Toward a Social-Democratic Peace?

The post–World War II period has shown a clear, albeit erratic, decline of organized violence.

Violence in this period peaked during the Chinese Civil War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and most recently the Syrian Civil War, but the peaks are declining over time and the long-term trend in absolute numbers is clearly downward.

One peak of violence was the Chinese Civil War 1927-1949. Source unknown

In relative terms, as a share of world population, the decline is even more striking. We are far from achieving world peace, as evidenced by the protracted and internationalized civil war in Afghanistan, the numerous violent conflicts in the Middle East, and periodic belligerent threats of fire and fury from regional and global powers.

But we may at least be hopeful that the world is moving in the right direction. How did we get this far, and where do we move next?

The Democratic Peace

‘There is no machine that can deliver peace. No equation to unravel. No hidden secret to uncover,’ writes Alex Bellamy in his book World Peace (And How We Can Achieve It). Yet, democratic peace theory claims to provide such a formula.

Democracy itself is a form of organized conflict resolution. Peaceful norms generally govern the internal affairs of democratic countries and these norms appear to extend to mutual relations between democracies. Two democratic countries rarely, if ever, go to war against each other.

Wars are fought between authoritarian countries and, even more often, between democracies and autocracies. When states with different types of regimes end up at war, it is rarely a democracy that initiates the violence. The bloodiest interstate wars in the twentieth century (including the two world wars, the Korean War, and the Iran-Iraq War) were all initiated by autocracies. Highly democratic countries also rarely, if ever, fight civil wars over competing claims to government. And secessionist struggles within democracies are usually inherited from a colonial past (as in Northern Ireland) or an authoritarian past (as in the Basque conflict) and are mostly conducted with low levels of violence. One-sided violence by states or other organized parties against unorganized civilians is generally committed by and in authoritarian states. Democracies are also generally better at managing their resources in a manner that avoids preventable deaths in famines and similar disasters.

Challenges to the Democratic Peace

Although the empirical evidence for the democratic peace is compelling, it has serious limitations as a prescription for world peace.

Let us assume, somewhat optimistically, that around half of the world’s countries can be considered democratic. Then, if we follow democratic peace theory, interstate war would only be ruled out in one-quarter of any given pair of nations. The vast majority of wars occur between neighboring countries. Most pairs of states – such as Bolivia and Chad – are unlikely candidates for war in any case, regardless of regime type. Furthermore, democracies tend to cluster geographically, often forming security communities (as in Europe), and therefore the risk of interstate war will be very low in these regions and much higher elsewhere.

Scholars from a variety of theoretical perspectives have questioned the causal mechanisms of the democratic peace, frequently drawing on other liberal perspectives on international affairs.

Proponents of the quality of government peace highlight the value of a benign government with low corruption in maintaining peace even in the absence of electoral democracy. Supporters of the capitalist peace point to the lack of democracy in command economies. To them, the emergence of a market economy accounts for democracy as well as peace. This perspective is closely linked to the idea that economic integration provides a powerful incentive to avoid violent conflict, an important ingredient in Bruce Russett and John Oneal’s notion of a liberal peace. Others have focused on economic development, which makes war less attractive. Some have argued for a territorial peace, where it is the absence of active territorial disputes and the existence of a stable border that is the best predictor of peace between two countries. Based on findings that gender equality in politics reduces violence within as well as between societies, some have argued for a feminist peace at the core of the democratic peace.

Finally, a recent study argues for a civil society peace. A great deal of effort has been invested in studying whether one or more of these factors can better provide the explanatory power behind what is referred to as the democratic peace. Many studies conclude that though they cannot provide such an explanation, certain aspects of democracy may play a more important role than others. Håvard Hegre and colleagues (Civil society and the democratic peace, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 2020) find that in democratic dyads, social accountability – that is, civil society holding government and politicians to account for their actions – is a stronger predictor of non-belligerence than electoral accountability or horizontal accountability (to other national institutions and branches of government), but not to the exclusion of the other two dimensions.

Most studies also argue that other factors can make independent contributions to peace, even in the absence of democracy. The East Asian peace — the absence of interstate war in East Asia since 1979 has been considered a key factor in the global decline of armed conflict in recent decades. This peace is arguably due more to economic development and economic integration than to democracy, although several states in the region have moved in the direction of greater democracy during the same period. Separating the effects of the different factors is difficult because they are so closely related to each other, with one influencing the next, and vice versa. If, for instance, a market economy is important for the emergence of democracy, we may interpret democracy as a key mechanism for translating the market economy into peace. And regarding the feminist peace, it is hard to see how gender equality can emerge except as part of a broader set of democratic institutions.

The Realist Challenge

Realists presented a different challenge to any explanation of peace based on democratic norms.

Peace, they insist, requires a certain amount of force. On this view, the state provides internal peace by establishing an authority with a monopoly on violence. Rather than succumbing to violent fights between competing warlords or ethnic groups, society is regulated by a set of institutions that provide a measure of order and that intervene, forcefully if necessary, against those who disturb it.

Although the power of a strong central government can be misused for repression and violence, the emergence of competent states generally reduces violence within nations and increases the chances of compromise between nations to resolve conflicts. At the interstate level, we lack a similar monopoly on violence and realists see the international community of nations as anarchic, much like a failed state at the national level. International peace, then, depends on the distribution of power in the international system, including patterns of alliance building. Power is the key variable, although realists differ on the issue of whether a balance of power or power preponderance provides the most stable outcome.

This challenge is formidable, but it has blind spots. For one, this perspective ignores the growth of international law and the phenomenal proliferation of both public and private international institutions, particularly in the period after World War II. The growing web of shared organizational memberships increasingly ties countries together with a set of mutual obligations that work to their advantage in the long run. In particular, the United Nations and its specialized agencies exercise considerable influence in international affairs, not just in political terms but over a wide spectrum of functional cooperation in health, education, transportation, and so forth.

Similarly, the Bretton Woods institutions play a leading role in the international coordination of economic affairs, along with regional institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In parallel, international law is generated formally through treaties and also informally through everyday practice.

In this way, international law and international organizations provide a third pillar of what its proponents term the liberal peace. Realists object that the United Nations has limited power to intervene in armed conflict because doing so would require full agreement among the major powers, which may be impossible to achieve without the consent of the antagonists.

However, international society is not without tools with coercive elements that contribute to keeping the peace. The post–World War II era has seen the massive expansion of international peacekeeping, both in terms of the number of missions and the number of personnel involved, in large part provided by the United Nations but also by regional organizations, such as the African Union. These operations have a clear effect in limiting violence. The mandates for peacekeeping missions have also moved toward a greater role for peace enforcement.

Clearly, peacekeeping and, even more so, peace enforcement are most promising for smaller conflicts and particularly for conflicts where the major powers do not have a direct stake in the outcome and are likely to exercise a veto in the Security Council. Conflicts such as the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and more recently the civil war in Syria, have escalated beyond recognition because of the involvement of major powers. At their peak, these wars each accounted for a large fraction of global violence. Peacekeeping is unlikely to be applied to prevent such conflicts from escalating. Even in the absence of agreement between the major powers to allow interventions authorized by the Security Council, there has been a large increase in peace agreements in ongoing conflicts, often facilitated by the mediation efforts of states and nongovernmental organizations.

An Unjust Peace?

While the world has become more democratic and more peaceful, has more competent states, and is becoming ever more economically and politically collaborative, many scholars and policymakers worry about the effects of the rising global inequality that has accompanied these changes. Is the relative peace of the current period a temporary phenomenon, distracting from the extreme inequity that is breeding dissatisfaction and that will eventually explode into violence?

In many industrialized countries, following a long period of decline, inequality has been rising since the early 1990s. Interpersonal inequality at the global level has decreased markedly, mainly because of the large-scale reduction in extreme poverty in the world’s two most populous counties, China and India. But at the same time, interpersonal inequality within each nation is on the increase. Could this lead to internal unrest and even civil war?

There is little evidence for a strong direct relationship between interpersonal economic inequality and violent conflict as measured by, for instance, the Gini index. However, inequality between ethnic or national groups (particularly when coupled with political exclusion) are factors significantly associated with civil war. The good news is that while economic inequality has been increasing in many countries, group inequality and discrimination are, if anything, declining. A competent state plays an important role in alleviating the potentially negative effects of globalization and the market economy and in preventing discrimination. The capitalist peace will not be peaceful in the long run if the market economy is left to itself with no regulation.

A Social-Democratic Peace

Viewed together, the elements that are assumed to contribute to a more peaceful world – democracy, a market economy, a competent state, international economic and political cooperation, and policies for reducing discrimination and inequalities along ethnic and national lines – look very much like social democracy.

Of course, if we require that all of these things be present at the same time, we limit the likely zone of peace even more stringently than the democratic peace itself. On the other hand, if we assume that all of these factors have some influence on peace, we not only have a formula for peace but also a political program for the continued expansion of the zone of peace.

As a leading social-democratic politician in Norway, the late Einar Førde, sloganized in a book title almost forty years ago, ‘We are all social democrats’. Had Førde lived to see the rise of Donald Trump and right-wing populism in Europe and the decline of traditional social-democratic parties in Europe, he might have been more cautious. On the other hand, he might have found the international response to the Corona pandemic to support his view.

The point still stands: The values associated with social democracy have, to a large extent, been embraced by competing parties. Most socialists accept an important role for the market economy, and conservatives go along with high taxation and an active public sector. Even populists embrace the welfare state and often try to adopt social-democratic values to defend their positions, as when opposition to immigration is justified with the sustainability of the welfare state.

While, in recent elections, voters in Europe have defected from social-democratic candidates, public opinion polls show that they have maintained (or even increased) their allegiance to a fair distribution of resources and an active role for the government in education and healthcare. And right-wing authoritarianism is not rising unchecked.

To reiterate, the world is still a violent place, but substantially less so than it was during World War II, the Great Leap Forward in China, or the Vietnam War. International wars on such a scale, or even larger, are low-probability events, but not so improbable that they can be completely discounted. Lewis Fry Richardson, the British physicist who first discovered that the size of interstate wars over time follows a power-law distribution, said in a discussion of his work on arms races that his equations ‘describe only what happens if men do not stop to think’. Today, we have the opportunity to see clearly the dire consequences of a future cataclysm and we may nurture the hope that humankind will collectively be able to avert it.

Here, I have generally interpreted peace to mean the reduction of organized physical violence. Many critics argue that this is too limited and that the word peace must entail a broader interpretation. This is a fair perspective, but given the history of organized human violence, I do not see reduction of physical violence as a limited program. Numerous proposals have been put forward to add a positive peace dimension to the ‘negative’ aim of reduced violence. The social-democratic peace in many ways looks like some of these positive peace notions. As Bellamy notes, the Global Peace Index, by including low levels of corruption, a sound business environment, good relations with neighbors, the free flow of information, a well-functioning government, and the equitable distribution of resources, defines peace as ‘those things most valued by social democratic societies’. I have put forward social-democratic peace as a formula for reducing violence rather than as another extended notion of peace. Nevertheless, it is hardly a weakness if a proposed program for moving closer to world peace coincides with common definitions of a widespread extended concept of peace. In other words, the medicine tastes sweet while also curing the disease.

  • This blog post is a shortened and slightly version of my article with the same title, published in Ethics and International Affairs 34(1), 2020: 67–75. The article is open access and can be freely downloaded via this link. It is inspired by Alex J. Bellamy: World Peace (And How We Can Achieve It), Oxford University Press, 2019.
  • Nils Petter Gleditsch is Research Professor at PRIO and Professor emeritus of political science at NTNU.
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David Mason

is there a way I can download this? I would like to use it in my Intro to Peace Studies class this Fall semester.

Nils Petter Gleditsch

It is open access at the publishers website. If you click on the link, it should come up as a pdf. Let e know if you con’t succeed and I can send it to you.

Nils Petter

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