Constructivism and the Democratic Peace

June 22, 2009


According to Democratic Peace Theory, democracies do not go to war with each other. The most ardent and idealistic supporters of the proposition believe that democratic forms of governance cultivate a culture of political civility, promote transparency, responsible rule, and intertwine national economies to an extent that sustains nonviolent relationships between democracies.1 Although the theory is empirically reflective, its proponents are criticized for misidentifying the causes of peace between democracies. Scholars aligned with realist school of international political thought are the most ardent critics of the democratic peace hypothesis. The most common counter-argument advanced by realists attributes peace between democracies to the Cold War division of the world into democratic and communist blocs. To balance against the communist threat, as their argument goes, democracies naturally forged cooperative and amicable relationships. Based on this assessment, the democratic peace is the result of balance of power considerations inherent to anarchical structure of the international system and not the conditions produced by democracy.2 Both realist and democratic peace theorists ascribe the absence of war to supposedly enduring factors of their models: balance of power politics and democracy, respectively. While constructivism initially seems to support both explanations of the peace, it eventually undercuts both arguments by acknowledging the capacity of actors to change their behavior depending on their identity as determined by internal and external conditions.

Leading constructivist Alexander Wendt writes that the behavior of an agent is shaped by its experiences during the process of socialization with alters vis-à-vis institutions of the international system. If, on one hand, state A is perceived as cooperative by state B, then state B is likely to act cooperatively with state A. On the other hand, if state A is perceived as threatening by state B, then state B will not cooperate with state A. The process of socialization is continuously in flux, depending on changes to agents’ identities, alters’ perceptions, and, subsequently, agent interaction.3 At the systemic level, bilateral and multilateral interaction creates a set of social norms determining a system’s general inclination toward conflict or cooperation.

At first, constructivism seems to support the realist understanding of the democratic peace. The posturing of the two superpowers during the Cold War precipitated the division of the globe into two antagonistic blocs. For the most part, the zero-sum game resulting from great power competition compelled states to enter into cooperative a relationship with one of the great powers. The primary concern of the states, according to the realist and possibly the constructivist account, was the predatory inclinations of the two dominant states. The identity of democracies and their cooperation with like governments, then, can be wrapped up in pure power identities concerned with survival, which are not attributable to the social conditions created by democratic regimes. Constructivism ostensibly supports realism’s longue duree perspective of the democratic peace by temporally situating the democratic peace within a dialogical and historical context.

The constructivist approach to international politics, though, allows for a more flexible explanation of the peace than realism’s strict determinism. Some academics criticize realists for dismissing the influence of democracy on the democratic peace, asserting that the realist position cannot account for the continued lack of military confrontations between democracies since the end of the Cold War. Unlike realism, constructivism’s process-driven model offers a cogent response to the democratic peace counterargument. The endurance of democratic-oriented international institutions following the Cold War coupled with the mass identification of states with democracy and the absence of an alternative ideology have contributed to a process of socialization promoting democratic cooperation. State identities and the structural forces of the international system are ever-changing and influence the cooperative or conflictual behavior of state interaction. If the realist claim that realpolitik considerations obliged democratic cooperation, constructivists will respond that the dynamic social realities of international politics render such relations impermanent.

One may also find that constructivism appears to accommodate the idea that the democratic peace is the product of a democratic identity and not the simple balance of power politics explanation. A state’s identity is a product of the internal conditions produced by its internal order and their interaction with outside states. In other words, identity is complexly constructed at the national level when leaders must balance constituent preferences against their interpretation of other state’s intentions and strength. 4Another empirical analysis of democratic cooperation during the Cold War may help elucidate this contention. Within democratic societies, the acceptance of democratic ideas skews their leaders perception toward other democracies as ‘natural’ allies during the Cold War. Democracies generally share similar values and their process of socialization via the institution of the Cold War reinforced this notion. Abstractly, however, this claim is problematic. Forms of governance do not necessarily predicate the nature of interstate relationships. Democracies’, for example, notoriously allied with autocrats during the Cold War to counteract the communist threat due to shared, anti-communist identities. Simply, identity rather than regime type determines states’ capacity for harmonic relationships with others in the system.

The present dearth of military confrontation between democracies does not presuppose a continuation of the trend. Changes to international institutions or perceptions of international institutions can alter state behavior and intentions. If, hypothetically, the World Trade Organization came to be widely perceived as an exploitative and/or corrupt institution, democracies participating in the institution may revert to autarkic or protectionist economic policies. If Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye’s hypothesis that interdependence between states promotes peaceful interaction is correct, then war between all states – including democracies – is more likely to occur when the economic linkages are severed. 5 Neither is it difficult to imagine that competition over essential and scarce resources like potable water may force democratic states into military conflicts with other democracies. Or, if one accepts Samuel Huntington’s argument, tensions originating from intercultural schisms will be the catalyst for future interstate conflict, regardless of forms of governance. The cultural hostility between the West and Islam, he contends, increases the likelihood of conflict between democracies of each culture.6

In sum, the argument that democracies do not wage war against similar governments is currently empirically substantiated. It is qualitatively difficult, though, to explicate the links between the abstract affects of democracy and tangible product of peace. The realist explanation is too structurally deterministic and rigid, whereas the democratic peace account too idealistically applauds the benefits of democratic governance. In the end, constructivism offers a more refined model for analyzing the causes and endurance of democratic peace. On broad theoretical grounds, constructivism is generally more complementary towards liberal approaches of international relations. In the case of the democratic peace, constructivism exists independently in the space separating the democratic peace and realist positions.

1 David Plotke, Democracy and Boundaries: Themes in Contemporary American Politics, 100-102.

2 James Lee Ray, “Does Democracy Cause Peace,” Annual Review of Political Science 1 (1998): 37-38.

3 Alexander Wendt, “Anarchy is What States Make of It,” International Organization 46 (1992): 405.

4 Robert Putnam, “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games,” International Organization 42 (1988): 424.

5 Robert Keohane, “Theory of World Politics,” in Neorealism and its Critics, ed. Robert Keohane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986): 197.

6 Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign Policy 72 (1993): 32.

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