[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. 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.
A while back, I was watching the movie Crimson Tide and made the following observation.
There was mention of the famous dictum by the Prussian general, military historian, and theorist Carl von Clausewitz: “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”
There is a profound truth in that dictum. It identifies shared characteristics of statist politics and war: anti-social conflict, some imposing their will on others, destruction and redistribution of wealth, and so on. When statist political means fail to have the desired result and recourse is made to naked war, the true character of both the aggressors and the statist political process is revealed.
But I think that von Clausewitz got it backwards; the observation would have been more profound and true had he written instead: “(Statist) politics is the continuation of war by other means.”
Ballots replace bullets within the democratic state but conflict persists with special interest groups vying for the reins of power so that they can use the perceived legitimacy of the state to impose their will on each other. Beneath the sophisms that grant the state legitimacy there lies the same threat or use of initiatory violence that is present in war. Open war is traded for the illusion of peace.
Might this quip from Ronald Reagan touch upon a similar insight? “Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.” Is he referring to war? Or prostitution? Both analogies would be apt. War is often a boon to both prostitutes and politicians, though prostitutes at least are usually more honest about what they do and can conduct their business peacefully.