Is Democratic Decline Good for International Peace?
The Freedom House research institute has noted a continuous global democratic decline over the past decade and a half; free countries have been losing ground to not free countries. This development could have implications for international relations and interstate conflict, though there are different theories of how and to what extent.
First off, there is the Realist assumption that any factors below the international level of analysis are irrelevant to what happens in international politics, that the anarchic system of self-help requires all states to act the same way, despite their differences at lower levels of analysis. Then there is the position of Democratic Peace Theory (DPT) which holds that a world with fewer democracies is a more volatile place, making the Freedom House findings especially worrisome. Lastly, however, this notion is opposed by the view that the nature of democracies actually hinders the conduct of effective foreign policy, resulting in more conflict; if this is the case then the new balance of free and not free countries is good for international peace.
As Kenneth Waltz observes, states tend to act similarly when it comes to foreign policy, even though they may be very different internally. Even more specifically, he points out that all sorts of organizations, from tribes to states, with all sorts of institutions, fight wars. The Realist and Neorealist response then is to look for a commonality that can account for these similarities in action, believing that it must come from an overarching system rather than an underlying quality they all happen to share; this is the international system.
Because the international system is anarchic, meaning there is no authority all states must obey, every state must fend for itself, they must all seek security against each other. Christopher Layne, another Realist who argues against DPT, uses the Ruhr crisis as an example as democratic France invaded democratic Germany’s territory to annex their resources and force them to pay the WWI reparations they were defecting on. France didn’t care about the structure of the state, just the structure of the international system, and they wanted to secure themselves against future German threats by keeping Germany weak.
This is why some scholars view the Freedom House findings as irrelevant to the future of interstate conflict; the ratio of democracies to non-democracies does not affect the international structure, and so the actions of states should also not be affected.
In stark contrast to Realism are the assertions of Democratic Peace Theory. This theory claims that democracies have not fought each other in war and that this must be because of some unique quality of their internal structure. The qualities proposed to have accomplished this anomaly in world history are democracy’s institutional constraints and its norms and culture.
Layne convincingly makes the case that institutional constraints — such as the checks and balances on the governmental authority to make decisions that lead to war — aren’t the explanation because if they were then democracies would be less war-prone overall, and not just towards other democracies, which isn’t the case. That leaves the explanation of norms and culture, the values of compromise and peaceful conflict resolution that democracies supposedly hold, and the positive perceptions democracies supposedly hold for each other. An example of this could be Italy breaking its alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary in WWI and siding with its democratic kin Britain and France.
Putting aside Layne’s other issues with this explanation, if it were true it would mean that more democracies leads to more peace, and a world made up of only democratic states would be completely peaceful. The Freedom House findings then would be distressing because they would be a good indicator that a rise in international conflict is soon to come.
The last theory concerning the implications of democratic decline is similar to DPT in the way that it uses the state level of analysis to explain international relations, but other than that it is completely contradictory. What I will call the Democratic Incompetence Theory is the view espoused by Alexis de Tocqueville among others that democracy is ill-suited to foreign policy because of disruption from below or derailment from above.
Disruption from below refers to how in democracies the people have a lot of control over government, and they often aren’t able to effectively evaluate and decide on foreign policy. They may not want to pay for a large enough military to deter aggression or win wars, or they may be too eager to start a conflict that it would be wiser to avoid. Additionally, derailment from above refers to how the structure of government isn’t well suited to foreign policy precisely because the checks and balances discussed earlier could hinder efficient and centralized decision-making.
Also, if the president of a democracy wants to pursue some foreign policy objective, often they will have to oversell the threat or reward to get public approval, which could impact the perceptions of other states. The Spanish-American War could be an example of an unnecessary conflict brought about by public opinion. With the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana attributed to the Spanish without evidence, and stories of Spanish atrocities committed against the Cuban people, the American public pushed for a war that likely wouldn’t have started without their input. If Democratic Incompetence Theory is correct, then the Freedom House findings would be a positive trend for international stability.
So, which theory is right?
- Layne, Christopher. “Kant or Cant: The Myth of the Democratic Peace.” International Security, vol. 19, no. 2, The MIT Press, 1994, pp. 5–49, https://doi.org/10.2307/2539195.
- Waltz, Kenneth N. “The Origins of War in Neorealist Theory.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 18, no. 4, The MIT Press, 1988, pp. 615–28, https://doi.org/10.2307/204817.