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The theory of democratic peace: if you want peace, prepare for war

Fonte: Pulgarías

The concepts of defence and security are usually imagined in terms of military power and tactical capabilities of armies, or in terms of great operational strategies capable of employing the most sophisticated combat techniques in theatres of war. However, as Sun Tzu and his book The Art of War teaches, a strategist's greatest skill is to win a battle without fighting it. It is in this perspective that this article aims to analyze the American theory of democratic peace according to which democracies, by not declaring war on each other, guarantee peace and security on an international scale. Democracy, therefore, and not war, becomes the most important instrument for the external defence of a country.

1. The theory of democratic peace: its conception and use by the US administrations

Among the scholars of international relations, the first to formulate the theory of democratic peace was the American political scientist Michael Doyle in 1983, with his article: "Kant, Liberal Legacies and Foreign Affairs”[1] and he did it taking into consideration what many political scientists and analysts consider as the first formulation of the theory of democratic peace: the work of Immanuel Kant For Perpetual Peace written in 1795. In the contemporary academic world, the debate on what to mean by "democratic peace" and especially on how to implement it, is still very heated.

Among the various currents of thought, however, one can succeed in extrapolating several factors common to each of them. What each vision of democratic peace has in common is the concept behind it: democratic systems tend not to declare war on those they recognize as their own peers, hence other democracies. Furthermore, democratic leaders cannot fail to take into account that public opinion, after the Second World War and in the case of the US even more so after the Vietnam War, is hardly likely to see their country involved in a war. The political class of democratic systems also thinks in terms of re-election, which is a hard goal to achieve if, in addition to having led their country into war, you perhaps also get a defeat. Another element common to the various currents of thought on the theory of democratic peace is that to resolve disputes at international level, democratic regimes prefer to use the instrument of diplomacy and are firm supporters of international institutions, first and foremost the UN.

A further affinity between the different visions of democratic peace is that democratic countries hardly consider themselves hostile to each other and, moreover, their governments tend to invest more in welfare spending, what are called social spending rather than military spending; this, both because welfare spending is useful in terms of political re-election and because democratic governments themselves should have an interest in supporting it, since it generates a better system of democracy understood as a confrontation between people as opposed to military spending, which, on the contrary, is not born with the aim of generating more democracy.

Source: Financial Times

The theory of democratic peace began to be considered by the US political class, particularly by President Ronald Reagan's administration (1981-1989), as a possible and valid alternative to the Soviet Union containment theory employed during the Cold War. According to US academics and politicians, in fact, the theory of democratic peace could have helped the United States to ensure the stability and security necessary both during the last decades of the Cold War and, above all, in the delicate phase of transition from an international system based on a bipolar division of power between the United States and the Soviet Union, to a world that would have been characterized instead by multipolarism and, from an economic point of view, by globalization. During the 1980s, the US security strategy moved from a defensive notion of containment to an active one of enlargement, in which the United States committed itself to creating and supporting a "community of democracies".

The concept of democratic peace, from the moment it was accepted by the Reagan administration, has always been an ideal shared by both US parties. Both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, in fact, used the theory of democratic peace as a starting point to develop their own security and defense policies, using it in ways that were not so different.

The use of this doctrine became evident and central during Bill Clinton's administration (1993-2001), with the publication of the 1993 National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement. According to this strategy: "All American strategic interests - from the promotion of prosperity in America to the control of challenges abroad, before they reach our territory - are based on the enlargement of the community of democracies and the free market among nations"[1]. So how to create a "community of democracies"? First, according to the 1993 strategy, through cooperation with other democratic countries on economic issues, such as the sharing of a free market and the promotion of human rights, two aspects considered an essential part of the US security strategy in the early 1990s, a time when, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the desire to spread democracy was alive and growing in world public opinion.

The implementation of the theory of democratic peace took place mainly through the construction of US government agencies and independent institutions that would have the task of spreading, supporting and defending the US democratic ideal around the world. Among these agencies in 1983, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) was born, a private, non-profit foundation founded by Republican President Reagan and Democratic representative Carl Gershman, with the intent to develop and strengthen democratic institutions in the world, through the spread of freedom and human rights. In 1999, the U.S. Department of State reaffirmed that the spread of democracy, which would have the ultimate goal of international stability and security, was not only a right choice, but a necessary choice. In fact, US national security itself would depend on democratic expansion in the world.

This concept was soon translated also on the military level, when, through the practices of peace-keeping and peace enforcement, the US army acted on various theatres of war in the 1990s: from Haiti in 1994 to the Kosovo conflict, which saw an incisive US and NATO intervention in 1999. It was in this way that the link between democracy and peace was turned into an operational link between democracy and military security stabilization and peacekeeping operations. The practices of spreading democracy gradually shifted from the task of spreading the democratic ideal through institutions and partnerships, albeit mainly in the economic field, to the task of guaranteeing defence and security in a substantial way, to the point of legitimising the use of force as an export of democracy where the conflict had broken out, with the aim of making the country safe and stable in the international context.

2. The evolution of democratic peace theory after 9/11

The terrorist attacks that struck the United States on 11 September 2001 marked an important and decisive change in the strategic and defensive posture that the country has employed since then. After the war declared to Afghanistan as a vindication for the attacks carried out by Al-Qaeda on September 11, the administration headed by George W. Bush adopted a new defensive theory: preventive war. The United States, in fact, would preventively attack the country that would directly threaten American territory or American interests in the world, without waiting to suffer an aggression. It was considered necessary to avoid another terrorist attack and it was necessary to act urgently and therefore, preventively. In order to guarantee itself security and in terms of defence, the United States would also have to export democracy in a preventive way: by democratising the Arab countries considered more dangerous, the United States would have guaranteed itself long-term national security, enlarging the "community of democracies".

The first country towards which this strategy was directed was Iraq, supposedly the holder of chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction. However, according to the rules of international law, the United States could not attack a country which, although considered dangerous for its own security, had not attacked it. It was in this context that the theory of democratic peace returned to be used by the Bush administration, albeit with important changes to what was the nature of the theory itself. In fact, the theory, as it had been formulated at the beginning, did not foresee a diffusion of democracy through the military instrument. On the contrary, democracy should have been strengthened and not exported, in countries where it was already present, or it should have been spread through peacekeeping or peace enforcement actions within the framework of UN-supported interventions.

One of the reasons for the war that the United States began in March 2003 in Iraq was precisely the spread of democracy and the desire to bring down Saddam Hussein's dictatorial regime, replacing it with a liberal democracy led by the government chosen by the Iraqi people through free democratic elections. With the Iraqi case, the theory of democratic peace has changed not only its strategic nature but also its name: can you imagine using the theory of democratic peace through war? As well as from a humanitarian point of view and what could be a personal opinion, can exporting a form of government to a country that does not have the socio-political basis to support it be a strategically valid choice? Sixteen years after the start of the war in Iraq, can we speak of a democratic stabilisation of the country? Has the democratisation of Iraq served to build a democratic peace in the Middle East and between the Middle East and the United States? To try to answer these questions, one can look at the situation in which Iraq finds itself sixteen years after the invasion of the coalition led by the United States.

Iraq is still one of the most dangerous, unstable and corrupt countries in the world. If we consider only the democratisation aspect of the country and therefore do not take into account the analysis of the security of the country, the state of its social and humanitarian fabric, the worsening of conditions in the country was also due to the structural, legal and political shortcomings of the Iraqi Constitution, the first instrument that should have guaranteed democratic stability to the country. It was drafted in the absence of Iraqi constitutional experts and written predominantly by American leaders in a vague and ambiguous manner, creating more problems than it should have solved. Iraq's first Iraqi leader Nuri al-Maliki, elected in 2005 and strongly supported by the United States, centralised power between 2010 and 2014, which gradually became authoritarianism, and this was also possible because the Iraqi constitution is very vague in terms of the division of power and the attribution of political competences among members of the government.

The corruption of every governmental and social sphere in the country, rising unemployment and rising prices of primary goods also led Iraq in February 2011 to become one of the countries where the Arab Springs exploded. In the areas of Baghdad, Kirkuk, Basra, Fallujah and Nassiria, movements against corruption, social misery and the desire for a redemption of the dignity of the Iraqi people, tired of the policies of the democratic government of al-Maliki, were born. It is a paradox that the very democratic government established by the United States has brutally repressed these uprisings with the army. The elections of 12 May 2018, which should be one of the first indices of political participation within a country, although they are only the end of a country's democratic process, had more than 55% abstentions by voters.

3. Criticism of democratic peace theory

Criticism of the theory of democratic peace has undoubtedly been reinforced since the war in Iraq in 2003. However, they have always provided a forum for debate among US academics and politicians ever since the theory was developed. In fact, according to some, the theory of democratic peace has as its first and last aim to guarantee the United States an economic and commercial stability that has little to do with the desire to export democratic values and protect human rights in the world. Hence the definition of market democracy: the strategy of spreading democracy is actually a purely economic strategy that serves the US governments to establish trade links with other countries and thus expand their market, so as to play a central role in the process of globalization.

This strategy is easier to achieve if the countries involved are democracies with sufficiently liberalised market economies. The important thing is therefore that the economic parameters that indicate a certain liberalisation of the market, the health of democratic rules and sometimes, respect for human rights, are respected and guaranteed. The interest of the United States is therefore that the promotion of democracy is sufficient to guarantee a free economic market: what is exported is low-intensity democracy, a low-intensity democracy precisely, where the people, when they can afford it, are a consumer rather than a leading player in the political and social life of their country.

Democracy is no longer an aim of foreign policy, but becomes more an instrument of economic policy. According to other authors, even if one wanted to consider the theory of democratic peace as a security and defence strategy and therefore not with a purely economic character, one could estimate that it has not been very successful, especially when applied to the Middle East regional context. If one reflects on the wars that the United States has waged in the Middle East, considering only those after 11 September 2001, since the attack on Afghanistan in October 2001, the costs that the United States had to bear in the immediate future and which it is still paying today are very substantial.

The country's debt has grown enormously as a result of the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, but the biggest cost has been in terms of human lives: the number of soldiers and civilians killed during the wars and the very long period of post-conflict have hit the United States hard. In addition, the United States also paid for its decision in terms of a very low level of consensus on the part of world public opinion and a unilateral posture that saw it isolate itself from international institutions and hence from the rules of international law. If one considers that, to date, the countries involved in the US democratisation process in the Middle East cannot be said to be either secure, or at least sufficiently democratised, or, above all, economically prosperous, one can probably agree that the theory of democratic peace has suffered a severe setback.


The theory of democratic peace_ if you want peace, prepare for war
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[1] Michael W. Doyle, “Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 12, n. 3, (summer 1983), pp. 205-235.


  • William I. Robinson, Promoting Poliarchy. Globalization, US Intervention and Hegemony, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

  • G. John Ikenberry, America senza rivali?, (Bologna: il Mulino, 2004).

  • Michael Cox, G. John Ikenberry, Takashi Inoguchi, American Democracy Promotion, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

  • Thomas Carothers, “The Clinton record on Democracy Promotion”, in The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace-Democracy and Rule of law Project, n. 16, settembre 2000.

  • Christian Büger e Trine Villumsen, “Beyond the gap: relevance, fields of practice and the securitizing consequences of democratic peace research”, in Journal of International Relations and Development, Vol. 10, (2007), pp. 417-448.

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