Benjamin Fleschman | Assistant Editor of Social Sciences
The importance of analyzing any potential policy or international development through a complete historical and cultural perspective is a key principle I’ve gathered through the political theory and international relations courses I’ve taken so far at the University of Texas. Whether it be one’s choice of support for a social movement, condemnation of a war, or vote for a presidential candidate, it is imperative to avoid blindly taking information distributed at “face-value” when shaping political preferences.
This logic applies not only to potentially biased information, but also to entrenched and tested academic theories. Research published earlier this year in the prestigious journal International Organization by Associate Professor of Government Patrick McDonald has discredited the widely held and praised theory of democratic peace. Concluding in his paper “Great Powers, Hierarchy and Endogenous Regimes: Rethinking the Domestic Causes of Peace,” McDonald demonstrates no causal link between the regime type of a nation and their rate of participation in conflicts internationally with other democratic nations. This research challenges the engrained notion in political science that a democratic nation (one where citizens directly vote for their representation) is less likely to engage in military conflicts with other nations who also employ a democratic political system. The notion that something inherent to democratic political mechanisms, relative to those operating in autocratic or theocratic nations, makes a country more likely to be a peaceful global actor has played a highly influential role in the approaches by Western nations to foreign policy since the first World War.
McDonald only finds significant associations between democracy and peace, relative to other regime types, in the periods between WW1 and WW2 and the time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. When examining other time periods from the onset of the 20th century, the relationship between democracy and propensity for peace becomes spurious. This demonstrates how past research – supporting democratic peace theory – fails to account properly for the historical contexts and hierarchical structuring of many democratic nations’ prolonged “peace” with one another.
Following the Napoleonic Wars, World Wars, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, many nations democratized through the political and military influence of strong actors such as Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States. These powerful nations directly and indirectly shaped the political systems of the smaller nations within their immediate spheres of influence, and simultaneously imposed peaceful foreign relations to enhance the stability of their regions. The inclusion of these satellites as sampled observations in prior research skewed the data favorably for democratic peace theory. According to McDonald, the high-rate of peace between democratic nations in modern times has little to do with the actual mechanisms of these countries governments, but instead the peace is simply “an artifact of historically significant great power settlements” (McDonald 2015). In other words: regime choice by itself doesn’t enhance peaceful foreign relations, but rather the historical circumstances and hierarchical conditions in which a nation becomes a democracy is the significant factor.
This research by Dr. McDonald is quite relevant given the current scope of world affairs. Major platforms for both Republican and Democratic candidates for the 2016 presidential elections center around polarizing questions like “Should America take an active role in the dismantling and subsequently rebuilding of ISIS and Syria?” or “How should America handle the rising aggression and human rights violations of Russia?” It is easy when looking at these issues through an American perspective to be persuaded by rhetoric calling for intervention in the name of “freedom” and “democracy”. However, as Dr. McDonald has now shown us, democracy alone is not a miracle cure for stability and peace. Instead it is the circumstances for which democracy is enacted and preserved. Promoting peace and instilling democracy is much different for the West in a place like Syria than it was in a place such as East Germany. I urge voters to take into account the real-world efficacy of the potential policy actions suggested by politicians and to critically analyze the historical origins of these international dilemmas.
McDonald, Patrick. “Great Powers: Hierarchy and Endogenous Regimes: Rethinking the Domestic Causes of Peace.” International Organization 69.03 (2015): n. pag. Web.
“GOV Researcher Debunks Theory of Democratic Peace.” (2 July 2015): n. pag. University of Texas. Web
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