Today I had a seminar for research training about inter-liberal peace, the statistically confirmed notion that liberal democracies do not go to war with one another. The seminar was essentially a chance to look at the different research designs that could be used to investigate a single topic. However, I found myself stuck on just a few points that kept me thinking from the reading to the finish: the real questions we should ask about liberal peace is not ‘how’, but rather ‘why’. Why has the discipline of International Relations latched onto liberal peace?
It was Michael Doyle’s ‘Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs’ of 1983 in Philosophy and Public Affairs that really broke the news of inter-liberal peace. He demonstrated that no two liberal democracies had been to war with each other. While we may fault his definitions, which he took from the Correlates of War Project, nonetheless what he demonstrated is clear: in relations between liberal democracies, there is a propensity for peace. Doyle’s findings have been tested time and again to a point where no-one seems interested in democratic peace theory anymore. That said, it is still fondly referred to as the closest thing our discipline has to a law.
It is at this point that my thoughts begin to emerge: why is it that we were so fascinated by the phenomenon of liberal peace? To my mind, it is a question of legitimacy.
The bulk of International Relations is concerned with political science. We certainly do deal a lot with history, but IR is really about the search for patterns and generalisations. This is more so the case in the US than anywhere else, but US predominance in the state system is matched by US dominance of the academic world, so it is relevant.
The primary emphasis in US-based IR is empiricism, still largely led by Realist thinking. Empiricism is the study of an ontologically positivist world, a world that is. The means by which liberal peace was discovered comes directly from empirical, statistical research (although the number of cases limits what we can derive from the studies). It is my belief that liberal peace in important to IR in that it legitimates empirical research, positivism, and even the label ‘political science’.
‘Science’ brings with it many connotations, and one of those is the search for general laws. In the natural sciences, particularly physics, a search for a unified theory dominated progression through the 20th Century and into the current day. I would argue that political science is no different, the positivist dominance in the US of the study of IR is no doubt looking for grand, nomothetic theories. The power politics model and rational actor theory are part of this search.
So liberal peace offers the positivists’ ways legitimacy.
We can see a different claim to legitimacy in the tying of this theory with Kant. Read John Macmillan’s critiques of liberal peace in order to see why this linkage is not entirely accurate. Kant is a major philosopher for IR, by linking liberal peace to Kant’s perpetual peace, Doyle seemingly increased the legitimacy of his claims. It is a voice of authority, rather than a worthwhile output, but the question is still legitimacy.
So, what is democratic peace theory? It is the myth that political scientists can tell themselves to allow them to continue tired world-view. It is the story that they can tell to continue to call what they do ‘science’. It is neither definitive nor conclusive, it is something that could be confirmed or disconfirmed with time… but in the meantime it feeds into neo-conservative belief and fuels thinking behind regime changes such as in Iraq. For IR, it is the greatest story ever told.
Rant over. Will get back to Japanese politics next time.