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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society


  VOLUME 8 (2001)

Never at War: Why Democracies Will Not Fight One Another, by Spencer Weart, New Haven: Yale University Press (1998), 424 pp.


Reviewed by Juliann Emmons Allison, Department of Political Science, University of California, Riverside

…this absence of war between democracies comes as close as anything we have to an empirical law in international relations.
(Levy 1989:88)

The empirical observation that democracies, though no less belligerent than non-democracies, do not fight one another has remained a focal point for conflict and peace studies for more than 25 years. Spencer Weart’s reaction to the consequently voluminous literature on this topic, in Never at War: Why Democracies Will Not Fight One Another, is to play the skeptic, asking "Do democracies really tend to maintain a mutual peace?" In response, he develops a distinctive political culture argument to explain his finding that republics—i.e., both democracies and oligarchies—have historically avoided war with other regimes "basically like their own." According to Weart, the key characteristic of republican political culture is the tolerance of important societal groups by those who hold power. He supports his argument by analyzing select historical cases of conflict from Ancient Greece to the Middle East at the end of the twentieth century, drawing on relevant literatures in anthropology, psychology, political science, and sociology to clarify the theoretical foundations for the democratic peace thesis. Weart concludes his analysis by cautioning that any naïve export of the republican culture that underlies the "democratic peace" would be foolhardy. That is, coerced democratization is likely to compromise the very ideals that define a well-established republican regime.

Weart begins his study with a brief review of the reigning "domestic structure" and "democratic culture" arguments derived from Kant’s prescription for a perpetual peace among democratic nations (Reis 1970). According to the structural argument, it is representative government, together with the legal equality of all citizens and a private property, market-oriented economy, that supports citizens’ opposition to the costs of war as a domestic constraint on the use of force. A common variation on this argument asserts that "open" domestic institutions make it difficult for the leaders of democracies to gain the widespread support necessary for war. The democratic culture argument suggests, alternatively, that the leaders of democracies share a set of decision-making norms that facilitate the mutual accommodation needed to avert war should a conflict of interest arise between them. Unlike many recent reviews of this literature, though, Weart’s does not address "international" impediments to war between democracies, such as their membership in a community of nations with common interests that include nonviolent dispute resolution, or their tendency to maintain lower trade barriers and trade more with other democratic nations than they do with non-democratic nations.

Having thus established the domestic political focus of his book, Weart explains that in contrast to the major statistical studies that characterize much of the current research on the democratic peace, his domain of cases includes only borderline cases—"crises in which regimes resembling democracies confronted one another with military force" (p. 7). The foundation of his analytical approach is to ask with respect to each of these cases: "How far did they proceed toward war?" and "What particular features of each regime were or were not fully democratic?" (p. 7). Weart’s use of this method at the outset of the study accounts for his definitions of the key concepts "democracy" and "war." He defines "democracy" as a form of "republican" regime in which more than two-thirds of the adult males are citizens with an equal right to vote, and thereby influence political decisions. The alternative republican form is "oligarchy," which Weart defines as elite rule over a large societal group that is part of the core life of a given regime. He defines "war" as violence organized by political units against one another across their boundaries, and responsible for at least 200 battle deaths.

Weart’s central proposition that a common political culture prevents well-established republics of the same kind from fighting one another is akin to Antholis and Russett’s conclusions regarding Ancient Greece, history’s first system composed of democratic regimes:

Ties of common democratic culture therefore offered some restraint on wars between Greek democracies. That restraint, certainly rooted in self-interest, also exhibited elements of normative restraint. For the restraints to operate, however, it was necessary for states and peoples actually to perceive each other as democratic. If, because of motivated misperception, or poor or outdated information, one did not perceive the other as democratic, those restraints could not apply. Furthermore, it may have been important to perceive the other as in some degree stably democratic, with reasonable prospects that the democratic faction could retain power (Antholis and Russett 1993:61).

It differs significantly from this among the few studies that include cases drawn from the pre-modern period, though, because Weart finds that "peace has prevailed among only the same kinds of republics, oligarchies or democracies, as the case may be" (p. 14). He accounts for this binary pattern of peace in terms of regime-specific beliefs about how people should deal with one another, and how they do deal with people when groups are in conflict. Yet, according to Weart, the political ideals of equal rights, public contestation and the toleration of political dissent, and allegiance to the political process itself, are inherent in well-established republics of both kinds. Hence disputes between like republican regimes are settled as they would be between any citizens of those regimes—by negotiation and mutual accommodation in the interest of the common good.

Weart privileges the ideal of tolerance, or a principled recognition of equal rights (cf. Walzer 1997), in particular, and argues that republican societies do not establish boundaries between "us" and "them" geographically, but rather in terms of the degree to which crucial societal groups are tolerated. That is, throughout history, the citizens of republican regimes, have been willing to believe that all people of a given type should be treated as equals:

In a republic sufficiently established so that blatant inconsistencies between ideology and practice have been smoothed out, principles such as equal rights and reciprocal concessions permeate not only politics but daily social relations and economic life. If you are accustomed to such thinking, a regime built on principles of hierarchical domination and coercion will strike you as wrong-headed or even immoral. You would not see anyone who adheres to such a system as a member of your republican in-group…anyone who agrees that someone like yourself should be treated as an equal is more than halfway to belonging in your in-group (p. 105).

According to Weart, if the leaders of a democracy or oligarchy engaged in an international conflict are able to see their rivals as good republicans—i.e., like a member of their own in-group—they will expect them to negotiate mutually acceptable solutions.

Weart substantiates his "republican culture" argument by using a series of his borderline cases to: (1) distinguish between democratic and oligarchic republics; (2) show that each type of republic sees others like itself as part of its in-group, and other regime types as members of an enemy out-group; and (3) demonstrate that both democracies and oligarchies are liable to fight adversaries of their own kind that are not well-established. More specifically, Weart first suggests that the repression of any domestic group that plays a central role in the nation’s domestic economy, society and politics distinguishes oligarchies from democracies. By this definition, Ancient Athens, where disenfranchised men were distributed throughout most of society, and held a political status comparable, until recently, to that of women, who were considered sufficiently represented by their fathers and husbands in most democracies prior to the twentieth century would be a democracy. The American South before the Civil War, where blacks were regarded as subhuman, and the difference between blacks and whites was regarded as central to the region’s politics, would be an oligarchy.

Having made this critical distinction, Weart next establishes that democracies and oligarchies alike are willing to fight with governments that clearly are not republican—e.g., autocracies in which leaders hold an uncontested veto over military and foreign policy decisions—or not obviously enough a republic of the same kind. Here, in a manner consistent with constructivist explanations of the democratic peace (Peceny and Parish 1999), Weart determines whether a nation is republican in a given historical case in terms of how leaders at the time would have characterized it. Thus he argues that although Britain in 1812 might be considered and oligarchy on the basis of its political ideals, which were common among elite Americans, few among the United States’ leadership would have called that nation a republic. He likewise argues that Britain’s leaders widely regarded Americans as an "uncouth mob led astray by firebrand democrats" (p. 138). It would, therefore, be unreasonable to expect the United States and Britain to resolve their dispute short of war.

Weart then explains that it is ultimately the mutual recognition of well-established republican political culture that guarantees peace between democracies or between oligarchies.1 Drawing on cases that include Frances’s 1923 seizure of mines and factories in the German Ruhr in response to disputed war reparations, Weart argues that a well-established republic is one in which leaders customarily tolerate full public contestation among its citizens. In this case, similarities between the parliamentary domestic structures and universal suffrage that would classify both Germany and France as democracies notwithstanding, Germany’s sustained reluctance to pay war reparations convinced France and its allies that Germany was not negotiating in good faith. According to Weart, this contrary behavior constituted evidence that "Germany was not led by men sympathetic to their own ideals" (p. 169). On the basis of such cases, Weart concludes that the toleration of dissent that characterizes republican regimes must exist for a minimum of three years before a given democracy or oligarchy may be considered "well-established." He admits that this period may not be long enough to develop a fully republican political culture; yet history suggests that three years is sufficiently long for republics of the same kind to manage maintaining a mutual peace.

With his theory complete, Weart presents illustrative case histories to detail how leaders of republics behave in international encounters with those they perceive to share their own political culture with the same tolerance practiced domestically. He uses the 1972 Codfish War between Britain and Iceland, for instance, to argue that domestic political habit explains the tendency of republican nations toward negotiation or arbitration rather than war to resolve conflicts between them. In this case, which Weart regards as the only twentieth-century war between "genuine democracies," Britain’s opposition to Iceland’s decision to extend its territorial waters to first 50 and then 200 miles in the interest of protecting its cod fishery resulted in warning shots and accidental deaths from ships ramming into one another. These incidents prompted other democracies to intercede with appeals to "democratic solidarity," "respect for law," and "fair play," which aroused sympathy on the part of the British people. Their leaders were consequently persuaded to give way.

Weart’s argument to this point would suffice to deepen what we already know about the theoretical and practical mechanics of the democratic peace. Still, much to his credit, Weart goes on to suggest that peace is more than the avoidance of war; it must be defined in terms of the ways in which republican nations generally relate to one another. On this point, he emphasizes that since the time of the Greek city-states, "republics and only republics have tended to form durable, peaceful leagues".2 He attributes this finding to the extension of republican political culture, institutions, and dispute-resolution practices from domestic to international society. Naturally, Weart thus favors the adoption of the ideals of equal rights, toleration, and allegiance to political rules by the international community as well as by individual nations. He stops short, though, of advocating republicanism by force. With reference to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s facile promotion of self-determination (a policy which should have freed peoples from both internal domination and coercion by external powers to select their own leaders), Weart argues that we cannot guarantee international peace by forcefully creating republican regimes—particularly democracies—because to do so would undermine the more immediate and important goal of fostering republican political culture, and the peaceful resolution of international conflicts.

That said, Weart’s conclusion remains overall optimistic. Weart suggests that the observed democratic peace is likely to survive and expand, so long as people continue to devote their lives to achieving that goal. This subtle shift from a purely historical to a veiled personal perspective implies that, for Weart, any definitive explanation of the democratic peace must include the many non-quantifiable particulars of societies and individual leaders that he so fluently incorporates into his case studies. I applaud Weart for so extending himself. Never at War should be read by anyone who studies or practices international conflict resolution and peace.


1 Weart does admit to a loophole in this generalization. Although extremely rare, war between oligarchies is possible if the nations in question share a reciprocal intolerance of incompatible political systems, as was true for some Swiss republics during the nineteenth century.

2 Weart defines a league as an "association of among several political units with approximately equal privileges and shared institutions" (p. 267).


Levy, Jack S. 1989. "Domestic Politics and War." In The Origin and Prevention of Major Wars, Robert I. Rotberg and Theodore K. Rabb, editors. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Reiss, Hans. 1970. "A Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch." In Kant's Political Writings, trans. H. B. Nisbet, 93-130. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Antholis, William and Bruce Russett. 1993. "The Imperfect Democratic Peace of Ancient Greece." Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post-Cold War World, Bruce Russett, editor. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Walzer, Michael. 1997. On Toleration. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Peceny, Mark and Randall Parish. 1999. "Kantian Liberalism and Democracy in Latin America." Prepared for presentation at the annual meeting of the Western Political Science Association, 25-27 March, Seattle, WA.