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  • The Democratic Path to Peace
  • James Lee Ray (bio)

The idea that democracy has an important pacifying impact on relationships among states is an old one. In recent years, nevertheless, it has resurfaced as if it were a new idea. 1 Why? What are its origins? How persuasive is the evidence in favor of the proposition that democratic states have not, and are not likely to, engage in international wars against each other? Let us deal with each of these questions in turn.

Academic research on the democratic peace idea may be said to have established itself as a full-fledged, undeniably important phenomenon with the appearance of an article devoted to the topic in the American Political Science Review in 1993, and a book published in the same year entitled Grasping the Democratic Peace. 2 In addition, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense Joseph Kruzel acknowledged in 1994 that “the notion that democracies do not go to war with each other . . . has had a substantial impact on public policy. . . . There are very few propositions in international relations that can be articulated this clearly and simply, but when you have one, you can really cut through the clutter of the bureaucratic process and make an impact.” 3

There is a clue to the timing of the current focus on the democratic peace proposition in the fate of somewhat earlier work on that proposition, appearing from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. Starting in the early 1970s, R.J. Rummel began work on five volumes, the fourth of which, published in 1979, stated the central conclusion of his massive research effort: “Violence does not occur between free societies.” 4 A couple of years after the appearance of the last of these five volumes, two articles by Michael Doyle developed in detail the Kantian origins of the idea that democratic states will deal peacefully with one another. 5 [End Page 49]

Except for a couple of articles that refuted Rummel’s contention that democratic states are more peaceful in general (and not just in their relationships with each other), 6 the five volumes by Rummel and the elegant philosophical arguments by Doyle were largely ignored. Certainly compared with the flurry of interest that later work on democratic peace received as the 1980s turned into the 1990s, the earlier work by Rummel and Doyle languished in obscurity. 7

These contrasting reactions become easier to understand when one recalls that the earlier work appeared at a time when the Cold War was being reborn, while the later work was published while the Cold War was ending. The Cold War’s rebirth made the earlier work look like ideologically inspired, partisan cheerleading, at least to many academic specialists. The Cold War’s end, in contrast, made democracy less controversial, ideologically speaking, and also made it possible to envision a largely democratic world, at least among the major powers. This was fertile ground, in turn, for the idea that a largely democratic world might be a far different and better place than one which had been marked by such brutal and costly conflicts between democratic and autocratic states as the First World War, the Second World War, and the Cold War.

The Origins of an Idea

Standard answers to the question regarding the origins of the idea that democratic states will have peaceful relationships with one another point to Immanuel Kant’s 1795 essay “Perpetual Peace.” Such standard answers, however, are usually wrong, or at least highly debatable. 8

Woodrow Wilson has almost certainly had a greater impact on current work regarding the democratic peace proposition than Kant or any of his contemporaries. Wilson characterized the First World War as an effort to make the world safe for democracy; after that war, his arguments “dominated the new utopian discipline of international relations.” 9 Henry Kissinger argues that “Woodrow Wilson originated . . . what would become the dominant intellectual school of American foreign policy.” 10

But no discussion of the origins of the contemporary flurry of interest in the democratic peace proposition would be complete without at least a mention of a source rather more obscure than President Wilson. In 1972, an associate research scientist at the...

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