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Can the world be made safe through democracy?

Posted By Administration, Monday, October 15, 2018
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Craig Perry, a member of our Emerging Fellows program examines the possibility of making a safer world by means of democracy. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

From a realist perspective, international relations amounts to little more than a power struggle among states, each of which acts essentially the same, regardless of its particular nature. Like billiard balls ricocheting off one another in an anarchic game of realpolitik, states amount to “black boxes” whose external behavior reveals nothing about their internal workings—or so the theory goes. But a growing body of empirical evidence suggests democracies can behave quite differently than other states, with profound implications for the future of warfare.

The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant was first to recognize that a world of constitutional republics might someday bring perpetual peace, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that liberal democracy became widespread enough to put his hypothesis to the test. Since then, study after study has found that wars between mature democracies are indeed less common than conflicts involving other kinds of states. Kant anticipated this phenomenon would come about because citizens who bear the human and financial costs of war would naturally be cautious if empowered to authorize hostilities. Furthermore, democratic political norms favoring compromise and respect for human rights tend to make republics a bit less bellicose—at least when dealing with states similarly governed.

This democratic peace theory comes with a caveat, however: When confronted by autocracies, democracies are just as likely to wage war as any other state. Aggressive imperialist, fascist, and communist regimes repeatedly learned this lesson during the 20th century, often finding that their democratic rivals could mobilize superior political and economic resources when provoked. On the other hand, autocratic regimes that transitioned to democracy—such as Germany and Japan following World War II— became much less threatening to their neighbors, as Kant’s hypothesis predicted.  

Given these developments, it’s not surprising that the United States and its democratic allies came to view the promotion of democracy around the world as a matter of self-interest. Whether inspired by liberal ideals or neoconservative concerns, “making the world safe for democracy” became synonymous in many Western circles with making the world safe through democracy—that is, pressuring autocratic regimes to adopt democratic reforms, by force if necessary, for the sake of both national security and human rights. Sadly, American diplomatic and military efforts since 9/11 to spread democracy at gunpoint ended in disaster, arguably making the world less safe.

Compounding this trend is the troubling decline, after decades of almost uninterrupted progress, in the number of fully functioning democracies around the world. Illiberal regimes have come to power in Venezuela, Turkey, Hungary, and elsewhere around the world, and the erosion of democratic norms in the United States has undermined America’s soft-power appeal and claims to leadership of the so-called “free world.” Nevertheless, reports of democracy’s death are greatly exaggerated; for all its flaws, the social, economic, and, yes, security benefits of this form of government still greatly outweigh any alternatives, and it is likely to further spread in the future.

Although democracy has undoubtedly reduced warfare among its practitioners, it is unlikely to diminish the potential for great-power conflict anytime soon. On the contrary, Western democracy-promotion efforts have exacerbated tensions with Moscow, which blames Washington for the “color revolutions” that overthrew friendly regimes in Ukraine, Georgia, and across the Arab world, while Beijing is wary of any political liberalization that might undermine the Community Party’s hold on power. Consequently, Russia and China have emerged as exemplars of authoritarian governance, undemocratic alternatives to the United States in a multipolar world. Meanwhile, America’s emergence as a great power actually led to its war-making deliberations becoming less democratic. Congress has gradually ceded its constitutional authority over national security issues to the president, while the voting public has largely lost interest in military matters since the end of mass conscription and the advent of an all-volunteer force. Under such circumstances, great-power behavior can often bear a striking resemblance to billiard balls after all.


© Craig Perry 2018

Tags:  democracy  liberal democracy  soft-power 

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