by Kyle Maywood

This article endeavours to outline, criticise and pressure test Owen’s quote “[L]iberal ideas cause liberal democracies to tend away from war with another and the same ideas prod these states into war with illiberal states” (Owen, 1994, p. 88) and in turn democratic peace theory. The article will assume Owen’s (1994) definition of liberal states, which espouses the idea that a liberal state is one that shows clear liberal character with the likes of free speech and influence from citizens. It will begin by framing democratic peace theory and looking at the reasons why the thesis, along with Owen’s quote may work, before processing a critique of the definitions, assumptions and generalisations that scholars hold toward it. Further in the essay, the theory will be tested towards a more social constructivist point of view and it will be reviewed as to whether it is liberal ideas or social construction of the theory that affects its potency and suitability in regards to war between ‘liberal’ and ‘illiberal’ states. Finally, the conclusion will be in agreement with much of the quote but with the suggestion that social construction is at least responsible for the theories legitimacy.

Although all of the realms of Realism and at least Neo-Liberals agree that we do live in a world of anarchy (Mir, 2014), democratic peace theory is regarded by many as the closest “we have to an empirical law in the study of International Relations.” (Levy, 1989. p.662). It proposes that democracies tend to be averse to engaging in conflict with other democracies, however they are just as likely to go to war with a non-democratic state as two non-democratic states would (Hudson, 2016). It has almost become a truism within International Relations theory, much because of high levels of quantitative and statistical analysis all showing a clear trend that democracies/liberal states do indeed act in this way (Gartzke, 2008). However, the actual reasoning for why this democratic peace trend occurs, has been a popular discussion point and often a critique, which regularly points toward a correlative vs causative argument and the critique that the link between democracy and peace could be more correlative than causative (Spaniel, 2012).

On the other hand, there are many well renowned arguments that do suggest the two are linked and that is liberal ideals that motivate it. A repeatedly popular liberal idea is public opinion. Traditionally the premise was that because people have the right to vote in liberal states, people will not vote for leaders who wish for war due to human and financial costs and therefore democracies and their leaders are not likely to start war because they want to remain in power (Delahunty, Yoo, 2010). However, because this did not explain why democracies tend to still go to war with non-democracies, it has faced much criticism. In more recent years Tomz and Weeks (2013) have since updated this thesis to combat the critique with more empirical evidence to show that the public are not necessarily averse to war but are certainly less enthusiastic toward military action against democracies.

Another possible liberal reason for the democratic peace is the transparency, which liberal states propose to have. This allows the sharing of information between borders and allows states to see each other’s peaceful intentions. This in turn breaks apart issues such as the security dilemma (Finel, Lord 1999). Once again this does attract considerable critique for reasons such as Anderson (2013) suggests. He directs readers to the lack of transparency, which President Obama has held during his presidency and the way that his establishment has been tactical with which areas they wish to be transparent about. This adopts a position that democracies do not have true transparency; therefore states can never fully trust one another. Following this, democratic peace cannot be caused by transparency of states, as transparency does not exist.

Upon attempting to justify the democratic peace theory, a continuous critique has emerged of the generalisations surrounding the idea. This is because there have been many proposed definitions for key terms within the theory, and Owens quote, but no solid answers. The tautological terms ‘liberal’ and ‘democracy’ for example have been defined and discussed a multitude of times (Doyle, 1983, Rummel, 1997, Thompson, 2015, Landesman, 2010) with much contention. Often this is then followed up with the caveat argument that they are each different terms, which cannot be interchanged as easily as they often are. One such question arisen by this is whether it should be a liberal peace theory or democratic peace theory (Pugh, 2005). In Owen’s (1994) article, he along with many other theorists overcome this problem by pre-defining each term on how they see it. Although this method works well to keep the author’s article balanced and clear, it is surely still a large criticism, which holds back the theory from becoming a complete truism amongst all scholars, as nobody knows the true boundaries or pretext of each term.

Similarly, “because war is a fluid concept, it has generated a large number of sometimes contradictory definitions” (Sheehan, 2015. p.217). Even the well regarded correlates of war model, changed its definition regarding the annual battle deaths to average 1000 (Singer & Small, 1994). Equally, if you followed the very same model, the Falklands war between the United Kingdom and Argentina would barely count even though most people would certainly define such as a war (Sheehan, 2015). On the other end of the scale, much wider covering definitions have been proposed. One of Quincy Wrights (1964) suggestions of war is:

“A violent contact of distinct but similar entities. In this sense a collision of stars, a fight between a lion and a tiger, a battle between two primitive tribes, and hostilities between two modern nations would all be war”(p,5)

However, by being so broad this limits very little in regards to conflict and it could be suggested that it would be impractical as well as impossible to research everything regarded as ‘War’ in this pretence, therefore it would never be possible to compile hard evidence to support any liberal peace theorems.

The lack of solid evidence, clear definitions and high levels of criticism does surely lead to the inevitable conclusion that the dyadic title quote, and the level of which democracies are involved in war, is under-theorised (Risse, 1995). Yet, it is still considered by so many scholars as a  “powerful liberal contribution on the causes of war and peace” (Rosato, 2003. p.585.) and a “prominent and influential strand of International Relations theory” (Hobson, 2011. p.1903). Equally, in the international politics realm the theory has been adopted and summarised multiple times by state leaders (particularly from the United States). George H. Bush in 1992 said, “real democracies do not go to war with one another”, similar was said by Bill Clinton in 1994 when he exclaimed, “democracies don’t attack each other” and even British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher instructed, “democracies don’t attack each other” (The Economist, 1995). This shows that foreign policy analysis has clearly influenced foreign policy in multiple forms (Inderjeet, 2013). However, what lacks much exploration is the hypothesis that actors have socially constructed democratic peace theory themselves and increased its power beyond the hard evidence suggested by theorists. In doing so, powerful states judge who are deemed to be democratic or liberal (Williams, 2015) from the state leaders views (which can often be for the actors interest or preference). This then leads others who are said to be liberal, by the judging state leader, to presume aggression or hostility from the states deemed illiberal and vice versa (Doyle, 1986). In sum, this creates a socially constructed ‘them and us’ scenario. Thus answering why the ‘liberal states’ are peaceful with each other but also prodded to war against ‘illiberal’ states (Risse, 1995).

To conclude, Owen’s quote links inextricably to democratic peace theory. There is certainly correlative evidence to suggest they both exist and there is also an array of research which suggest liberal ideas cause the democratic/liberal peace. However, many of these theories face fierce criticism. As well as the criticisms on what causes the peace theory, another large critique is the amount of definitions and assumptions that carry a large degree of ambiguity. At best this reduces the reliability of the ideal and at worst, it threatens its very existence. As a result, an alternative adaptation to the quote can be proposed, that suggests socially constructed ideas cause the dyadic liberal peace theory. This idea then sits fluently with the correlative evidence that groups of states deemed democracies/liberal do not go to war with each other whilst also providing rational reasoning for why the same ‘deemed states’ are still likely to commence conflict with states framed as illiberal. All in all, it gives a robust argument, which is not diluted by tautological terms as opposed to Owen’s quote and the broader democratic peace theory.

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