There is a theory in the world of international relations: democracies don’t go to war against each other. Democracies, the theory holds, are unwieldy to begin with and are thus hard to send to war. In a democracy, the people can vote you out of power if they don’t like your choices. No single person holds the levers of power that could plunge a nation into war. Negotiations and diplomacy go further than violence and bloodshed. These all sound like plausible reasons for why democracies don’t fight each other, but could the reason why we haven’t seen democracies declare war on each other be due more to random chance than to actual causal factors based on the nature of democracy?
Steven Pinker lays out some arguments for and against the democratic peace theory in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. He describes the theory as being powerful because it helps explain our current Long Peace. There haven’t been any major wars between the leading powers of the world since WWII. For over half a century, we have lived in a time of relative peace and stability, something that is fairly unique in human history. Democratic peace theory is one way to explain why the Long Peace has persisted. However, Pinker explains that the theory has some problems if you look close enough:
“Critics of the Democratic Peace theory … point out that if one draws the circle of democracy small enough, not that many countries are left in it, so by the laws of probability it’s not surprising that we find few wars with a democracy on each side. Other than the great powers, two countries tend to fight only if they share a border, so most of the theoretical matchups are ruled out by geography.”
Democratic peace may just be a function of the fact that there haven’t been that many democracies in human history. To go one step further, most democracies have allied themselves with the United States, who was the sole great power for a period of time following the Cold War and was the great power confronting the Soviet Union following WWII. “A more cynical theory accounts for the Long Peace,” writes Pinker, “since the start of the Cold War, allies of the world’s dominant power, the United States, haven’t fought each other.”
Perhaps the structural factors I discussed in the opening paragraph really do make democracies less likely to go to war against each other. Perhaps there are causal relationships between democracies and the Long Peace, but the cynical take on the Long Peace also seem like a reasonable explanation for why democracies haven’t gone to war with each other. There could be less interesting relationships between countries that explain a lack of major war without getting into ideological and political differences along the lines of democracies versus dictatorships.