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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.



  1. Nice rant Shingen!

    I would like to add that a theory is simply… a theory. However, maybe there is a little more to it, when it comes to the liberal peace theory.

    By the way, thanks again for mentioning all those sources, in your earlier post.


  2. True, very true. I do not mean to suggest that liberal peace is a law, or anything close to it. What I object to is the desires that lead one to suggest such a thing. Liberal peace cannot describe the cause of the peace, it only suggests a correlation. We have to get beyond the fascination with the general theory and into the details.

    I agree with Robert W Cox when he said “theory is always for someone and for some purpose”. What is the purpose behind liberal peace theory? That is what I hoped to deal with.

    There may be something to liberal peace, but its the history of the idea that I find most interesting.

    But like you said, it is just a theory, perhaps I needn’t take too much issue with it :)

    Thanks for stopping by, and as for the sources, I’m glad to be of service. Those are only the ones I regularly receive with regards to Japan rather than Asia more broadly. There’s some good stuff out there, and I’ve linked to those I find most useful in the sidebar —–>

    Always great to hear from you.

  3. Let’s keep in mind that ‘liberal democracy’ is a synonym for ‘capitalist.’ And, of course, Doyle was writing at a time when it was politically expedient to point out that ‘liberal democracies’ never fought against each other, due to the very nature of the cold war, Soviet political control structures, and the necessity to assert the ‘goodness’ of ‘liberal democracy’ in the face of the Soviets as the capitalist world suffered from economic shocks in the 1970s. I’m not sure how he would define the War of 1812 as something other than liberal democracies squared off against one another, but it’s a moot point…

    The pendulum has swung, and I think some of those you speak of, as the debate pushed into Foucault and systems of power with the liberal society, could no longer be identified by their followers as ‘positivist’ since the lack of war they came to as a conclusion turned out to be the predicate of economic power through global capitalism.

  4. Canexafish, it’s actually saying a lot if you can legitimately call an idea a theory. A theory is, by definition, supported, but not proven. It’s different from a hypothesis or a mere thought. “A theory is simply. . . a theory,” might be a little too dismissive.

    As long as I’ve been in PoliSci, there’s been talk of how to make it more scientifically legit – the same problem facing any “soft” science. Step one would be to insist upon the semantic clarity the hard sciences have.

    Ken, don’t you think, considering the power of Whitehall and the still firmly-entrenched aristocracy of the time, that it would a little bit of a stretch to call the UK of 1812-1815 a liberl democracy?

    That said, I agree with you in equating the term with capitalist societies.

  5. Great point, Ken. The ‘Second Cold War’ (the period after Detente, characterised by the Brezhnev Doctrine and Reagan’s presidency) was hitting the papers. This was certainly one of the reasons that the neo-conservative movement picked it up.

    As for the War of 1812, it’s been brought up by many critics, but Doyle’s definition of ‘liberal democracy’ manages to sweep it under the carpet: by his definition, Britain was not a liberal state until 1832 (with the Reform Act).

    You are certainly correct in your conclusion about how the issue is handled now, but for positivists it was their major triumph.

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