The Right to Reason

with Robert Stanley

Evaluating Democratic Peace Theory

A Review of Multiple Quantitative Articles Assessing Militaristic Strategy, Economic Systems, and the Psychology of the Citizenry of Democratic Countries throughout History.


In the annals of political science there exists a peculiar phenomenon referred to as democratic peace theory (DPT): the absence of war between democracies.  Originally presented by Immanuel Kant’s 1795 work “Perpetual Peace,” DPT states simply that Democratic countries do not fight each other.  The concept was that if all nations were Republics, civilization would end war because there would be a lack of aggressors on the world stage.  There are fundamentally three theories of Democratic peace.  The first is the Monadic Theory which states that democracies are inherently more peaceful and less likely to go to war with other states, whatever their political structure may be.  The second is the most popular and states that Democracies are essentially peaceful with one another but likely to fight with other non-democracies.  This is known as the Dyadic Theory.  The third is the Systematic Theory which claims that international systems become more peaceful with the increase of democratic states.  There are a few arguments to defend these theories that deserve attention.  One of these, known as the Normative Argument of DPT, theorizes that Democracies trust one another because they share cultural and social norms.  In addition, in Institutional Logic, leaders of a democracy are believed to respond to the general public and will therefore only go to war when victory is likely.  Lastly, the argument of Interdependence hypothesizes that Democratic states tend to adopt free market economies leading to more international trade.  This trade makes nations more dependent on one another and therefore less likely to declare war. 


Democratic leaders are beholden to voters more so than autocratic leaders.  A bloody and costly war is often avoided by the constituency because the public is generally interested in their economy and fellow citizenry.  This explains why democracies, even if warring consistently with autocracies, behave peacefully in general toward other democracies.  There is empirical evidence that in theory could be explained by stating that democratic citizens prefer peaceful resolutions to interstate conflicts.  In this quantitative literature review I will investigate the validity of this theory as well as offer other explanations therewith by evaluating multiple pieces of peer-reviewed literature, disclosing the dependent variables, theoretical approaches, research designs, and statistical methods.  In order to understand this topic, I will investigate militaristic strategies, economic systems, and the psychology of the citizenry of democratic countries.  My thesis is that DPT is in fact true and the reason for its validity arises from collectivized self-interest.  I believe the literature will conclude that Democracies primarily wish to utilize their resources for the public good and that the acquisition of additional potential resources and land will be less motivating to the democratic populace and therefore war would be less likely between two countries that share this sentiment. 


Tom Ginsburg’s 2014 article in the Chicago Journal of International Law, “Chaining the Dog of War: Comparative Data” utilizes standard probit to investigate international policy according to a country’s constitution.  This is an effective way to analyze how a Constitutional Republic (like the United States) may encourage legislatures to avoid war for the sake of appearing as peaceful politicians.  Surprisingly, his research also reveals how these same members of government may be inclined to support a war-hungry Commander-in Chief for the same reasons.  Ginsburg studies cross-national trends over time and reveals that a major detriment to assigning legislative powers is the region with which a constitution is drafted within.  He summarizes his’ article by stating this about the U.S. Founding Fathers, “Although their specific institutional design has fallen out of favor, their instinct for legislative control over executive war-making has not.” (Ginsburg, 2014, 159). 


Ginsburg’s dependent variable of probit models of legislative involvement in war-making was not significantly impacted by the independent variable of whether or not the country was a democracy or a major power but did see significant effects from the region.  For example, French colonies, Latin America, and eastern Europe (post-Soviet Union) all had legislative involvement in war.  Unfortunately, while Ginsburg was very helpful in showing us what causes a country to restrict its government, he did not show why each region chooses to do so.


While Ginsburg focused primarily on the legal aspects of democratic peace, Michael Tomz and Jessica Weeks team up to study this question from a different angle: the people.  In their article, “Public Opinion and the Democratic Peace” in American Political Science Review, Tomz and Weeks reveal that the common conception that democracies tend to avoid war for financial reasons is flawed.  They deduce, by means of a multi-nominal probit, that the public actually sympathizes with another country based on their shared democracy.  They see other democracies as less of a threat and therefore have a higher level of moral compulsion to avoid militaristic solutions. 


Tomz and Weeks show that people's perceptions of other democracies affects their willingness to go to war.  The effect of democracy on people's perceptions of cost, success, and morality is the dependent variable.  The independent variables that were significant were that attacking another democracy would have a negative effect on our relations with other countries, and that it would be immoral.  The experiment also showed a negative correlation between attacking democracies and the prevention of nuclear war.  In order to further analyze public opinion, this article would have benefitted from a quantitative, comparative study on a countries preference toward sending aid to either autocracies or democracies. 


In “Democratic peace and the norms of the public: a multilevel analysis of the relationship between regime type and citizens' bellicosity, 1981-2008" Jo Jakobsen and Tor Ekevold utilize ordered logit to investigate the dependent variable of a democratic citizenry’s warlike temperament.  A comprehensive multi-level research design is employed studying 72 different countries to present data in support of DPT.  This investigation states that not only international diplomacy is particular within democratic conflict but the people themselves are especial as well: Citizens of democracies are significantly more pacifistic than citizens of non-democracies.” (Jakobsen, Ekevold, 2016, 968) The tables were a bit difficult to follow as they tended to address multiple independent variables simultaneously; however, the data clearly showed that the bellicosity (dependent variable) was lower in countries where the polity (independent variable) was higher.


To take yet another perspective toward the validity of DPT, I present this contribution to Foreign Policy Analysis: “Regime Type and Interstate War Finance” written by Jeff Carter and Glenn Palmer.  Carter and Palmer state,  “Consistent with our expectations, we find that fighting an interstate war is associated with greater reductions in nonmilitary spending in dictatorships than in democracies and that contemporary democracies and dictatorships have largely avoided financing their wars through tax increases and inflation.” (Palmer, 2016, 695).  Here the statistical model OLS is used to study democratic and non-democratic government finance.  They conclude that democratic as well as non-democratic governments typically reduce non-military spending and increase debt in order to pay for their wars.  This reveals that the solution to the question of why democratic peace historically persists is not going to be found in economics.  Dictatorships and Democracies pay for their wars in much of the same manor and neither typically increase taxes. 


Carter and Palmer show that the dependent variable of non-military spending is reduced by the independent variable of war commencing.  The data did show that democracies are initially higher in terms of non-military spending and decrease slightly less.  One weakness of this article is that it presented a false dichotomy of being either democratic or autocratic rather than representing the extent to which a country is more or less democratic.


But perhaps we should not discount the economic perspective before reviewing Mousseau’s take on DPT.  He addresses the overwhelming evidence that DPT tends to coincide with capitalism within the two potentially waring countries and that countries with capitalist markets are less likely to lean toward civil war.  Is this correlated or causal?  In the International Studies Quarterly, Michael Mousseau discusses market-capitalism and utilizes chi-squared tests in his article, “Capitalist Development and Civil War.”  Mousseau shows that a market-capitalist economy—one where most citizens normally obtain their livelihoods contracting in the market—creates citizen-wide preferences for universal freedom, peace, and the democratic rule of law.”  The risk of armed conflict was affected by the independent variable of income.  The reader could have benefitted from Mousseau contrasting market-capitalist tendency for armed conflict with countries who's economic structure leans more communist.


In the Journal of Strategic Security, by use of COW and the Polity Index, Steve Dobransky studies Democratic military strategy in “The Dawn of a New Age? Democracies and Military Victory.”  In this article, Dobransky compares regime types and war outcomes.  He concludes that democracies are more prone to fighting and winning wars.   “This research finds that regime type and alliances are significant variables in winning wars and that democracies win the large majority (84%) of wars that they are involved in.”  (Dobransky, 2013, 1).  This will not be the only article that we will explore that studies the likelihood of democratic victory.  Research from this and the following article both reveal that democracies are far more likely to continue fighting than autocracies, and therefore are more likely to win.  Likelihood of war was the dependent variable.  It was affected by alliances with other democratic countries.  This confirms Kant’s claim that a “league of peace” would be formidable.  It would have been preferable if each figure would have indicated the significant variable for the reader.


Andrew Bausch added his benefaction to the Journal of Conflict Resolution titled “Democracy and War Effort.”  Here, Bausch tackles the question of DPT by approaching it from two angles simultaneously: studying how leaders select into wars and how they fight them.  Democracies are more likely to win war for two main reasons: they select out of difficult wars and they mobilize more resources than autocracies.  He begins by explaining the reason for democratic victories.  This rational conclusion is motivated by the idea that democratic leaders will be replaced if they don’t win.  This is known as “Selectorate Theory.”  It can better be explained by saying that leaders of democracies are more likely to lose office when they lose wars.  Bausch performs a laboratory experiment to determine the likelihood of countries selecting into wars and thereafter fighting them.  Like Dobransky, he also explains why democracies are more likely to continue fighting: “once wars were underway, democratic leaders were more reluctant than autocratic leaders to accept a negotiated settlement to end the war and used more resources in the final stage of the war.” (Bausch, 2017, 832).


 One objection to Bausch’s research is that it does not accurately represent the likelihood of autocratic and democratic leaders to enter into war.  Real-world examples derived from history are a much better predictor of future military campaigns.  For example, Christopher Gelpi’s contribution to the same Journal (Journal of Conflict Resolution) built a cumulative thesis constructed upon historical benchmarks of war.  While Bausch’s experiment showed that democracies would be more likely to engage in war, Gelpi’s “Democracies in Conflict: The Role of Public Opinion, Political Parties, and the Press in Shaping Security Policy” argues the exact opposite.  Here he references multiple examples ranging from World War I to the recent Iraq War, uses multiple domestic audience cost models, and refers to the surmounting literature concerning this topic to defend DPT. 


David Pritchard takes a comprehensive view with “Democracy and War in Ancient Athens and Today" by analyzing DPT from 500 BC to the present.  After confirming that democracies historically tend to not engage in battle with one another, he establishes that democratic regimes are no less war-like than autocracies.  Finally, he confirms the previously stated theories that democracies tend to win more battles throughout history.  Unlike other articles, this study was not derived from quantitative research, but it did finalize the argument as to whether DPT has stood the test of time.


In conclusion, it would appear that there is a consensus that democracies are highly unlikely to go to war with one another.  It is also fair to conclude, based on the referenced sources above, that this is a result of legislators attempting to avoid being replaced by their constituency.  The cause of this is likely that democratic citizens are more likely to empathize with the citizenry of other democracies and are not likely to consider them threatening.  The desire to not waste resources as a catalyst for a peaceful public is in contention; however, democracies and capitalism do tend to be correlated.  Also, there is no evidence that DPT leads to peace between democracies and non-democratic countries; in fact, democracies are proven to be less likely to negotiate peace and more likely to continue fighting until victory is attained. 


Perhaps an appropriate direction for DPT to research in the future would be the clarification of the difference between empirical and normative claims.  To classify DPT as an empirical claim is defended well by academia; however, utilizing it as a normative claim and therefore designing international policy by it has proven problematic if not utterly disastrous.  The best example of using DPT as a justification for war came to us by former President George W. Bush.  In his speech concerning the Iraq War, Bush claimed that spreading “freedom” will decrease terrorism.  We now know this to be a false prediction and can see the danger that DPT may offer as an ideology.

“They know that as freedom takes root in Iraq, it will inspire millions across the Middle East to claim their liberty as well. And when the Middle East grows in democracy, prosperity and hope, the terrorists will lose their sponsors, lose their recruits and lose their hopes for turning that region into a base for attacks on America and our allies around the world.” (George W. Bush, Whitehouse Archives, 2003, 167)

Works Cited

Bausch, Andrew W. (2017). Democracy and War Effort. Journal of Conflict Resolution 61(4): 814-838.

Carter, Jeff, & Palmer, Glenn. (2016). “Regime Type and Interstate War Finance.” Foreign Policy Analysis 12(4): 695-719.

Dobransky, Steve. (2014). “The Dawn of a New Age? Democracies and Military Victory.” Journal of Strategic Security 7(1): 1-15.

Gelpi, Christopher. (2017). “Democracies in Conflict.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 61(9): 1925–1949.

Ginsburg, Tom. (2014). “Chaining the dog of war: Comparative data.” Chicago Journal of International Law 15(1): 138-161.

Jakobsen, Jo, & Ekevold, Tor. (2016). “Democratic peace and the norms of the public: A multilevel analysis of the relationship between regime type and citizens' bellicosity, 1981-2008.” Review of International Studies 42(5): 968-991.

Mousseau, Michael (2012). “Capitalist Development and Civil War.” International Studies Quarterly 56(September): 470-483.

Pritchard, David M. (2015). “Democracy and War in Ancient Athens and Today.” Greece & Rome 62(2): 140-154.

Tomz, Michael R., & Weeks, Jessica L. P. (2013). “Public opinion and the democratic peace.” The American Political Science Review 107(4): 849-865.

White House Archives. Bush Record. 2003. Selected Speeches George W. Bush: (November 26, 2018).

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