“Peace is more than just an absence of war. True peace is justice, true peace is freedom, and true peace dictates the recognition of human rights.”
– Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States
In his 1986 address to the United Nations General Assembly, President Ronald Reagan expressed the importance of democracy in maintain peace throughout the world. There is no better form of government to do this, and you have to look no further than the Democratic Peace Theory to understand why. The theory has drawn many critics, but this iron law if international relations is irrefutable.
The Democratic Peace Theory relies on two main theses: The Institutional Thesis, and The Political-Cultural Thesis, or socialization. The Institutional Thesis states that the dispersion of power in a democracy makes it more peaceful than a non-democracy in general (Shimko, 2013, p.90). This is demonstrated in the United States with the checks and balances provided by the three branches of government (MacMillan, 2003, p.234). Considering other non-democracies of the past, it is easy to see where a concentration of power in a handful of elites such as in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union leads to global conflict. The Political-Cultural Thesis stresses that democracies are unwilling to go to wage war, especially against each other (Shimko, 2013, p.90). This is because of socialization, where the democratic publics who have a say in their government follow the political and cultural norms of their society, understanding the value of peaceful freedom, human rights and conflict resolution (Shimko, 2013, p.90). Consider a state like North Korea which is not a democracy, does not hold these values, and especially does not allow their people to have a voice. It has been the hot bed of conflict on the Korean peninsula for decades, constantly threatening the world with nuclear missile launches. As irrefutable as The Democratic Peace Theory is, critics remain despite holes in their arguments.
Naysayers believe that democracies are no more peaceful than non-democracies (Shimko, 2013, p.94). But of course they are. No democracy has ever waged war with another democracy. This is because the people of these countries were socialized to value human rights, freedom and peaceful conflict resolution. Think of when France criticized the Bush administration during the War on Terror; the two states did not go to war with one another because they share the same values. Of course critics will point to any time a democracy has engaged in war to say that they are not peaceful. Yet in every war, whether successful or not, democracies act in defense of what they believe. In both WWII and the Vietnam War, where the set of circumstances for getting involved were different, and the outcomes were different as well, democracy was fought for and defended. So while democracies do go to war, it is never with each other, and only in defense of their democratic values.
Critics of The Democratic Peace Theory will say that it only seems legitimate because the definitions of war and democracy are too ambiguous (Shimko, 2013, p.95). Both definitions of war and democracy are pretty clear. In war, two or more countries have declared war on one another, and are engaged together on the battlefield. This restrictive definition does not count any proxy war like the XYZ Affair between the United States and France or any cyber war like North Korea hacking Sony Pictures. Additionally, there are other cases which can be excluded by the definition of democracy. Exclude the American Civil War, because the Confederacy was not a recognized sovereign state (Shimko, 2013, p.96). Exclude even WWI because Germany, while holding some democratic values like a free press and elections, was an “Imperial” state where foreign and defense policy was contrived by unelected officials (Shimko, 2013, p.97). Considering these cases with reason and facts, the theory still holds despite the fear of playing fast and loose with definitions.
Those who critique The Democratic Peace Theory will want it to be considered that democracy is relatively new, and war is relatively rare (Shimko, 2013, p.95). Now the main point here is that 200 years ago, democracy was almost nonexistent. Additionally, “peace is the norm in international relations; war is the exception” (Shimko, 2013, p.95). This is true to some degree, but it doesn’t discount The Democratic Peace Theory. If we consider the world as it was before democracy, 200 years ago with empires like the United Kingdom trying to conquer the world, it would be clear that in the time since democracy the world has become more peaceful. And because peace is the norm, of course war is a rare event. Democracies allow basic freedoms for their people. And a peaceful people elects leaders who reflect their values, which has made a world of difference (MacMillan, 2003, p.237).
Finally, those who have exhausted all their options trying to critique The Democratic Peace Theory will say…it’s a coincidence (Shimko, 2013, p.98). Even if the naysayers insist they must reject the Political-Cultural Thesis, they cannot reject the Institutional Thesis. Democracies do not go to war with one another. Consider how even amidst times of tension, democracies always avoid war with each other. The naval blockade by the North during the American Civil War which prevented Great Britain from aiding the South could have escalated to war, but it didn’t (Shimko, 2013, p.99). Great Britain and France could have gone to war over control of the Suez Canal, but they didn’t (Shimko, 2013, p.99). The list could go on, and it proves the point that democracies are peaceful, and do not go to war with each other.
Peace can only be maintained in the world through a value of human rights, freedom and peaceful conflict resolution. Democracies perform this better than any other form of government. The Political-Cultural and Institutional Thesis are clear in explaining this, and The Democratic Peace Theory remains the iron law of international relations.
MacMillan, John. 2003. Beyond the Separate Democratic Peace. Journal of Peace Research 40 (20: 233-243).
Shimko, Keith L. 2013. “War and Democracy.” In International Relations: Perspectives, Controversies, & Readings 4th Edition, by Keith L. Shimko. MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. Pgs: 85-110.
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