VOLUME 8 (2001)
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,
this absence of war between democracies comes as close as
anything we have to an empirical law in international relations.
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 Wearts 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 republicsi.e., both
democracies and oligarchieshave 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
Kants 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, Wearts 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). Wearts 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.
Wearts central proposition that a common political culture prevents
well-established republics of the same kind from fighting one another
is akin to Antholis and Russetts conclusions regarding Ancient Greece,
historys 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 regimesby
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
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 republicansi.e.,
like a member of their own in-groupthey 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 nations 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 regions 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 republicane.g., autocracies in which leaders hold an uncontested
veto over military and foreign policy decisionsor 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 Britains 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 Francess
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, Germanys 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," Britains opposition to Icelands 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.
Wearts 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
Wilsons 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 regimesparticularly
democraciesbecause 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, Wearts 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
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"
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
Walzer, Michael. 1997. On Toleration. New Haven: Yale University
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.