Democratic Peace Theory Versus Realism

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There are ways in which different political philosophers view keeping countries from going to war with each other. The democratic peace theory is built on cooperation, and the rationalist perspective is based on conflict.

E.H. Carr was the first realist scholar to study the field as an academic discipline. He said that conflict was inevitable . Conflict is the dominant theme in realist theory. The state must always act in its own best interests. There can be no peace between nations unless they look out for the interests of their own citizens. One of the issues addressed by realists is the role of a central government. There is no central government in the world, therefore, states must act on their own behalf without worrying about what the country next to them is doing .

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The realists flaunt their military prowess, and flex their military muscle to maintain peace. The idea is that other nations will be afraid of starting a war because they know that the state is armed and ready for battle. That is a huge deterrent from war and conflict between two states. The main goal of a realist country is survival. A nation acts to protect its borders, and economic assets with due diligence and force if warranted. The term realist comes from the idea that actors are rational, and will not do anything that would jeopardize their own interests. Rather than cooperation, the main idea is conflict . In other words, the world is a dangerous place, and there is no such thing as cooperation.

Realists look at the world the way it is, not how it should be. Whatever action it takes to preserve the state is permissible, including violence. The realists tend to take a more pessimistic view of the ability of mankind to live without harming each other. In international relations, the realist believes that the natural state of man without authority will be characterized by violence .

Thomas Hobbes wrote about the state of nature in his 1651 book, Leviathan. He said, “Life is solitary, poor, brutish and short.” He implied that the only way out was bestowing authority ruler or sovereign. In other words, he was an anarchist, and promulgated an anarchist agenda under the guise of realism. In his book, Of War written in 1882, Von Clausewitz said that warfare is simply an extension of politics .

The ancient philosopher, Thucydides (460-400 BC), reported the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. He said that in all war, all that counts is power. There is no room for negation with other states because states do not care about cooperating with the perceived enemy. In his description of the Peloponnesian War, the Melians were heavily outnumbered, but they would not surrender to the Athenians. The Athenians wanted to enslave them, and subsequently, the Melains were slaughtered. Thucydides wrote, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” .
Another realist, Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1513. He stated that in power, the only thing that matters is to stay in power. The ability of the state to help itself rather than relying on any assistance from an outside political entity or entities was preferable. Machiavelli said “It is better to be feared than loved, if not both .

The Democratic Peace Theory
The democratic peace theory is the most well-known theory in international relations. The idea is that democratic nations will not fight each other. Instead of conflict, democratic peace theorists prefer cooperation. The best strategy is to create more democracies thus attaining peace through common ground .

In the United States, President George W Bush sought to establish a democracy in Iraq. If democracy could get a foothold in the Middle East, particularly in the Arab Spring, there would be less war. A democracy and another democracy will have very little war. There is no point. Neither wants conflict. A democracy and a non-democracy have a higher tendency to wage war against each other because of their different ideologies. Likewise, a non-democracy and a non-democracy will also trend toward war and conflict. It should be noted that a democracy and a non-democracy go to war at the same frequency as a non-democracy and a non-democracy .

Democracies cause peace rather than go to war because they believe in cooperation rather than retaliation. In a democracy, citizens are encouraged to vote for the leaders of the government, unlike the situation with realists who want a dictator. The democratic peace theory underpins democracies . In a democracy, citizens have an incentive to cooperate through contractual agreements, rather than seeking out revenge and violence. Violence is not an option.

A democracy believes in transparency, and an example of this is the free press. Democracies do not censor materials that might help the public know that the government is looking after its best interests. The internet is not regulated in democracies, unlike dictator regimes that censor anything that might jeopardize their absolute power.

There can be no electoral process in a dictatorship because the state is under the authority of one person or regime. Former Iraqi leader, Sadamm Hussein ruled his state with an iron fist. He carried out political assassinations to quiet dissenters. Fear is the driving force in political realist theory . Man is not born inherently good, like the peace theorists argue. Cooperation is not an option under anarchy.

The democratic peace theory is not a utopian concept. Since World War 2, advocates of this theory have shaped the policies of the modern world. This theory is particularly successful in the West and Europe. Canada would never think of invading the United States because both countries are democracies. War is not an option between two democracies . Rather, democracies focus on cooperation, the environment, and political economy. Neo-liberal institutionalisms are the 21st century’s advocates for the democratic peace theory. Neo-liberal institutionalists believe in the promotion of capitalism, western democratic values, and democratic institutions .

Realism does not look forward to what could be; it maintains its own status quo. The lack of realism’s commitment to cooperation with other states increases the chances of that state going rogue. Cuba, Russia, and Iraq are examples of countries that have embraced the realist theory of international relations. These countries seem to be waging perpetual war with no room for sensible heads to prevail.

It is true that democratic nations go to war, but at a much lower frequency than non-democratic nations . President George W Bush went to war with Iraq because he thought that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction; it turns out they didn’t exist. Regardless of his reasons for invading Iraq, his overall intention was in line with the democratic peace theory. He wanted Iraq to become a democracy so that democracy could spread throughout the Middle East. Time will only tell if the democratic theory of peace will prevail over anarchy in the Middle East.

  • Baylis, J. (2011). The Globalization of World Politics (5th ed.). New York: Oxford Press.
  • Pugh, J. (2005, April). Democratic Peace Theory: A Review and Evaluation. CEMPROC.

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