The Myth of Democratic Pacifism


America’s cooperation with other countries in the name of promoting peace has been marked by a push toward democratization. As President Bush said, "democracies don’t go to war with each other." The modern view of this thesis was formalized by philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose 1795 essay "Perpetual Peace" suggested that democracies would never vote to go to war, except in self defense, and therefore war would not exist if all nations became democracies. But the idea has always been controversial. American founding father Alexander Hamilton disputed "the paradox of perpetual peace" in his Federalist Papers: "Have republics in practice been less addicted to war than monarchies? Are not the former administered by MEN as well as the latter?…Is not the love of wealth as domineering and enterprising a passion as that of power or glory?"

It is generally true that democracies do not fight each other. But democracies do not necessarily react peaceably to other forms of government. A comprehensive study by political scientists Jack Snyder and Edward Mansfield showed that over the past 200 years developing democracies went to war much more frequently than stable autocracies or established democracies." Other studies recommend against installing democracies in countries with a large ethnic divide. Based on these conclusions, it would seem unwise to try to force democratization on a nation in any hurried way.

There are many historical examples that challenge the validity of ‘democratic pacifism.’ Historians Thomas Schwartz and Kiron K. Skinner refute the notion with examples such as the U.S. against Mexico in 1848, the American Civil War, the U.S. against Spain in 1898, England against the Boer Republic in South Africa, and even World War 1, in which Britain and France and their opponent Germany were largely democratic.

In recent times, democratization spawned authoritarian leaders in Zimbabwe (Mugabe), Serbia (Milosevic), and Rwanda (Hutus). Yugoslavia and Indonesia were more tolerant as dictatorships than as democracies, and indeed Indonesia’s GDP has decreased almost 50 percent since embracing democracy. Hong Kong and Singapore have fared well without democracies. Relatively well-governed African countries such as Ghana, Malawi, Mali, and Senegal did not experience the type of economic growth realized by countries perceived as corrupt, such as Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan. The Pakistani people generally rejected attempts to form a democratic state, and President Musharraf has pursued social and economic reform unencumbered by the burden of democratic compromise. This appears to be true for Chavez in Venezuela also. Perhaps most significantly, China has seen a burgeoning economy without the need, at least so far, for a democratic government.

While democracies don’t necessarily lead to peace, peace and prosperity may promote democracy. A 1997 study found that rich countries are far more likely to sustain a democracy than poor countries. Certainly the absence of peace can provoke oppressive behavior in otherwise democratic-minded leaders, such as Lincoln in the Civil War, Wilson in World War 1, Churchill in World War 2, and the Bush Administration in the current Iraq War.

In order to better understand the economic differences between democracies and non-democracies, world data tables were merged from three sources:

(1) The Economist’s Democracy Index, which divides the world’s countries into

(a) Democracies (26 nations, total population 832 million)

(b) Flawed Democracies (45 nations, total population 2,370 million)

(c) Hybrid Regimes (28 nations, total population 661 million)

(d) Authoritarian Regimes (48 nations, total population 2,396 million)

(2) The Global Footprint Network, which determines for each of the world’s countries,

(a) Biocapacity (land and resources available per capita, measured in hectares)

(b) Ecological Footprint (land and resources used per capita, measured in hectares (1 hectare = 2.5 acres))

(3) The CIA World Factbook (worldwide Gross National Income figures from nationmaster.com)

The composite table is available at http://www.fightingpoverty.org/2007NationalData.xls.

A summary of the data follows:

Democracies: 26 countries; 832 million people; 27,500 GNI per capita; biocapacity 3.75 hectares; ecological footprint 6.71 hectares

Flawed Democracies: 45 countries; 2,370 million people; 2,030 GNI per capita; biocapacity 1.74 hectares; ecological footprint 1.39 hectares.

Hybrid Regimes: 28 countries; 661 million people; 1,260 GNI per capita; biocapacity 2.43 hectares; ecological footprint 1.87 hectares

Authoritarian Regimes: 48 countries; 2,396 million people; 971 GNI per capita; biocapacity 0.90 hectares; ecological footprint 1.48 hectares

The following observations were derived from the data:

(1) Democracies tend to be wealthy; or perhaps more accurately, wealthy societies tend to be democracies.

– People living in democracies have an average Gross National Income of approximately $27,515.

– People living in flawed democracies have an average Gross National Income of approximately $2,030.

– People living in hybrid regimes have an average Gross National Income of approximately $1,260.

– People living in authoritarian regimes have an average Gross National Income of approximately $971.

(2) The average person in a democratic country uses four times as much land and resources as a person living under a non-democracy. If everyone in the world consumed the same amount as those living in democracies (6.71 hectares), we would need four planet earths to sustain us.

– People living in democracies have an average ecological footprint of 6.71 hectares (13% of the world uses 50% of its biocapacity).

– People living in flawed democracies have an average ecological footprint of 1.39 hectares (38% of the world uses 30% of its biocapacity).

– People living in hybrid regimes have an average ecological footprint of 1.87 hectares (11% of the world uses 12% of its biocapacity).

– People living in authoritarian regimes have an average ecological footprint of 1.48 hectares (38% of the world uses 32% of its biocapacity).

Note: Biocapacity usage percentages add up to over 100 because the earth has a global ecological deficit (overshoot) of 0.25 Earths. According to the Global Footprint Network, "such overshoot leads to a depletion of Earth’s life supporting natural capital and a build up of waste."

(3) The resource usage in (2) is mitigated by the fact that biocapacities in democratic countries tend to be greater than in other countries (that is, democracies tend to exist in the most resource- rich areas). As a result,

– People living in democracies use 180% of their own biocapacities.

– People living in flawed democracies use 80% of their own biocapacities.

– People living in hybrid regimes use 77% of their own biocapacities.

– People living in authoritarian regimes use 164% of their own biocapacities.

What conclusions can be drawn from this data? First of all, it’s understandable that democracies wouldn’t attack democracies if they’re all so prosperous. It would seem more likely that democracies would be fearful of the 5 billion people living in non-democracies who have much smaller biocapacities and consumption rates than the rich world. This is especially true if, as noted above, developing democracies go to war much more frequently than other political systems.

Secondly, it’s unrealistic for a government to promote democracy in the name of improving the lives of others if a single earth cannot support the democratic lifestyle. If it’s true that democracies are correlated with wealth and prosperity, the expansion of democracy will place a greater ecological demand on our earth unless overall consumption is reduced. The welcome peace dividend of a democratic world may depend on the willingness of current democracies to share the wealth.

PAUL BUCHHEIT is a Professor, Harold Washington College in Chicago. He can be reached at: pbuchheit@ccc.edu


"Federalist No. 6: Concerning Dangers from Dissensions Between the States," by Alexander Hamilton, for the Independent Journal, 1787

Jack Snyder and Edward Mansfield, "Democratization and the Danger of War," International Security 20, no. 1 (Summer 1995)

Donald Horowitz, "Democracy in Divided Societies," in Larry Diamond and Mark F. Plattner, eds., "Nationalism, Ethnic Conflict, and Democracy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994)

Alvin Rabushka and Kenneth Shepsle, "Politics in Plural Societies: A Theory of Democratic Instability" (Charles E. Merill, 1972)

"The Myth of Democratic Pacifism," By Thomas Schwartz and Kiron K. Skinner, Hoover Digest, 1999

Amy Chua, "World On Fire" (Anchor Books, 2004)

Transparency International, Global Corruption Report 2004 (London: Pluto Press, 2004)

World Bank Governance Indicators, 2002

"How to Change Ugly Regimes," Newsweek 06/27/05

Fareed Zakaria, "The Future of Freedom" (W W Norton & Co, 2004)

Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi, "Modernization: Theories and Facts," World Politics, 49, No 2, January 1997

"Economist Intelligence Unit: Democracy Index 2006"

Global Footprint Network (http://footprintnetwork.org)

Gross National Income, per capita, by country (www.nationmaster.com, from CIA World Factbook)

{missing data filled in from following 3 sources}

World Bank Data & Statistics, 2004

Internet World Stats, Usage and Population Statistics (www.internetworldstats.com)

Information by Country, UNICEF (www.unicef.org/infobycountry)


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