Democracy Is the Pathway to Peace


Oxford, England. -- The U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, was here last week, delivering a lecture to his old Alma Mater. His theme was that since democracies don't go to war with each other, more democracy must be the primary aim of the Clinton administration's foreign policy.

Mr. Talbott adduced the unanimous Security Council vote that gave the legal foundation for America's intervention in Haiti. This is the first time, he argued, that the world has accepted that the overthrow of democracy is a threat to the peace. And, he suggested, we're going to see more of this.

It is, indeed, quite remarkable that the U.N. Security Council sanctioned this American interpretation of the threat to the peace, usually reserved for such contingencies as Iraq invading Kuwait, or the mayhem in Somalia.

But, if there is a consensus in the Security Council, there is none in the American foreign-policy intellectual community. After the meeting, I asked Mr. Talbott if he'd read the sharp attack on the concept that "democracies don't go to war with each other" in the current issue of Harvard University's quarterly magazine, International Security. He hadn't, but jotted down the reference in his notebook.

Christopher Layne presents four cases in which democratic powers almost did come to blows -- the U.S. and Britain in 1861 and 1895, France and Britain in 1898, and France and Germany in 1923. Mr. Layne suggests that the reason they didn't, in the end, go to war was less because of the influence of shared democratic values than because of what he describes as "realism" -- that is, these states were democratic only because they were not living in a high-threat environment. They had less to fight over and found it easier when there was a clash to 'D compromise. In other words, a country becomes deeply democratic only when it is out of the danger zone.

Mr. Layne fears that current American foreign policy will lead paradoxically to "disastrous military adventures abroad" -- more war, not less, as America tries to export democracy. He sees the greatest danger in Central Europe, where Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are being considered as candidates for future membership of NATO on the grounds that these new democracies will guarantee peace in the region. But a shallow-rooted democracy, Mr. Layne says, will not ensure peace. The region will remain highly volatile, and if NATO decides to incorporate it, the U.S. risks becoming embroiled in some future regional conflict which could involve Germany, Ukraine and Russia.

None of this persuades the next contributor, John Owen. It is a question, he says, of the maturity of any particular democracy. A mature democracy is, by definition, liberal with an articulate and free-speaking educated elite that keeps it on a non-warlike track.

Liberalism puts a premium economically on well-being and open trade, politically on freedom and toleration and socially on self-preservation -- not allowing old men to casually send young men off to fight the politicians' battles. Ideologically, liberals trust those states they consider fellow liberals and see no reason to fight them. Liberals will go to war with illiberal regimes -- and have done so often enough. Even when liberals are out of power in a democracy, because there are regular elections and free speech, liberal elites compel the illiberal leaders of democracy to follow liberal ideology.

I say the ayes have it. I am convinced of the general direction of the democracy-is-peace school. That doesn't mean America or anyone else has to spread democracy by the sword, as some in the Clinton administration may believe. But that is a debate for another day.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad