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Reliable Partners: How Democracies Have Made a Separate Peace

Reliable Partners: How Democracies Have Made a Separate Peace

by Charles Lipson

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Democracies often go to war but almost never against each other. Indeed, "the democratic peace" has become a catchphrase among scholars and even U.S. Presidents. But why do democracies avoid fighting each other? Reliable Partners offers the first systematic and definitive explanation. Examining decades of research and speculation on the subject and testing


Democracies often go to war but almost never against each other. Indeed, "the democratic peace" has become a catchphrase among scholars and even U.S. Presidents. But why do democracies avoid fighting each other? Reliable Partners offers the first systematic and definitive explanation. Examining decades of research and speculation on the subject and testing this against the history of relations between democracies over the last two centuries, Charles Lipson concludes that constitutional democracies have a "contracting advantage"--a unique ability to settle conflicts with each other by durable agreements. In so doing he forcefully counters realist claims that a regime's character is irrelevant to war and peace. Lipson argues that because democracies are confident their bargains will stick, they can negotiate effective settlements with each other rather than incur the great costs of war.

Why are democracies more reliable partners? Because their politics are uniquely open to outside scrutiny and facilitate long-term commitments. They cannot easily bluff, deceive, or launch surprise attacks. While this transparency weakens their bargaining position, it also makes their promises more credible--and more durable, for democracies are generally stable. Their leaders are constrained by constitutional rules, independent officials, and the political costs of abandoning public commitments. All this allows for solid bargains between democracies. When democracies contemplate breaking their agreements, their open debate gives partners advance notice and a chance to protect themselves. Hence agreements among democracies are less risky than those with nondemocratic states. Setting rigorous analysis in friendly, vigorous prose, Reliable Partners resolves longstanding questions about the democratic peace and highlights important new findings about democracies in world politics, from rivalries to alliances. Above all, it shows conclusively that democracies are uniquely adapted to seal enduring bargains with each other and thus avoid the blight of war.

Editorial Reviews

Perspectives on Politics - Bruce Russett
[I]mportant and engagingly written. . . . If you want a book that takes theory seriously yet will engage students on fundamental aspects of international politics, this is one on a short shelf.
From the Publisher
"[I]mportant and engagingly written. . . . If you want a book that takes theory seriously yet will engage students on fundamental aspects of international politics, this is one on a short shelf."—Bruce Russett, Perspectives on Politics
Perspectives on Politics
[I]mportant and engagingly written. . . . If you want a book that takes theory seriously yet will engage students on fundamental aspects of international politics, this is one on a short shelf.
— Bruce Russett
Foreign Affairs
The claim that liberal democracies almost never go to war against each other has been the most studied thesis in international relations in the last decade. A scholarly consensus now seems to hold that democracies are unusually capable of settling disputes. In this elegant restatement of that Kantian vision, Lipson argues that what makes democracies special are their "contracting advantages." In contrast to autocratic states, democracies can make credible, long-term agreements with other democracies, thereby overcoming the uncertainties and insecurities that breed conflict. Lipson identifies various traits that give constitutional democracies this advantage: their openness to outside scrutiny, the continuity of regimes, the electoral incentives for leaders to keep promises, and the constitutional capacity to make enduring commitments. By stressing the deal-making advantages of democracies, Lipson is also able to explain the broader trend toward institutionalized cooperative security and economic relations. His central claim — that democratic leaders are more constrained by prior commitments and constitutional rules — is intuitively persuasive but by no means a settled issue, particularly in the new era of U.S. unipolarity.

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Princeton University Press
Publication date:
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6.12(w) x 9.32(h) x 0.57(d)

Read an Excerpt

Reliable Partners

How Democracies Have Made a Separate Peace

Chapter One


DEMOCRACIES almost never fight wars against each other. This simple observation is one of the most powerful findings in international politics and one of the most throughly tested. But what explains it? The answer, I think, is that democracies have unique "contracting advantages," which allow them to build stable, peaceful relations, based on multiple self-enforcing bargains.

The basic finding-that democracies rarely, if ever, fight each other-is one of the most compelling in modern international politics. Discovered by accident and initially overlooked, the "democratic peace" has been vigorously debated and exhaustively tested. Most statistical studies and case histories have found the same robust relationship. Democracies often go to war but very seldom against each other.

Thanks to all this testing, the democratic peace is now one of the best-established regularities in international politics, perhaps the best-established. The absence of war between democracies, Jack Levy concludes, "comes as close as anything we have to an empirical law in international relations." Another recent article notes that when all interacting states are democracies,that is "a near-perfect sufficient condition for peace."

Not surprisingly, these findings have prompted a flurry of research. Some extend the initial conclusions, showing that democracies are distinctive in other ways. They generally win wars, for example, probably because they take special care in choosing opponents. Others show the limits of the democratic peace. New and unstable democracies may well be more war-prone than other states, although they, too, are reluctant to fight among themselves. This does not mean that democracies are pacifists, however, even when dealing with each other. They sometimes threaten to use force against fellow democracies, and they have come close to war several times.

Even with these qualifications, the democratic peace is a powerful finding with far-reaching implications for both policy and theory. It means that international interactions are profoundly shaped by the way states are governed. Naturally, this finding inspires democracy's many advocates. But it deeply puzzles theorists, who want to know why it occurs. Their puzzlement echoes an old academic joke: "We know it works in practice. Now we have to see if it works in theory!'"

That is exactly the question about peace among democratic states. It works well in practice, but there is considerable confusion about how it works in theory. The lack of an answer is no joke, however. Despite extensive research, all we have is a remarkable correlation. We still lack a convincing explanation about why democracies do not fight each other.

Knowing why they do not fight is important for both practitioners and theorists. It bears directly on two central issues of international politics: the reasons for war and peace and the problems of sustaining cooperation. It also has serious implications for any general theory of international relations. It poses a specially pointed challenge to those who deliberately ignore the character of domestic governments, a crucial simplifying assumption of neo-Realism. The answer to this puzzle may also say something important about how countries can build relationships of greater trust and reassurance, laying the foundations for enduring peace. In short, it is a prominent puzzle in every sense.

How do we explain this apparent relationship between governmental forms and international outcomes? So far, three basic explanations have been advanced:

1. citizens' reluctance to bear the costs of war; 2. shared values among democracies; and 3. unique domestic institutions, which restrain elected leaders.

The cost explanation, initially developed by Immanuel Kant, argues that citizens of a republic are less war-prone because they must bear the burdens themselves and can vote to avoid them. Monarchs and dictators, by contrast, can shift the costs of war onto their subjects, who have no voice in the decision.

The normative explanation, also suggested by Kant, is that liberal democracies share certain basic values, grounded in their domestic political life. They settle disputes through neutral courts rather than through blunt force or status differences. They place a high value on individual life and liberty. As they look abroad, they recognize that other democracies also have governments based on popular consent and hold similar values. They then apply these liberal values in dealings with other democracies, where they can expect reciprocity. Relying on these common values, they can adjudicate disputes and compromise voluntarily rather than resorting to military force.

Finally, the institutional explanation underscores the constraints facing democratic policymakers. They face constitutional limits, must share power with other elected leaders, and can remain in office only by winning periodic elections, openly contested. Although there are important differences between parliamentary and presidential systems, both include legitimate opposition, genuine public debate, and procedural limitations on how public policy is made. These institutional arrangements inevitably slow down decisionmaking and make it difficult to launch military operations. If other states are similarly constrained, then neither will fear surprise attacks, and both will have the luxury of time to resolve international crises.

All three explanations highlight important features of democracy, but each is incomplete. If costs alone were the answer, then citizens would be equally reluctant to fight both democracies and nondemocracies. That does not explain why they choose to fight some types of states and not others. Large, powerful democracies have waged wars against small dictatorships, but not against small democracies. Moreover, their sensitivity to costs is not so straightforward. Public opinion in democracies sometimes favors war, as it did in 1898, when the United States fought Spain, which was blamed for sinking the USS Maine in Havana harbor. Monarchs and dictators, on the other hand, are not always eager to fight, since they, too, must weigh the financial costs, political risks, and chances of success. Defeat will not hurt them at the polls, but it could lead to their overthrow, exile, or death.

If norms alone were the answer, democracies would also be more peaceful toward all other states, not just other democracies. There is now some evidence to support that assertion, at least in mild form. Democracies are probably a bit less war-prone than other states. Even so, it is clear that democracies go to war often. In the twentieth century, for instance, Britain went to war more frequently than Germany. The United States has obviously been willing to use force repeatedly, both to defend its material interests and to extend its values. Moreover, democracies do not merely respond to provocations by others. They often seize the initiative and sometimes attack first. We need to understand, then, how norms and beliefs could lead democracies to make war against some states but not against others. If their norms encourage them to negotiate, compromise, and use judicial mechanisms, why don't they do exactly the same thing with nondemocracies, achieving peace with them, too?

Equally important, if democracies are really bound by such strong, pacific norms of conduct toward each other, why do they sometimes threaten fellow democracies with force? Contrary to the normative explanation, democracies sometimes issue military threats against each other and display troops and weapons to make them more credible. They probably do so less often than nondemocracies, but they definitely do issue military threats against each other. They have occasionally launched covert military operations against other democracies or supported coups from within. A purely normative explanation cannot easily grasp this kind of belligerence or fold it into an account of the democratic peace. What we need is a much better understanding of how normative concerns operate, how they dovetail with material interests to define national preferences, and, ultimately, how they shape the choices that yield war and peace.

In fact, common norms, shared values, and even shared interests may not be sufficient to produce peace. They may foster cooperation, but they do not ensure it. That is the fundamental lesson of the Prisoners' Dilemma. Both players value mutual cooperation over mutual defection, but they still cannot achieve it in a finite game. To achieve stable cooperation, the game itself must be changed in fundamental ways. Assuming both players value the future highly enough, they can sustain cooperation only if the game is played repeatedly, without a clear end point, and if defection by either player is deterred by the threat of punishment (that is, by the threat of noncooperation later in the game).

Finally, if domestic institutions were a sufficient explanation, why aren't democracies constrained from using force against all types of regimes? Not only do they use force against nondemocracies, they sometimes strike the first blow. The larger problem here is that institutional explanations do not spell out the causal connection between domestic limitations and international outcomes. How exactly are constraining institutions supposed to prevent democracies from going to war? And why do they operate to prevent wars only with other democracies?

All three explanations-costs, norms, and institutions-highlight unique elements of modern democracy and provide insights into the democratic peace. They suffer, however, from the same basic problem. Each is focused on the properties of an individual democracy. The democratic peace is fundamentally an interactive phenomenon. It is not about why one democracy or another is peaceful. It is about why two democracies so seldom fight each other.

The existing explanations merely allude to this central, interactive element of the democratic peace without developing and pursuing its implications. Essentially, they say, "if state A behaves this way, or holds these values, or has these institutions, and if state B does too, then we will have peace." Sometimes these explanations go one step further and say that states A and B must recognize their shared values or constraints. That is correct, as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. It glides over the most distinctive feature of the democratic peace: its emergence from the durable bargains and mutually profitable relationships democracies have forged with each other. That is the heart of my own explanation.

My explanation is that constitutional democracies have a special capacity to make and sustain promises with each other, including those about war and peace. They are better equipped to find and capture gains from mutual interests, to sustain them, and to forge durable, mutually profitable relationships. Democratic norms and institutions facilitate this by making bargains easier to identify, less risky, and more reliable in practice.

Because democracies have unique "contracting advantages," they can usually avert or settle conflicts with each other by reliable, forward-looking agreements that minimize the dead-weight costs of direct military engagement. To do that, states must be confident their partners will live up to their promises or, if they do not, that they can protect themselves from the risks.

After all, in matters of war and peace, there are no effective global courts to punish violators or protect innocent parties. It is a self-help system. States must look first to themselves for protection in a dangerous world. That usually means arms and fortifications. But states can do more than deter, defend, and attack. They can also help themselves by making mutually profitable deals with reliable partners, both as military allies and as trading partners.

This contracting explanation recognizes that democracies have mixed interests, sometimes overlapping, sometimes diverging. They have good reasons to push hard for their own favored outcomes and may bluff and threaten to achieve them. On the other hand, they also have strong incentives to capture joint interests and prevent the breakdown of cooperation. One of the most important of these joint interests is avoiding the barren costs of war. Their ability to achieve such cooperative outcomes by peaceful negotiations should increase over time as partners learn more about each other and develop profitable working relationships. As they learn, their contracting relationships evolve.

This explanation does not discard the extensive research on democratic norms and institutions. Quite the contrary; it systematically incorporates that work as part of a more comprehensive contracting explanation.

My explanation begins by noting that states must negotiate and secure their own bargains, ranging from formal treaties to informal working relationships. To do that, they must locate some common interests, if any are to be found, and divide the potential gains. They must also take care to ensure that their deals (and, indeed, their wider relationships) are self-enforcing. Self-enforcement is vital because there are seldom neutral third parties to interpret and enforce international bargains. They must seal their bargains in the harsh world of international anarchy, where states must help themselves, interpret their own bargains, and enforce whatever deals they make.

In this setting, perceptions and beliefs matter because states are not completely informed about each others' preferences and behavior, much less about the future contingencies they will face. They must also be concerned about their partners' institutional capacity to make commitments today and fulfill them tomorrow. The danger is that partners are unable or unwilling to live up to their promises, perhaps because the leader who made the agreement changes his mind, perhaps because circumstances have changed, or perhaps because there is a new ruler or a fundamental change of government.

These concerns arise because in the real world bargains are necessarily "incomplete contracts." No matter how elaborate treaties are, they cannot anticipate all future possibilities, all conceivable changes or external shocks. Negotiators either fail to foresee them or deliberately choose not to spend scarce time and money dealing with remote eventualities. If these contingencies arise, or if the parties later interpret their bargain differently, then they have to sort out their disputes, adjust the terms, settle on a common interpretation, or, failing that, abandon the agreement. When disputes arise, then, they must look after themselves. If they wish to capture the gains of cooperation and facilitate their ongoing relationship, they have to create some kind of governance mechanisms-formal or informal-to cope with such problems.

Before relying on such incomplete bargains, prudent states must make judgments about their partners' integrity and reliability. They want to reap the promised benefits, but they also want to be sure others are dealing in good faith and will continue to do so after the bargain is struck. Is their potential partner stable and dependable? Can its performance be monitored effectively at a reasonable cost? Is it able to fulfill its commitments, and will it try? Is it likely to discard its obligations if they become inconvenient, or cheat if its actions are hidden or too costly to punish? When new leaders come to power, will they be bound by earlier promises? Can the participants forge governance arrangements to sort out disputes and fill in gaps when they arise? These are hard questions with serious consequences. For all these reasons and more, states are concerned about the types of partners they are dealing with. That is particularly true in sensitive national security issues, where cheating and betrayal can be a matter of life or death. That is why states look to their partners' reputations for compliance or opportunism, their transparency to outside observers, their continuity of government, and their institutional capacity to make solid commitments about future behavior.

There are always risks, of course. But they are lower and more manageable when partners are well-established constitutional democracies. Such states are simply better equipped to make long-term commitments, to sustain them across changes of political leadership, and to show others their true preferences and their compliance with existing bargains.


Excerpted from Reliable Partners by Charles Lipson Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

A crucial question for our future is the truth of the claim that democracies are unlikely to fight each other. After a careful examination of alternative explanations, Charles Lipson has produced an intriguing argument about the causation behind this correlation. It is an original and important work.
Joseph S. Nye, Dean, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Michael Mandelbaum
For the last quarter-century the question of whether democracies are inherently inclined to conduct peaceful foreign policies has been the most extensively studied and heatedly debated issue in the fields of political science and international relations. With Reliable Partners Charles Lipson has produced the definitive study of the question, which summarizes, synthesizes, and goes beyond everything else written about it.
Michael Mandelbaum, Senior Fellow, The Council on Foreign Relations, author of "The Ideas That Conquered the World"
Scholars have long debated whether democracies fight each other. Charles Lipson persuasively closes that argument and explains how and why democracies are different. With verve and wit, he gathers a carefully crafted set of propositions like snowballs rolling down a hill until they strike like an avalanche with a fully constructed 'contracting theory.' Democracies avoid war with each other, Lipson demonstrates, because they have a unique capacity to bargain and keep their commitments. Reliable Partners is a lucid and compelling book for the experts and the general reader.
Robert A. Pastor, Vice President and Director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management, American University
Comprehensive, impressively researched, and a pleasure to read, Reliable Partners is a major contribution and the best single book on the subject. Lipson breaks new ground in answering why the democratic peace exists. His work will become a major reference point for future scholarship in the field.
Robert J. Lieber, Georgetown University, editor of "Eagle Rules: Foreign Policy and American Primacy in the Twenty-First Century"

Meet the Author

Charles Lipson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he founded and codirects PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He is the author of "Standing Guard: Protecting Foreign Capital in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries".

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