders). Piracy has sometimes taken the character of outright large-scale warfare with large bands of pirates attacking and conquering fleets, cities, and territories. Counter-piracy campaigns have sometimes also taken the form of large-scale warfare, such as during the Roman Republic's 66 BC campaign against pirates. Also more recently, various countries, including liberal democratic ones, have organized sometimes large-scale campaigns against pirates who may have used some form of democratic decision-making.

There are many argued examples of recent wars/violent conflicts (or planned wars/violent conflicts) between liberal democracies. Supporters of the democratic peace theory often dismiss these conflicts as not involving "real" liberal democracies, not involving "stable" liberal democracies that had existed for some time before the conflict started (typically at least 3 years), the decision to start the conflict is argued to not have been made by those democratically elected, and/or not involving "real" wars (typically defined as at least 1,000 battle deaths). Possible examples include:

  • The 1775–1783 American Revolutionary War between Great Britain and the United States. The delegates to the United States Continental Congress were elected by their respective colonial assemblies, with these also being elected. The war also involved the Iroquois, with different Iroquoian nations supporting different sides.
  • The 1780–1784 Fourth Anglo-Dutch War.
  • The 1792-1799 French Revolutionary Wars before Napoleon Bonaparte seized power. The French First Republic was involved in wars with Great Britain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.
  • The 1798-1800 Quasi War between the United States and the French First Republic.
  • The 1812-1815 War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States.
  • The 1830-1839 Belgian Revolution and Ten Days' Campaign.
  • The 1838 forced deportation of the Cherokees. See Trail of Tears.
  • The 1847 Sonderbund War between different Swiss Cantons (states).
  • The 1849 war between the French Second Republic and the Roman Republic (19th century).
  • The 1859 Ecuadorian–Peruvian War. Part of the Ecuadorian–Peruvian territorial dispute of 1857–60.
  • The 1861-1865 American Civil War. See Confederate revisionism regarding the causes of the war.
  • The 1861-1862 British intervention in Mexico (part of an international coalition) which included occupying the Mexican city of Veracruz. Both Britain and Mexico had elected governments.
  • The 1863 Ecuadorian–Colombian War.
  • The 1871 war between the Paris Commune and the French Third Republic. The leaders of both the Paris Commune and the French Third Republic were elected. A conflict of major importance for communists and social anarchists. The violent repression of the Paris Commune was used by Lenin (and by extension many later Marxist-Leninist leaders) as a justification for implementing a Red Terror after the October Revolution in Russia (and later for implementing other Red Terrors before/after other Communist revolutions or revolutionary attempts).
  • The 1879-1884 War of the Pacific. Both Chile and Peru had elected governments.
  • The 1880-1881 First Boer War.
  • The 1898 Spanish-American War
  • The 1899–1902 Second Boer War. The war is notorious for the Boer civilian population being placed in "concentration camps" (the first use of this word) where many died due to causes such as diseases and malnutrition.
  • The 1899–1913 Philippine-American War.
  • The 1912-1913 First Balkan War. If accepting the "Young Turk" regime as democratic, then there is also the Armenian Genocide.
  • The 1914-1918 First World War. Various elected parliaments on both sides voted overwhelmingly in support of the war. Supporters of the democratic peace theory dismiss it by arguing that Germany was not a liberal democracy with the Kaiser controlling foreign policy. However, the elected Reichstag was no "rubber-stamp" or "toy” parliament, the members had legal immunity, they often disagreed with the Kaiser, and the Reichstag had real power on economic issues and thus the funding of the war, which was overwhelmingly approved.
  • The 1919-1921 Irish War of Independence. Independence was declared by a majority of the Irish MPs elected in the UK general election of 1918.
  • The 1920 Polish-Lithuanian War. In both countries elections had been held.
  • The 1923-1925 invasion and occupation by France and Belgium of the German Weimar Republic's Ruhr valley.
  • The 1940 British invasion of Iceland and later American occupation during the Second World War.
  • The 1940 British invasion and occupation of the Danish Faroe Islands during the Second World War.
  • The 1940 British Operation Wilfred, which included laying mines in Norwegian territorial waters with the intention of provoking a German invasion of Norway, to be followed by an Allied invasion of northern Norway with the primary intention not being to help Norway, but instead to stop the transportation of iron ore to Germany.
  • The 1940 British attack on the French Navy at Mers-el-Kébir. Over a thousand French sailors were killed. The attack on (on 3 July 1940) occurred before the French Third Republic ended and an authoritarian regime was implemented in Vichy France (on 10 July 1940). An objection to this could be by claiming that the French Third Republic had lost all independence immediately after the Franco-German armistice (on 22 June). This can be questioned for reasons such as the armistice explicitly stating that Germany would not make demands on the French Fleet and the French Fleet scuttled itself at Toulon in 1942 when Germany eventually made demands after the Allied invasion of French North Africa. There has been long term resentment in France with the attack seen as unjustified.
  • The 1941 British invasion of Thailand ("Operation Krohcol").
  • The 1941-1944 Continuation War between Finland and the Soviet Union, which also included the United Kingdom declaring war on Finland. The UK bombed Finnish territory. Various forms of aid were given to the Soviet Union.
  • The 1947-1948 Indo-Pakistani War. The first national assemblies in both states were formed by members of the elected Constituent Assembly of India. More generally, the partition of India has been estimated to have caused large-scale loss of life. Some estimates state millions of deaths.
  • The 1953 British and US supported coup against the elected Iranian government.
  • The 1954 US supported coup against the elected Guatemalan government.
  • The 1967 Six-Day War, which included Israel and Lebanon.
  • The 1967 USS Liberty attack by Israel on a United States Navy ship.
  • The 1969 Football War between El Salvador and Honduras.
  • The 1973 US supported coup against the elected Chilean government.
  • The 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus. It took place after a coup in Cyprus, but the democratic constitution was at least formally restored after five days, while the military conflict continued longer and with Turkey making a second invasion several weeks later.
  • The 1979-1990 Contra War in which the US supported the Contras rebels against the Nicaraguan government also after the 1984 election.
  • The 1981 Paquisha War between Ecuador and Peru.
  • The 1991-1999 Yugoslav Wars involving parties such as elected governments in Yugoslavia, Serbia, Croatia, and NATO.
  • The 1995 Cenepa War between Ecuador and Peru.
  • The 1999 Kargil War between India and Pakistan.
  • The 2003- Kurdish–Turkish conflict, which partially involves Iraqi Kurdistan, where elections have been held several times after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
  • The 2006 Lebanon War, officially mainly involving Israel and Hezbollah, but with limited fighting between Israel and other Lebanese groups as well as the Lebanese Armed Forces, and killing and injuring many Lebanese civilians. Israel made large-scale attacks on Lebanese civilian infrastructure. Furthermore, Hezbollah and other Lebanese groups involved in the fighting participate in the Lebanese elections. Also various other conflicts between Israel and Hezbollah.
  • The 2008 Russo-Georgian War involving Georgia, Russia, and the republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
  • The 2008-2009 Gaza War involving Israel and Hamas. Hamas was the winner of the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections. Also various other conflicts between Israel and Hamas.
  • The 2014- War in Ukraine involving Ukraine, Russia, the Donetsk People's Republic, and the Luhansk People's Republic.
  • The 2016 Armenian–Azerbaijani conflict ("Four–Day War") involving parties such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Also various other conflicts involving these parties.
  • The 2017 Iraq-Iraqi Kurdistan conflict with open warfare in the Kirkuk area. Elections in these areas include the 2014 Iraqi parliamentary election.

"Realist" criticisms

There are many alternative explanations for the claimed democratic peace. For example, a criticism by "realist" international relations scholars is that the "democratic peace" is an artifact created by first British and then American global dominance ("Pax Britannica" and "Pax Americana"), during which those countries aligning themselves with British and US interests were not attacked, but those not were frequently attacked, democratic or not. The strongest support for the democratic peace theory is due to the few or no wars between the many liberal democracies in post-WWII Europe, but these countries are mostly part of the US dominated NATO military alliance and there is a large US military presence in Europe.

Another explanation is a "nuclear peace" (or modern weapons peace) due to nuclear weapons (or other modern weapons more generally) having increased the risk:reward ratio with wars (including for the leaders starting wars). This may have caused an avoidance of large-scale wars potentially involving a developed country with advanced modern weaponry. Many liberal democratic countries belong to this category or are allied to such countries.

Another criticism is regarding what mechanism is supposed to cause the democratic peace.

  • One explanation would be that voters punish leaders who start wars, want pacifist leaders, and so on. However, this would imply that democracies avoid wars in general, which is not the case. Furthermore, there are numerous examples of voters electing or re-electing successful military leaders or leaders winning wars. Groups such as pirate bands with democratic decision-making have not been pacifist.
  • Another explanation would be that wars with other democracies are avoided because other democracies are seen as a similar “in-group”. A problem with this is that culturally similar countries have often made war with one another and there have been many civil wars where both sides shared a common culture.
  • A third is that democratic leaders are better negotiators due to negotiations being common in democracies. However, this ignores that voters may elect leaders with little political experience. Furthermore, negotiations are also common in oligarchies, and even in autocracies the ruler is often dependent on the support of a coalition of various groups, which requires extensive negotiations by the ruler or advisors.

Spreading liberal democracy and the democratic peace theory as causes of and justifications for starting wars

Liberal democracy is often viewed as a superior form of government and spreading it to countries not currently being liberal democratic is often an openly stated goal for various organizations and countries. This may occur as open or covert support for democratic "regime changes" in other countries or even as outright military invasions and wars in order to cause democratization.

An early example of invoking the democratic peace theory as a justification for starting a war may have been by the US President Woodrow Wilson, who, when arguing for US entry into WWI, made public statements such as the purpose being to "make the world safe for democracy" and "war to end all war".

More recently and explicitly, the democratic peace theory has been invoked as an important argument for supporting regime changes in, invasions of, and wars on argued non-liberal democracies. Thus, former US President Bill Clinton stated in 1994 that “Ultimately, the best strategy to ensure our security and to build a durable peace is to support the advance of democracy elsewhere. Democracies don’t attack each other.” His successor, George W. Bush, used the theory as the primary justification for the Iraq War, stating, “The reason why I’m so strong on democracy is democracies don’t go to war with each other…I’ve got great faith in democracies to promote peace. And that’s why I’m such a strong believer that the way forward in the Middle East, the broader Middle East, is to promote democracy.[1]

A related theory is the democratic domino theory, claiming that implementing democracy in country will cause democratization in neighboring countries.

One possible problem with these theories is ignoring relationships such as between countries and intelligence. The 2009 book Limits to democratization stated that "all nations do not have equal chances to establish and maintain democratic systems. A central conclusion is that it is probably never possible to achieve the same level and quality of democracy in all countries of the world".[2]

Another problem is that partially democratic regimes have the most civil wars.[3] Thus, changing a regime from an authoritarian regime to a partially democratic regime increases the risk of civil wars in the country. This likely especially if the country has a high ethnic heterogeneity and with ethnic conflicts having been suppressed during the authoritarian regime.


  1. Examining the Democratic Peace Hypothesis: A Neorealist Critique
  2. Tatu Vanhanen. (2009) The Limits of Democratization: Climate, Intelligence, and Resource Distribution. Atlanta, GA: Washington Summit Publishers.
  3. Hegre, H. (2001, March). Toward a democratic civil peace? Democracy, political change, and civil war, 1816–1992. In American Political Science Association (Vol. 95, No. 01, pp. 33-48). Cambridge University Press.
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