The Duck of Minerva

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The Democratic Peace isn’t a Virus

August 30, 2021

Paul Musgrave has written an important piece discussing how ideas developed within academia can have profoundly negative effects when they escape into the wild of the policymaking world. For someone like me who has been involved for many years in the Bridging the Gap project, whose goal is to better connect academics and policymakers, this argument is important and cautionary. (In addition to Musgrave’s recent Foreign Policy piece, Michael Desch provides a long and extensive history of academic ideas leading to bad policy in his book The Cult of the Irrelevant.)

I was pretty surprised, however, to see Musgrave call the idea of a democratic peace “the most dangerous lab leak from political science.” He then goes on to suggest examples of this idea leading to bad policy include NATO enlargement and the 2003 Iraq War. 

There certainly has been plenty of academic theorizing about whether and why established democracies don’t seem to go to war with one another. Nearly forty years ago, Michael Doyle drew on the ideas of Immanuel Kant to examine why democracies did not go to war with one another but did go to war quite often with non-democracies. An important modification to the democratic peace argument emerged from Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder’s interesting work exploring the particular dangers that regimes in transition to democracy posed. Michael McFaul and I were so incredulous at the argument that John Mearsheimer made in his 1990 article about the dangers that would arise in post-Cold War Europe that we responded with a piece on the differences between the liberal core and the realist periphery.

NATO’s expansion to the East was designed… to extend the Western European zone of peace and prosperity to more of the continent

Of course, the question Musgrave is asking is what happens when policymakers get their hands on ideas such as the democratic peace. Bill Clinton’s National Security Adviser Anthony Lake hoped to replace the Cold War containment strategy with a post-Cold War enlargement strategy, focusing on expanding the community of democracies in the hopes that such a development would lead to a more peaceful world.

It seems rather odd to lump NATO enlargement and the 2003 Iraq War together to make the case that the democratic peace idea is a bad one. There is no question that NATO’s expansion to the East was designed in large part to extend the Western European zone of peace and prosperity to more of the continent. Didn’t it (along with European Union enlargement) help achieve that goal for most of Europe? Most critics of NATO enlargement focus on the detrimental impact it had on U.S-Russia relations but those relations were affectedby many U.S. policies, including the Kosovo War, the U.S. unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and American support for civil society throughout the former Soviet Union, as well as Russian policies such as the poisoning and assassinations of political opponents, the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, and the Kremlin’s interference in American elections.

That leaves us with the Iraq War, one of the worst foreign-policy mistakes in American history. Are we really going to blame that war on academic ideas of a democratic peace? If Musgrave’s point is that policymakers can twist an idea and do really bad things in its name, then yes, it’s important for academics to be careful. But it seems quite a stretch to blame theorists of a democratic peace for the decision to invade a country and overthrow its leader in the vain hope that the United States could build a democracy there that would be an upstanding member of the international community. If we are looking for culprits for the Iraq war decision, I would put a misreading of history – whether the post-World War II occupations of Germany and Japan or the popular uprisings that led to the 1989 revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe – higher on my list than the democratic peace theory.

Musgrave has continued an important debate about whether and how academic ideas can morph into practice that can produce unintended, and at times calamitous, outcomes, but we need to remember that even if we agree that a foreign-policy decision was ruinous, it was probably the result of many factors going well beyond a single political science theory.

Ed. Note: Bridging the Gap has a partnership arrangement with the Duck of Minerva.

James Goldgeier is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at American University and Robert Bosch Senior Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution