Triangulating Peace? Or, Three Foundations for Oppression?

[The following is a revised version of a reaction paper I wrote for a graduate seminar in international conflict back in 2005.]

In Triangulating Peace: Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations, Bruce Russet and John Oneal mount the most thorough defense of the democratic peace thesis I have yet seen. Indeed, they go beyond the democratic peace thesis to posit a Kantian peace consisting of the interrelated and reciprocal effects of democracy, economic interdependence, and international law and organizations. I am not without criticism, however.

I have always been skeptical of the democratic peace thesis, which posits that democratic states do not go to war with one another, in part because it seemed to me to be incomplete. Russet and Oneal attempt to shore up that incompleteness by emphasizing the pacifying effects of both bilateral and global economic interdependence as well as (though not unproblematically) international law and organizations.

Despite the impossibility of discovering empirical laws via inductive and statistical methods, it may be true that (liberal) democracies rarely go to war with one another and, ceteris paribus, might be less war prone than other states. But I am not confident this trend will hold for all times and places.1 Moreover, democracies may still be more likely to go to war with non-democracies for ideological reasons. “We’ve” got to make the world safe for democracy, after all.

Russet and Oneal’s work suggests that economic interdependence is at least as important, if not more so, than democracy for promoting peace, but they need to expand their measurement criteria beyond merely free trade. An interesting tidbit from their book is that major powers are much more war prone than minor powers, even if they are democracies. This needs to receive more attention, particularly in connection with another tidbit, the well-known fact that smaller countries are more dependent on trade than larger countries because the latter are more self-sufficient.

Far more important than democracy for promoting peace, it seems to me, is an analysis of the power and size of states in relation to war-proneness. Economic interdependence reduces the incentive to go to war. Large states are more self-sufficient, engage in less foreign trade, and therefore have greater incentive to go to war. Larger size also lends itself to greater economies of scale in war-making. The size of a state is closely but not perfectly correlated with its power, but relatively high raw military and economic power also increase the incentive to go to war.

Just as important, and also neglected by international conflict scholars, is understanding how the anatomy of the state necessarily makes it war prone. The state is a territorial monopolist of the legal use of force and ultimate decision-making. As a coercive monopolist, its natural tendency is to suppress (internal and external) competitors and extract ever more wealth from its subjects in order to increase its own power. Its tendency is to grow into Leviathan. Being a coercive monopolist, it lacks the incentive to lower costs and improve the quality of its goods and services, to satisfy its “customers.” As a coercive monopolist, unlike private citizens and businesses (including private security firms), it has the power to externalize the costs of war onto its subjects. Having the ability to externalize costs increases its incentive to go to war.

Far more important than democracy and international organizations in promoting peace, then, would seem to be (somehow) vastly increasing the number of small states and decreasing the number of large, powerful states in the international system. This will promote economic interdependence and therefore peace. It will also increase competition among states for subjects as the latter will have more opportunities to “vote with their feet,” though states will remain territorial monopolists. Smaller size, resulting in increased need for trade, will reduce the ability of states to externalize costs and extract wealth from their subjects.

A few words about the problem of focusing solely on peace as defined by international relations scholars: When international relations scholars speak of war and peace with regard to their research, they have technical definitions in mind that may not exactly match up with common usage. And it is not uncommon for the scholars themselves to slide sloppily from their technical definitions to common usage when drawing their conclusions and making policy recommendations.

A commonly-used dataset for international conflict research is the Correlates of War Project in which war is operationalized as 1,000+ battle deaths in a given year. A state is considered to be participating in a war “if it incurs a minimum of 100 fatalities or has 1000 armed personnel engaged in fighting.” Now, it is easy to see how this technical definition of war can rule out a lot of what laymen might call war between states. At the very least, it can exclude what are still serious violent conflicts between democracies. The democratic peace thesis can be upheld if a violent conflict between two democracies results in “only” 999 battle deaths. Personally, I wouldn’t call such a relationship peaceful.

Lesser conflicts are called ‘militarized interstate disputes‘ (MIDs), which are operationalized as involving anything between a military show of force to as many as 999 battle deaths in a given year. The democratic peace thesis can be expanded to predict the absence of MIDs or at least a statistically-significant smaller number of, or less severe, MIDs (between democracies). Russet and Oneal smartly investigate their Kantian Peace utilizing MIDs.

Other important factors to consider are not simply whether a state is a democracy (a binary variable) but how democratic it is and how long it has been a democracy. A new, fragile democracy with a poorly-developed economy might not behave the same way as more mature, liberal democratic states which tend to be more prosperous and characterized by some degree of state-managed capitalism. Is it a democratic peace? Or a capitalist peace? Or a bit of both? In any case, a key takeaway here is that when confronted with research, in any field but particularly in the social sciences, it is important to delve into it to see what methods were utilized and how the concepts were operationalized.2

Finally, while it may be true that democracy and international organizations tend to help promote peace, I do not think they are a desirable means of doing so. They may promote peace (with ‘how much’ depending on whether you define it as the absence of interstate war or of MIDs), but they may also increase more subtle forms of force and oppression than outright war. In previous posts, I observed that (statist) politics is the continuation of war by other means, that it involves attempting to run a society as if it were one massive organization, and that democracy does not legitimize the state or protect our liberty. Let us not let a fetish for so-called democratic peace lead us to overlook the domestic evils of statism.

And it is not clear that a federation of democracies will not merge into, or at least collectively act like, the necessarily despotic world government Kant rejected. International law and organizations are often little else but tools used by states to impose their will on other states (war by other means) and make laws, regulations, and policies more uniform around the globe. International governmental organizations (IGOs) like the defunct League of Nations and the current United Nations were ostensibly intended to avoid war but have the effect of facilitating the globalization of war, drawing more states into wars and MIDs than otherwise might get involved. Others, like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and World Health Organization (WHO), seek to impose corporatist and nanny-state policies globally.

Thus, the velvet triangle of Kantian Peace — democracy, economic interdependence, and international organizations — masks the strangulating iron garrote of statism. People are subject to interventionism at home (by their local state) and from abroad (by an institutionalized gang of allied states), and even economic interdependence is corrupted into local and global corporatism.


  1. Joanne Gowa, in Ballots and Bullets, argued that the democratic peace was an artifact of the Cold War; it appeared to be true only because Western, capitalist, democratic nations had a shared security interest against the Soviet Union. My professor for the above-mentioned seminar, David Sobek, argued that Gowa’s book suffers from methodological deficiencies, but said that he had been working on an article (I don’t know if it was ever published) that improved on Gowa’s methods and he was surprised to find her results confirmed. 

  2. If you’re curious, I have made three of my old graduate seminar papers available online in pdf format. I make no claim to great sophistication in econometric empirical research. I learned the basics, but it’s not my thing. Take the results with a grain of salt, not only because of this but because of the usual Austrian reasons: empirical, quantitative research; correlation is not causation; etc. 1) More theoretical with some descriptive stats: “The State and War: An Austrian Political Economy Model.” 2) The econometric one on democratic peace: “Democratic Peace: Myth or Reality?” discussed on my blog in More empirical evidence against the democratic peace thesis. And 3) another econometric one, based on some survey data I collected from political science students: “The Impact of Self-Esteem on Foreign Policy Preferences.” 

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