Democracies and the Territorial Peace

by Doug Gibler on October 16, 2012 · 8 comments

in International Security

 Last Monday I posted about the water cannon fight between Japan and Taiwan.  This exchange meets the definition of a militarized dispute since Japanese coast guard vessels engaged Taiwanese patrol boats.  Both of these countries are also democracies, but our principal theory of international relations suggests that democracies do not fight each other.  So, does this prove one of our best theories wrong?

Providing one contrary case does not invalidate a theory or law, of course.  The empirical relationship is safe.   However, I think the water cannon dispute is really useful for thinking about the dynamics of why democracies tend not to fight each other and what explains the larger relationship.  If my argument is correct, the connection between territorial issues and state development controls the overall relationship: democracies do not fight each other not because of anything inherent to regime type; rather, democracies seldom have anything to fight over.  Disputes like the Senkaku Islands attract so much attention, in part, because they are so rare.

 

States with Settled Borders Do Not Fight Each Other, Cluster Together Regionally

Japan, Taiwan, and China are each provoking the other states, in different ways, over the Senkaku Islands, and nationalism remains high among the populations involved.  Nevertheless, no one expects a war here since the issues are comparatively small right now (the potential for oil and fishing rights).  These islands are not core territories for any of the states involved, even though they may eventually be exploitable.  Curiously, few are mentioning the fact that Japan and Taiwan are democracies as the prime reason the dispute will fail to escalate further beyond this provocation phase.  Perhaps that’s because Japan and Taiwan are behaving exactly the same way as China in this dispute—each is claiming the territories, each has a passionate citizenry, and the threats and rhetoric from each leadership have been quite aggressive.

 

Based on observed behavior alone, democracy seems not to matter here.  This is strange because one of our core understandings in International Relations is that democracies do not fight each other.  We do not know exactly why this regularity occurs though, as there are a host of (sometimes competing) reasons for the relationship—democracies and their leaders may be electorally constrained from conflicts against democracies (here and here), their trade interests and IgO memberships may tie them together peacefully (here and here), democratic systems may better inform their rivals of their intentions (here and here), or it could be the fact that democracies and their citizens just have better ways of working things out in mutually acceptable ways (here).

 

My argument in The Territorial Peace takes a different tack: the reason we find democracies not fighting each other is because disputes like those over the Senkaku Islands are the very rare cases of territorial conflict between them.  Territorial disputes have mostly been selected off democracies’ agendas.  Recall that I argued in my last post that territorial disputes tend to cause centralization in the state if threats persist.  This is why we find unstable borders and centralized, non-democratic governments clustering together over time.  This also implies that we will find decentralized states in areas with settled borders; among these decentralized states is where we find the democracies of the world.

 

Territorial disputes are consistently one of the most dangerous types of conflict for leaders to face.
So, without these issues on the agenda, the likelihood of war between democracies becomes quite small.  This implies that democracies are peaceful with each other not because of their regime types but because of their paths to state development.  Once we understand the effects of territorial issues on the state, the peace between democracies becomes a spurious finding.  [See here, here, here, and here, for statistical tests of the argument, but especially my book, Chapter 7, in which I show that controls for territorial threats eliminate the effects of joint democracy among contiguous states.]

 

The Larger Democratic Peace: Clustering, Predation Abroad, and Conflict Negotiation and Victory

The logic of Territorial Peace theory can be extended to explain many of the additional regularities associated with democracy.  For example, because borders are international institutions, they affect the development paths of both states in the dyad, and stabilized borders that decrease the need for militarization and centralization in one state also tend to demilitarize and decentralize the neighboring state. This is why we find such strong evidence that democracies cluster together in time and space, creating “zones of peace” that began in North America and Western Europe after World War II and then expanded elsewhere (see for example here, here, and our working paper here).

 

We should also find that any remaining issues between Territorial Peace states will be less conflict-prone since their most dangerous issues have been resolved.  This will make negotiation rather than conflict likely in these states.  Removal of territorial issues with neighbors will not necessarily make states peaceful with non-neighbors, however.  Freed from local threats, those states that are militarily capable can involve themselves abroad without fear of opportunism by regional rivals. Unconstrained, states at Territorial Peace can become militarily involved in many different issues, like the United States has over the past few decades.  This may also be the type of transition that China is experiencing now.  Russia is becoming less of a threat and other neighbors pose few serious challenges to core Chinese territories, so China may be becoming less constrained and increasingly able to engage on issues well beyond its borders.  Of course, if my development story is correct, fewer constraints will also foster decentralization and demilitarization at home.  This could portend well for democracy, eventually.

 

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Note: I will be periodically blogging about territorial conflict and state development issues on the blog for the book.  You can also follow those posts with this RSS feed.

 

{ 8 comments }

Zachary Alain October 16, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Is there any literature on Democratic Peace Theory which attempts to evaluate democracy and conflict by degree, so as to see what correlation between degree of conflict and relative degree of democracy exists? Does adequate data for such a project even exist except for very few countries over very few decades? I think that some attempt would be worth it, even if data-poor cases have to be estimated more subjectively than others. Otherwise, it’s difficult to control for things like “implicit backing of a coup against a democratic regime”.

UP October 16, 2012 at 1:46 pm

Not too sure whether the Taiwan-Japan example is appropriate here/ refutes democratic peace notions. Didn’t Jessica Weeks and Dara Cohen have a paper some years ago which showed that democratic dyads were significantly more likely to engage in fishing/ trawler disputes (which are at the same time relatively easy to resolve)?
My understanding of the dynamics in Taiwan indicates that (on the contrary to China/ Japan) the dispute was mainly driven by the concern of local fishermen over fishing grounds rather than the dynamics usually associated with territorial disputes.
http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2012/09/27/2003543775

doug gibler October 16, 2012 at 2:26 pm

Zachary, I’m not sure what you’re trying to do with that type of research design, but the data is easily available. It’s also been done in various forms– see Mitchell and Prins, 1999, for example.

UP, that selection effect is exactly my point. Democracies rarely, if ever, have territorial disputes, and even those disputes labeled territorial aren’t really about core territories!

Zachary Alain October 16, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Idle curiosity. Thanks for the recommendation.

Zachary Alain October 16, 2012 at 4:18 pm

Is there a database which takes into account State-backing of coups? I looked through the MID database, and I couldn’t find entries for Haiti in 1991 or Chile in 1973. Then again, I’m new to this, so I might be going about things the wrong way.

Barry October 20, 2012 at 7:22 am

Good point – in 1973, one democracy overthrew another. The USA the military of Chile against it, but OTOH, that’s a cheap and easy method.

Given how any times the USA has overthrown other governments, particularly in S/C America, I think that this ‘principle’ is only valid through throwing out numerous counter-examples.

LFC October 17, 2012 at 1:12 am

Am planning a post on my own blog in reaction to these posts, but it’s not yet finished.

LFC October 21, 2012 at 11:40 am

It should be up by Wed. or Thurs. (Oct. 24 or 25).

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