Whilst the
theory of democratic peace stems from Kant’s To Perpetual Peace, it was Doyle’s Liberalism and World Politics that recast Kant’s sentiment into the
prominent model it is today. Democratic peace theory cuts to the heart of the
debate about the salience of second-image (domestic politics) and third-image (systemic structure)
explanations of international political outcomes (Layne, 1994,
p. 5).

ideals such as the rule of law, free speech and tolerance, coupled with a
Lockean emphasis of the detrimental effects of violence to freedom, creates a
relatively pacific second-image. This pacific second-image is reflected in the
third image via a democratically elected and representative government, which
by merit of mutual ideals, recognises that other liberal democratic states pose
no threat, as they too are representative of the non-violent wishes of their
citizens. In order to
assess how convincing, the democratic peace theory is, it will be subjected to
three counter arguments: the realist counterargument, the constructivist
counterargument, and the counterargument comparing the democratic peace theory
against the Clash of Civilizations theory.

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The realist counterargument is primarily based on the main differences
between the liberal and realist schools of thought. Some proponents of democratic peace theory, such as
Bruce Russett, believe that a majority of democratic states within the system
may make it “possible in part to supersede the “realist” principles (anarchy, the
security dilemma of states)” that have dominated the discipline (Russett, 1993, p. 278). In assessing
how convincing the democratic peace theory is at predicting international
outcomes, it’s explanatory power must be assessed.

The key challenge for democratic peace theory is to explain the
anomaly, that whilst democracies are no less war prone than non-democratic
states (CITE), they behave in qualitatively different
manner to other democracies, than they do with illiberal states. This is done
in the two strands of the theory: firstly, “institutional constraints” encompassing
the restraining effects of public opinion and institutionalised checks and
balances, and secondly, that democratic norms and cultures accounts for the
absence of war (Layne, 1994, p. 6). In the institutional
constraints strand, Doyle argues that democracies are reluctant to go to war
because of the restraining influence of citizens, as it is them who pay the
price of war (Doyle, 1983, p. 206). A second element of
the institutional argument focuses upon the constraints imposed by
constitutional checks and balances; namely: executive selection, political competition,
and the pluralism of the foreign policy decision making process (Morgan & Campbell, 1991, p. 193). Additionally, the
democratic norms explanation argues that shared norms that foster compromise
within countries, transcend international boundaries to allow for cooperation
between democracies (Russett, 1993, p. 31). Doyle sums this up when he wrote
that democracies “which rest on consent, presume foreign republics to be also
consensual, just and therefore deserving of accommodation” (Doyle, 1983,
p. 230).

The realist critique of the democratic peace centres around the
liberal notion that changes within states can transform the nature of
international politics (Layne, 1994, p. 12). Whilst democratic
peace theory holds that changes within states can transform their international
character, classical realism holds that even if the internal dynamics of a
state change, the structure of the international system remains the same. Since
realists believe that systemic
structure is the primary determinant of international political outcomes, changes
at the unit level do not change the constraints and incentives imbedded in the
systemic level (Layne, 1994, p. 12). As Waltz says: “in self-help
systems, the pressures of competition between states weigh more heavily than
ideological preferences or internal political pressures.” (Waltz, 1986,
p. 329).
However, proponents of democratic peace theory contend that the fostering of
trust between liberal states does change the anarchic system, as the incentives
for conflict are reduced, by increasing the costs that conflict entail through
trade and mutual cooperation. Since it
is impossible to measure changes to the abstract anarchic system, the
theoretical disagreement between the two schools is unable to be assessed. Overall,
realist theory fails to dismantle the democratic peace theory, as there is insufficient
evidence to substantiate it’s claims. However, it is the same lack of evidence
that makes the democratic peace theory unconvincing.

Statistical evidence (SPIRO):

It is this lack of evidence that Spiro uses to question the significance
of the statistical evidence surrounding the democratic peace. Spiro argues that
“the absence of wars between liberal democracies is not, in fact, a significant
pattern for most of the past two centuries” (Spiro, 1994, p. 51). Spiro uses dyads to
show how the preservation of liberal peace is less shocking than first appears.
Spiro takes 1980 as an example
to show the merits of his dyadic approach and shows that, of the 156 nation
states, 40 were liberal regimes, and there were two interstate wars1.
This implies that 26% of all nations were liberal democracies and therefore the
absence of wars between them seems striking. However, there were 12,090
possible state-on-state pairs/dyads, of which only 780 were liberal democracies.
Shown this way, only 6% of possible state interactions were liberal, and the
dyads at war represent two one-hundredths of 1% of the total dyads. Spiro
tested the probability of finding zero liberal dyads at war for each year from
1816-1980. In summary, Spiro concludes that the “liberal peace does not differ
significantly from a null hypothesis of random chance” (Spiro, 1994, p. 66). Spiro’s findings undermine
the evidence on which democratic peace theory stands. Doyle’s claim that
liberal democracies have never gone to war with one another now seems a far less
significant fact than it may once have seemed.


Whilst realism and liberalism originate from ideas about human nature, constructivism
is derived from social theory. The
constructivist interpretation of the democratic peace theory develops the
notion that not all the “norms” within states or the systemic structure are
positive. This approach implies that not all implications regarding the
interactions between democratic states mean cooperation; instead, democratic
differences may lead to conflict, as how a state interprets democracy is
pivotal and may change over time. (Widmaier, 2005, p. 435). Widmaier also says
that “tensions between ‘liberal’ and ‘social’ democracies may engender enmity
and conflict”, suggesting that conflict is not restricted to the “democratic-authoritarian
faultline” (Widmaier, 2005, p. 435). To evidence his
argument, Widmaier cites US-Indian relations under Nixon, which were markedly unsettled.
Despite both states being democratic, the situation escalated to the brink of
war only later to de-escalate as India backed down. This led Widmaier to conclude
that “institutional structures do not determine states interests”. This shows
that the fundamental assumption of the theory that all liberal democracies will
respect each other because of shared values is not always true. Instead of
reducing tensions by appealing to shared values and norms, conflict only
de-escalated only when India re-evaluated their strategic position and
overwhelming American power. The benefit of the constructivist critique is that
it acknowledges the emergence of democratic differences (for example: the
US-Indian conflict).
Therefore, constructivism provides a theoretical basis for how the democratic
peace theory can be unconvincing, however, as evidenced earlier, there has not
been enough opportunity for either theory to be proven.


Vs. Clash of Civilizations

The final way
to assess democratic peace theory, is compare it to an alternative theory which
attempts to explain the origins of warfare. Robert Johns and Graeme Davies have
related their critique of the democratic peace theory, to that of Samuel
Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis. In short, Huntington contends that after
the end of the Cold War and ideational conflict, conflict will now be fought on
cultural and religious lines (Huntington, 2002). Huntington argued
that the highest order of cultural identity is a civilization, and he divided
the world into 9 “major civilizations” which he believed would provide the “fault
lines” for future conflict. Since democratic peace theory believes that the
assent of civilians is imperative for the declaration of war, looking at how
citizens justify war is a critical point for assessing how convincing the
theory is. Johns and Davies’ analysis examine how important regime type and the
dominant faith of a state is to the level of public support for the use of
force against it (Johns & Davies, 2012, p.
The results from their study revealed that dominant faith was of a higher
importance than regime type in both the United States and the UK. This led
Johns and Davies to conclude that the fact that dominant faith mattered more to
the public than regime type clashes with evidence suggesting that the
democratic peace theory is a better predictor of interstate conflict than the
Clash of Civilizations (Johns & Davies, 2012, pp.
While this essay does not condone the line taken by Huntington, the strength of
Johns and Davies’ argument highlights the weaknesses of democratic peace
theory. Firstly, if a theory in such disrepute as Huntington’s can be described
as a more accurate predictor, democratic peace theory must be fallible. Secondly,
it shows that regime type is a secondary factor to public opinion, evidenced by
a unanimous preference for war against an Islamic democracy, over a Christian one.
However, the study is limited in that it only accounts for a small sample of
the public from only the US and UK, and it does not explain the public’s
greater willingness to act against Islamic and dictatorial states.

The Iran-Iraq War and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan


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