Democracy: The Key to Avoiding Future Wars? (1)

Editor's Note: This is the first in a two-part series. The second part can be found here.

The summer 2013 has been fertile in upheavals and violent events, surrounded by heated controversies and very often by an absence of neutrality in the media. The international community is divided. As a result, informed and balanced judgments are difficult to achieve. Taking political decisions is thus even harsher than usual, bringing to the fore the cruel dilemma that are so often at the core of international politics. The Tamarod (Tamarrud) movement in Egypt rose and succeeded, ushering real-life battles and a corresponding debate regarding the democratic or non-democratic credentials of the resulting Egyptian government, with considerable impacts in terms of international perceptions, alliances and actions. The birth of similar movements in Tunisia and Palestine let us expect more changes to come. The current battle of ideas and principles surrounding the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the international responses that ought to follow is bitter, embedded in psychological warfare, and its result and the actions (or non-action) that will ensue will have tremendous consequences for Syria, for most countries, for the region and for the world order.

In this light, it is useful—and necessary—to stop, think and reflect on the idea of democracy and its relationship to violence and ultimately war. What is a democracy? What does it mean to behave and act according to its principles? What does it mean for a citizen and what does it mean for a state? Are democracies more peaceful than other regimes? How should democracies act and react in the international world?

Henry Kissinger wrote that “The idea that peace depends above all on promoting democratic institutions has remained a staple of American thought to the present day. Conventional American wisdom has consistently maintained that democracies do not make war against each other.”[0] The idea according to which “democracies almost never fight each other” has been studied from different theoretical perspectives by many scholars in International Relations. For example, Singer and Small used an empirical framework in 1976 and 1982, Doyle reintroduced the Kantian philosophy for its explanatory and predictive power in 1983, Lake attempted to use a model of micro-economy in 1991, and a host or articles followed suite in the 1990s.[1] Multiple explanatory reasons have been given, which are never completely satisfying.

We shall first review the concepts involved and define a theoretical framework. We shall then analyze and answer the question according to the different levels where democracy is practiced: the individuals within a nation, the states in their relationships with one another and also with their citizens, and humankind.[2]

Concepts and Theoretical Framework

First, what is Democracy? Empirically, it is a relative concept, changing with time and space: for example, the American Democracy of the beginning of the 19th century, accepting slavery, or France, before 1945, when women were forbidden to vote, would not be considered nowadays as democracies. Democracy is a social construct and does not exist per se.

Second, the adjective “future” refers to something that is neither present nor past, to something that does not exist yet, if we place ourselves in the western linear definition of time. Even by restricting in such a way the concept of future, to which future are we referring? Do we think about tomorrow, to the next ten years or to what will happen in a millennium?

Third, the concept of war is equally difficult to define. Do we take into consideration any “direct, somatic violence between states?”[3] Do we include economic warfare? Do we consider domestic warfare such as rebellion, revolution? Do we include asymmetric warfare and conflicts between different categories of actors (states and would-be state actors for example)?

Do we introduce the quantitative threshold criteria often used of “at least 1000 battle fatalities?”[4] Or shall we prefer the criteria used by the UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset 1946 – 2012, v.4–2013, according to which “A conflict, both state-based and non-state, is deemed to be active if there are at least 25 battle-related deaths per calendar year in one of the conflict’s dyads.” Or, rather shall we prefer a definition that focuses on process and conflict dynamics, as chosen by the Conflict Barometer of the University of Heidelberg, and according to which “a political conflict is a positional difference, regarding values relevant to a society (the conflict items), between at least two decisive and directly involved actors, which is being carried out using observable and interrelated conflict measures that lie outside established regulatory procedures and threaten core state functions, the international order or hold out the prospect to do so” (2012: 120). The difficulty is increased by the presence of the adjective future: Future wars may take a form we are unable to imagine nowadays.

Finally, an action implies in turn an agent. Which agent tries to reach or abide by democracy? Is it the individual, some group of individuals, the state, the international system?

Our theoretical framework must allow us to define our concepts while taking into account evolution, change and progress. Thus, rather than focusing on forms that are relative, we must strive to identify the core principle, the idea behind the multiple and contingent forms.

Following on Doyle, Kantian philosophy answers best our criteria: first, by distinguishing between the phenomenal and the noumenal world, Kant answers the problem of relativity and change.[5] Second Kant takes into account the notion of progress and of dynamism. Third, as most non-realist scholars recognize, Kant best explains—and predicts—the linkage between democracy (as a representative republic) and war.[6] In this framework we can now redefine our question.

The political system “Democracy” is based upon the principle of universal right, itself application of the universal principle of morality.[7]

It believes in morally autonomous equal in rights, and free individuals. It is defined as

A constitution allowing the greatest possible freedom in accordance with laws, which ensure that the freedom of each can coexist with the freedom of all the others.[8]

From those principles come the political institutions toward which a democracy should tend: a representative republic allowing for the separation of the legislative, executive and judiciary powers.

Thus to live in a democracy and to be democratic, or to become a democracy, cannot only be about a form. This means, among others, that the current focus on elections is inadequate. It demands to adopt and practice the democratic principles. This, in turn, can only be made if adherence to the universal principles of rights and morality is practiced. It is meant to be an ongoing effort and pursuit because, whatever the agent (individual, movement, party, group, state) considered, this agent is every day confronted to new choices when s/he can decide – as a free agent—to act democratically or not.

The definition we shall retain for “war” stems from the previous principles. It will be any kind of violence that threatens the principle of universal right and thus the external freedom of human beings, “freedom from any constraint except coercion by law, a freedom which allows each individual to pursue his own ends, whatever they may be, provided that this pursuit leaves the same kind of freedom to all others” (Reiss: 22). Domestically, civil strive and internecine violence, the very reasons why human beings entered Democracy, are thus included. At the level of states, we have interstate wars.

This definition also allows us to include economic warfare. If the economic actions of one state toward another imply violence and are such that they deny external freedom to the members of the other state, this may be considered as an act of economic warfare. For example, we could “imagine” a state (or a powerful economic actor) A pushing a state B by means of tied bilateral aid to abandon its survival traditional agriculture for the monoculture of a product interesting A. The condition of self-dependency into which B would be reduced by accepting such a proposal would already question the external freedom of its citizens. Nevertheless, let us assume that B genuinely believes in cooperation. Now, if A decides for any reason not to buy anymore from B, this decision might be considered as economic warfare: the citizens of B are exposed to the violence of starvation and death. Their external freedom has been denied. We can point out too that A has respected neither the principles of universal right nor the categorical imperative. This questions obviously directly the use of GMOs and the practice of companies such as Monsanto, as well as the patents on traditional medicines. Ecological warfare can be examined in the same manner. Similarly, conflicts across levels can be included.

Now that our concepts are defined, we shall analyze the question through the different kinds of agents who pursue democracy: the individuals within a nation, the states in their relationships with one another and also with their citizens, and humankind.[9]

This post was provided by Dr. Helene Lavoix, Founder, Director, and Senior Analyst at The Red (Team) Analysis Society. This post was originally published on her organization’s website.

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Header Image: AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen


[0] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy, (New York: Touchstone, 1994), p.44.

[1] Singer and Small quoted in Bruce RussettGrasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post-Cold War Order, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), Michael Doyle, “Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs” Part I and II, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1983, vol. 12, Nos. 3 & 4, pp. 205–235 & pp. 323–353; David Lake, “Powerful Pacifists: Democratic States and War,”American Political Science Review, March 1992, Vol. 86, No. 1, pp. 24–37; James Lee Ray, “Does Democracy cause Peace?”, Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci. 1998. 1:27–46.

[2] See Immanuel Kant “Perpetual Peace: a Philosophical Sketch,” in Kant: Political Writings edited by Hans Reiss, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), note p.98. Each level corresponds respectively to the civil right (ius civitatis), the international right (ius gentium) and the cosmopolitan right (ius cosmopoliticum). Note that these levels are very similar to the classical three levels of analysis of international relations. I added the relationship of the state with its citizens to the second level, although not specifically mentioned by Kant, because the agent “state” acts domestically as well as internationally.

[3] Graham Evans & Jeffrey Newham, The Dictionary of World Politics: a Reference Guide to Concepts, Ideas and Institutions, (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), p. 339.

[4] Russett, Grasping the Democratic Peace referring to Small and Singer, p.12

[5] Doyle, Ibid. For the phenomenal and noumenal worlds, see Hans Reiss, “Introduction,” in Kant: Political Writings edited by Hans Reiss, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 17. The relativity of core values should be studied in broader debates, such as cosmopolitan versus communitarian. The deep beliefs concerning “the permanent nature of man” as writes Pierre Hassner play an important role in the elaboration of theories and should be an interesting axis of research. Yet, this does not imply the validity of theses such as “The Clash of Civilizations” of Huntington: for example, in the Chinese philosophy, it may be interesting to study if Taoism versus Confucianism can be considered as a version of Cosmopolitanism versus Communitarianism. Similarities can be found between religions (compare for example the 40 days Jesus Christ spent in the desert and the temptation he had to fight with the meditation of Gautama (future Bouddha) and the way Mâra (Evil) tried to tempt him or compare again the messianic dimension of Vishnou with the concept of Boddhisatva, with the judeo-christian Messiah, and with the Islam concept of prophetes). Correspondances exist between mythologies (compare for example the Egyptian Thot with the Latin/Greek Hermes/Mercury and with the Norse Odin) and folktales. See also the astonishing similarities of the Kantian and the Buddhist cosmologies. All these similarities are contrary to irreconcilable differences of values between civilizations.

[6] Kant, Perpetual Peace, First Definitive Article, pp. 100–101.

[7] Reiss, ibid. p. 23.

[8] Ibid., quoting Kant, p.23.

[9] See [2] above.