Courtesy Reuters

Never Say Never: Wishful Thinking on Democracy and War

In This Review

Never at War: Why Democracies Will Not Fight One Another

By Spencer R. Weart
Yale University Press, 1998
432 pp. $35.00

Since the mid-1980s, scholars of international politics have debated whether democratic states are strongly inclined to keep peace with one another. Apart from its academic interest, the "democratic peace" thesis has the greatest possible policy relevance. If democracies are in fact hardwired to treat each other benignly and if we can devise nonviolent means of encouraging democratic rule, we may have finally discovered a recipe for lasting peace.

The idea that democracies do not fight one another is undeniably attractive for those who happen to live in them. It would be wonderful if spreading our preferred form of government were also a reliable means of promoting peace, and one can hardly imagine a stronger justification for exporting republican ideals. Since war between the major democratic powers is extremely unlikely at present, the democratic peace is also intuitively plausible.

Yet the inherent attractiveness of this proposition is precisely why Americans should view it with some caution. Because the idea of a democratic peace is so flattering to our own values, we may embrace it even when the evidence is ambiguous and its long-term validity uncertain. Since many scholarly works have cast doubt on the hypothesis, a healthy sense of skepticism seems warranted.


The latest entrant into this burgeoning debate is Spencer R. Weart. Drawing a critical distinction between "democratic" and "oligarchic" republics, he argues in Never at War that well-established republics of the same type almost never fight one another. Although history offers up a number of near misses and potential exceptions, Weart concludes that none of them seriously damages his basic claim. For Weart, therefore, spreading democracy remains the most promising path to world peace.

Weart's central argument rests on two empirical propositions. First, truly democratic republics -- which he defines as states where at least two-thirds of the citizens enjoy full political rights -- have simply never fought one another. Second, so-called oligarchic republics -- states where less than a third of adult males hold

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