IG’s Peace Blog

Peace and its many aspects

On Democratic Peace

I just came across the Wikipedia article on “Democratic peace theory”.  It is very long and detailed for this site, and someone even mentioned at the top that it might be inappropriate for Wikipedia.  Anyhow, if you go through it (have courage, you can make it) you will see that there has been a lot of effort invested in trying to find out if the democratic peace hypothesis–ie that “democracies don’t go to war with each other”– is quantitatively provable.  As you will also see, this involves being very specific by what you mean by “war” and what you mean by “democracy”.

This is an interesting question, but I can’t help but feel that it misses the point a bit.  First of all, let’s consider the origins of this idea.  As the article explains, Immanuel Kant believed that democracy, by letting people have more impact on government decisions, should act as a brake on international war, since the people (from whom come the soldiers after all) would only be willing to fight in cases of self defense. This seemed to suggest that democracies should be comparatively less war like than other types of governments, but that has not been shown to be the case historically.  However, it does seem to be the case that democracies don’t fight quite so much with each other, and that is the direction that democratic peace research has taken.

OK…but wasn’t Kant onto something in any event?  I mean, at first glance, this is a reasonable idea, isn’t it? The problem with his reasoning is, as Aristotle and others have pointed out, democracy can degenerate into demagoguery, or rabble-rousing; and this might account for some of the adventurist wars of democracies (the Spanish America war comes to mind in this regard).  But demagogues, have to have something to work with…the public has to have the right “buttons”–prejudices and fears–to push.  Which indicates to me that democratic institutions alone are not enough because the society has to have at least some elements of what UNESCO has called a “culture of peace”:

“The key-values of this culture are tolerance, solidarity, sharing and respect of every individual’s rights—the principle of pluralism that ensures and upholds the freedom of opinion—that strives to prevent conflict by tackling it at its source, including new non-military threats to peace and security such as exclusion, extreme poverty and environmental degradation. Finally, it seeks to solve problems through dialogue, negotiation and mediation, so that war and violence are no longer possible. (This paragraph takes its inspiration from the Dossier d’information de l’UNESCO, CAB-99/Ws/4, page 14–though I actually found this passage cited here )

So, unless their populations are to some degree egalitarian, tolerant and predisposed to non-violent conflict resolution (where possible) it stands to reason that democracies can be whipped up into bellicose frenzies from time to time, when people are afraid and the proposed enemy is seen as alien and/or less than human.



November 6, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,

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