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  • A Girardian Critique of the Liberal Democratic Peace Theory
  • Kyle Scott (bio)


René Girard is unfamiliar to most political scientists, but the liberal democratic peace theory (LDPT) is known by almost all in the discipline. René Girard has developed a theory of the origin and perpetuation of violence that is well known to scholars in literature, anthropology, and theology. Girard’s theory can be adapted to the LDPT in order to provide a causal explanation for the empirical evidence that finds democracies do not go to war with one another. Without understanding why democracies do not fight one another, the LDPT is only an empirical artifact. Uncovering a causal explanation, if one exists, can help lead researchers to unravel the paradox of why democracies do not go to war with one another but are just as war prone as nondemocracies. In addition to unraveling this paradox, understanding the causal link between peace and democracy will help us find out whether more democracies will lead to more peace.

Girard poses a challenge to the democratization for peace thesis, a thesis that serves as the basis for much of the foreign policy of the United States.1 For Girard, violence originates in desire. A subject desires what others desire and [End Page 45] therefore others are seen as roadblocks to that desire. This can turn violent. But the violence does not have to occur between the two subjects who have the same desire; it can be redirected to a surrogate victim who ends up being a scapegoat. If Girard’s theory is applied to the LDPT, the conclusion would be that nondemocracies are merely scapegoats for democracies so that order can be maintained in communities of democracies. Therefore, if the world becomes composed entirely of democracies, there will be no scapegoats left and democracies will fight one another.

Such a theory of violence, and such a critique of the LDPT, is unfamiliar to mainstream political scientists.2 I do not suggest that Girard’s theory holds the answer to the problem of achieving perpetual peace, but the base assumption of Girard’s theory should be addressed by those who favor the LDPT. Girard begins from the idea that to achieve peace one must first understand the origin of violence. The LDPT, on the other hand, looks only at the conditions in which peace occurs, ignoring the origins of violence, thus potentially arriving at misleading conclusions.3 Applying Girard’s theory to the LDPT, and deriving alternative hypotheses from that application, will benefit all those who study war, as Girard provides a fresh perspective in the search for the causal mechanism underlying the empirical findings.

Fortunately this article is not the first to apply Girard’s theory outside its traditional arenas. John Steele explains that expressive punishment can be explained in Girardian terms; R. G. Hamerton-Kelly argues that nuclear deterrence can be understood in Girardian terms; and Scott Thomas examines the current state of international affairs in a Girardian context.4 These studies can be used as a template by scholars trying to apply Girard’s theory to a field of study that has not previously used it. I will follow this template by first providing a critical examination of the current state of LDPT scholarship and then moving on to a discussion of Girard’s theory of violence. Section III contrasts Girard’s theory with other alternative explanations of war and peace in order to distinguish Girard’s theory from these explanations and to help clarify Girard’s theory.

I. The Liberal Democratic Peace Theory

The most widely accepted theory in international relations is the LDPT, even though empirical evidence supports both sides in the debate. However, most scholars agree that stable democracies do not go to war with other stable democracies.5 There are critics who suggest that the logic underlying the democratic [End Page 46] peace theory is flawed, and that exceptions to the theory can be found.6 The point of this article is not to contest the findings of those who support or refute the LDPT, but to illuminate one of its gravest shortcomings—the lack of a convincing causal explanation—and to provide direction to...


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