"Democratic Peace" as a Narrative of Political Justification

Anna Geis

(Last modified May 2011)

The objective of this project is to undertake a critical examination of what is currently the most successful and popular liberal theory among researchers in the United States who study international relations: the so-called democratic peace. Among the specific merits of democracy as a form of rule, including its capacity to secure internal freedom, internal peace, and a certain level of prosperity, and the relative responsiveness and adaptability of democracy as a form of government, a feature that shapes foreign relations is often cited as a distinguishing characteristic: democracies do not fight wars against one another. Since the 1980s this statistically demonstrable feature of democracies has brought forth an extensive body of research on democratic peace that is dominated by scholars from the United States.

Democratic peace research has been successful precisely because it has established an extensive and expanding research program. And it is popular because it has migrated from the academic realm into the political discourses of Western democracies, where, however, political actors have simplified and distorted the more complex arguments elaborated by scholars. Especially in the United States, politicians and journalists cite research findings to justify specific foreign policy strategies or assert the moral superiority of Western democracies in international politics. In extremis, democratic peace theory is referred to as a justification for democratization with the use of force (as in the 2003 Iraq War) or to legitimize demands for a privileged "concert of democracies". In this respect democratic peace theory serves to reinforce the conflict-fuelling identity politics of democratic actors.

Immanuel Kant’s "Perpetual Peace" (1795) serves as the standard philosophical point of reference for this liberal research program, which seeks to explain the peacefulness of democracies by pointing to various institutional, economic/rational, and normative/cultural factors. Except for the case of immediate self-defense, the theory proposes, democratic citizens reject war as a means of politics for moral reasons as well as to protect their material self-interests. Consequently, preferences for peaceful means of conflict resolution emerge through historical learning processes. Democratic processes and institutions ultimately ensure that governments do not put their warlike intentions into practice because the fear of losing elections forces them to heed their voters’ aversion to violence.

Both the concept of and research in democratic peace theory are plainly committed to the Western-liberal project of enlightened modernity. They must presuppose rational actors (“ordinary” citizens as well as elites) who possess an adequate measure of reason, self-control, and the capacity to learn to conduct both domestic and foreign politics in a civilized manner: rational deliberation, constant efforts to balance conflicting interests, and respect for the other and the law represent central assumptions of the democratic peace mainstream.

Implicitly or explicitly, many studies in this field imply a belief in progress that seems to be steeped in historical philosophy and carries an all too positive (self-)image of the consolidated democracies of the northern and western hemispheres. One thing we see articulated here is the belief in the West’s political and moral superiority, which has driven the foreign policy imperative to "spread democracy to spread peace", especially since the end of the Cold War. "Democratic peace" is thus by no means merely an academic playground for philosophers and political scientists but has, in its simplified version, permeated political practice in a way that is as potent as it is ideologically charged.

Despite the widespread instrumentalization of democratic peace research to serve the interests of foreign policy, it is obvious that the idea of democracies’ special peace-proneness must be revised, because democracies have been and are involved in numerous wars and military interventions. That is, they wage war against non-democracies. Reconciling this observation with the famous finding of democracies’ supposedly stable "separate peace" continues to vex the theory’s liberal supporters: How can democracies be both so peaceful and so warlike?

This research project begins by analyzing the discourse on democratic peace as a political narrative of justification. Research on democratic peace has developed in near isolation from other research strands in politics and sociology, which transport a considerably more ambivalent picture of the peacefulness of Western democracies. The goal of the project is to deconstruct the optimistic civilizing narrative of "democratic peace" by confronting it with several counter-narratives on the fragility of democratic peacefulness.

These counter-narratives have emerged from work on theories of the state and democracy theory and from sociological research on the diverse inclusion/exclusion processes and the constructions of threats that accompany them in late-modern democratic societies. Linking these narratives with the field of democratic peace research, which has to date flourished in isolation in the realm of scholarship on international relations will yield new insights, because the use of military force is generally accompanied by strong threat constructions with negatively charged images of a (radical) "other." In the extreme form of enemy stereotyping, such constructions of difference serve to legitimize the use of force, but in principle even apparently "more harmless" forms of "othering" are a means of constructing or stabilizing our own identity concepts.

Taking up certain strands from intense debates in the social sciences in recent decades on identity and difference, the project will analyze possible factors that promote the production of threat constructions in and by contemporary consolidated democracies. The goal is to show that the microtheoretical foundations of democratic peace rest on tenuous ground. The potentially violence-promoting exclusion processes and threat constructions that can be observed within Western democracies imply that peace within and between democracies will always be precarious. Only by examining both the positive and negative sides of modern democratic societies can we gain a realistic understanding of their civilizing potential.