Has the Democratic Peace Theory Become Obsolete?

Einat Wilf
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Einat Wilf

It used to be said that democracies don’t go to war against each other. Now it seems that democracies don’t go to war, period.

The idea that democracies don’t wage war on each other - “the democratic peace theory” - presumes that the threshold for war by one democracy against another is particularly high. One key reason is the presumed social and cultural affinity among democracies due to their shared values. The democratic peace theory underpinned U.S. President George W. Bush’s push for democratizing the Middle East. A democratic Middle East was to be a peaceful Middle East.

But it appears that the threshold for war by any kind of democracy against any enemy has risen, and we have entered an age in which democracies do not wage war at all. At most, they carry out brief, very limited military operations, preferably in cooperation with other democracies. Even the threshold for these operations has risen, and they are likely to become very rare.

The dramatic rise in the war threshold is not only due to the need to obtain legislative approval for military action. It is also in part the result of a continuing decline within democracies of public trust in government institutions. In all democracies, public trust in leaders and in the government, including the security and intelligence establishments, has declined significantly. This is not only about the Iraq and Afghanistan war traumas for the British and American publics. All democracies are experiencing deep processes that are undermining the public trust in their leaders and rapidly diminishing the willingness of these publics to let their leaders lead them into war.

Publics in democracies are demanding higher levels of transparency from the leaders who seek to lead them to war. Leaders are asked to supply large amounts of detailed information, to answer tough questions and to disclose, and even include the public in, their deliberations and decision-making processes, directly or through their elected officials. Citizens want to know not only the reasons for going to war, but also the range of expected outcomes. They want to be secure in the knowledge that all possible scenarios have been seriously examined.

In addition, the range and variety of data found today in the public domain enables individuals to analyze the intelligence reports that underpin the case for war, and through “collective wisdom” to provide alternative assessments of a quality that once was the sole domain of advanced intelligence organizations.

Wikileaks and the Snowden affair are contributing to the calling into question the good faith and sound judgment of democratic governments. Protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street have created a permanent suspicion of the economic and bureaucratic forces that are pushing for war. In fact, the same forces that are subverting the old dictatorships and empowering millions of people in their demands for freedom and elected government are the ones that are increasingly inhibiting existing democracies from taking any kind of military action.

When it comes to the question of a democratic country waging war - whether it is an attack in Syria, Iran or the Gaza strip - the question of whether a leader is determined or circumspect, strong or weak, is irrelevant. All leaders in all democracies are operating today in a very different public environment and under stricter limitations than in the past. The war threshold for democracies is higher than ever, and this phenomenon is greater than any particular leader, country or war.

Dr. Einat Wilf, a senior fellow with the Jewish People Policy Institute, served in the 18th Knesset where she was a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Miami rally opposing the possibility of U.S. military intervention in Syria, Sept. 9, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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