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Last Updated: 08/29/2008
Democracy and peace: an over-emphasized relationship
Menandro S Abanes

This essay revisits the classical argument of democratic-peace in reference to more recent political events, including the US and UK led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and concludes that democracy in and of itself is an insufficient indicator of a given state's likelihood of engaging in war. The message of this argument takes on an extra dimension of meaning in light of the recent conflict in Georgia.

Today, more states are embracing democracy than three decades ago.[1] In 2006, there were 77 democratic states compared to 49 anocracies[2] and 34 autocracies (Hewitt et. al., 2008, p.13). What does it mean to the peace and security of the world? Is the world getting more peaceful as more democracies are emerging? Indeed, there is “a distinct downward trend” of the number of both internal and interstate active armed conflicts (Ibid, 2008, p.12). However, the downward trend is attributed not to the rise of democratic states, but to the end of Cold War period.

According to Thomas Hobbes[3]  and Immanuel Kant (cited in Behler, 1986, p.276), the state of nature or natural state is a condition of war. Both philosophers treated peace as something to be established and endeavored by man/woman. Thus, how do we get out of this state of nature (condition of war)? Or how do we achieve peace?

To achieve peace, Kant proposed a league of nations, a federation of republican states under the law of nations which both secures and constrains freedom of states. In Kant’s idea, the expansion of this league would bring perpetual peace.

Is democracy a way out of this state of nature? Or does democratization (democracy has to start somewhere and sometime) reinforce this state of nature? The democratic peace proposition answers the first question positively. Ray (1998) believes that democracy causes peace. On the other hand, Mansfield and Snyder (2005) favor the second question. I shall attempt in this short essay to find out which of the two questions stands in scrutiny and analysis as more convincing and compelling to believe.

The ambivalence of the relationship between democracy and war could be highlighted in the global war on terror launched by the United States and its allies in the aftermath of 9/11 terrorist attack. The US-led alliance against terrorism has come to believe that preventive wars might be necessary to “build the ‘infrastructure of democracy’ abroad” (Mansfield and Snyder, 2005, p.1). This belief led to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq which at the time of the invasion were under despotic regimes. Wars were waged in the name of introducing democracy to these two countries. The premise of those wars was that democracy would bring freedom, security and peace to the two countries and to the world. After the invasion, democratic processes started to roll with elections leading the way. The expectations and hopes of these processes did not materialize as the conditions of Afghanistan and Iraq have been implicitly that of civil war which is a picture of Hobbesian and Kantian state of nature.

What is war?

The standard definition of war has come from the Correlates of War (CoW) project which helps further research on the topic.[4] It puts definitive measure to war as a conflict where at least 1,000 battle deaths are recorded in a given year (Mansfield and Snyder, 2005, p.91; Ray, 1998, p.31). This definition includes interstate, extra-systemic, and intrastate wars. For this essay, I make no distinction between interstate, extra-systemic, and intrastate wars. All of them deserve to be called “war”.

What is democracy?

As a system of government, democracy has four key elements; free elections to choose or replace a government, peoples’ participation in politics and civic life, human rights protection, and a rule of law that is equally applicable to all citizens.[5] A state that possesses these four key elements is said to be a democratic state.

To measure democracy, Mansfield and Snyder (2005) consider states to be democratic when there is competitive competition of political parties or groupings in the election, when the head of the government is popularly voted into office, and when “constraints on the executive are more than ‘substantial,’ based on Polity scale” (p.77).

Democracy and peace

There is a general consensus that no democracies have ever been at war against each other. The basic idea and reason is that “democracy is an important cause of peace” (Ray, 1998, p.27). Even Mansfield and Snyder (2005) agree with this when they argue that “a root cause of the democratic peace is that democratic institutions make government authorities accountable to the average voter” (p.51). So the leaders of democratic states would not risk their position or office by going to war because they could always be voted out of their offices by own citizens who would carry the brunt of war.

Democracy is not an absolute category, however, and there are many nations transitioning into (or out of) democratic institutions. Mansfield and Snyder (2005) argue that countries experiencing such transitions are actually “more likely than other states to become involved in war”, especially “countries undergoing incomplete democratization with weak institutions” (p.67).

Perhaps the most fundamental question that begs to be asked of the democratic-peace concept is: does democracy stop war from happening? Obviously it does not. Democratic states have initiated and engaged in plenty of wars. Just count the number of modern wars that the US and United Kingdom (UK), two known champions of democracy, have been involved in. I remember two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many others. Thus, democracy does not stop wars, and it does not offer us a way out of the Hobbesian state of nature.

Democracy and war

If democracy does not stop war, then does it go to war? I would say, yes! Even though democracies do not fight each other, “they fight and initiate wars about as often as non-democracies” (Mansfield and Snyder, 2005, p.49).

What about those democratizing states or incomplete democracies? Are they really prone to war? As mentioned earlier, Mansfield and Snyder (2005) argue that they are at a higher risk of going to war than either democratic or autocratic states. There are key features that make these democratizing states more likely to go to war. These are weak institutions and strong nationalistic sentiments. An example cited in the book, Electing to Fight, is the Falklands war between Argentina and Britain. The authors consider Argentina as “an incompletely democratizing initiator of the war” (p. 219).

In actual fact, however, Argentina was not democratizing at the time when the war was launched, although it was expecting an election. The war was more of an effort by the Argentina’s junta to hold on to power, than the result of any democratizing processes.

Carothers (2007) and McFaul (2007) are similarly critical of the assertion of Mansfield and Snyder. Carothers cites Francis Fukuyama’s comment that many wars in Europe for the last 500 years have had something to do more with state-building than democracy. McFaul, on the other hand, simply does not buy the arguments made by Mansfield and Snyder. He points convincingly to theoretical, methodological and empirical flaws of the thesis on democratization leading to war. One of the flaws McFaul cites is the mislabeling of those cases that are supposed to be “regime collapse or a return to autocracy” as democratizing states (p.164). He reviews the examples used in the book, such as France under Napoleon III and the Prussia case. McFaul hardly considers these cases as democratizing states, and I agree with him on this point. France was hardly a democratizing state when Napoleon III took power through a coup.

The evidences to support the argument that democratization causes states to be more war-prone have thus been undermined by Carothers and McFaul, and we are left with the conclusion that there is no direct relationship between democracy and war.


As an international peace student, there is a value though in the arguments of Mansfield and Snyder, in spite of the valid criticisms the book has received. There is always soe value in shedding light on the causes of war. For Mansfield and Snyder, it is democratization that has something to do with war. For realists, it is about geopolitics and self-interest. For pragmatists, it is greed. For freedom fighters, it is oppression and marginalization. For me, wars have peculiarities that make it difficult to categorize them grandly. Although I have special interest in understanding wars, I have come to abhor war which is the worst enemy of peace. However, war also makes peace possible and desirable.

Having reviewed the arguments for and against the concept of democratic-peace, I think the relationship between democracy and war is ultimately neutral and indeterminate. Democracy neither leads us out of our warlike and belligerent methods of dealing with conflict, nor does it particularly reinforce the condition of war.

Democracy by itself is not enough to begin or end a war; rather we must look to intermediary forces, such as economic and environmental pressures, untamed nationalism, the marginalization of minorities, and clampdowns on culture and religion.



Carothers, T. (2007). Misunderstanding Gradualism, Journal of Democracy, 18(3), 18-22.

Hewitt, J. et. al. (2008). Peace and Conflict 2008: Executive Summary. Maryland: Center for International Development and Conflict Management, University of Maryland.

Kant, I. (1986) [1795]. Perpetual Peace. In E. Behler (Ed.). Immanuel Kant: Philosophical Writings. New York: Continuum, pp.270-311.

McFaul, M. (2007). Are New Democracies War-Prone? Book review of Mansfield and Snyder (2005), Journal of Democracy 18(2), 160-167.

Mansfield, E and J. Snyder. (2005). Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ray, J. (1998). Does Democracy Cause Peace? Annual Review of Political Science 1, 27-

[1] From 1973-2004, “there were 179 instances of democratization, defined as countries moving from either Not Free to Free (25 cases) or Not Free to Partly Free (154 cases), as determined by Freedom House rankings” (McFaul, 2007, p.161).

[2] Anocracy is a “middle category of regimes having a mix of authoritarian and democratic institutional features” (Hewitt, et. al, 2008, p.13).

[3] See for an elaboration on Thomas Hobbes’ philosophy.

[4] See for the project history of CoW.

[5] See for the whole lecture on what is democracy?

Menandro Abanes is a master's degree candidate from the University for Peace.