The Democratic Peace Hypothesis and Greece : an introduction

Article published on Feb. 16, 2011
community published
Article published on Feb. 16, 2011
by Vassilios Damiras Genesis The “democratic peace” hypothesis encourages hope for a new age of international peace among nation-states that adopt democratic values and beliefs. It argues that democracies are more likely than non-democracies to resolve disputes among themselves in a peaceful manner.
Its core assumption--that democracies do not fight wars with each other--constitutes the closet one can get to an “iron-clad law” in international relations. The policymaking world strongly adheres to this viewpoint, as demonstrated by U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

Contrary to the democratic peace hypothesis a dispute over the island of Cyprus led to a growing conflict between Greece and Turkey in 1974, despite the fact that both countries were democratizing and thus embodied democratic forms of government. The thesis is that, contrary to the literature devoted to the democratic peace hypothesis, countries in the process of democratizing (i.e., that in transition and therefore not consolidated democracies) may pursue conflictual relations with their neighbors as the result of weak institutions and domestic pressures (i.e. domestic politics) that ironically are the result of the democratization process.

In the case of Greece, the democratization process brought about a weak democratic regime unable to establish effective control and political order to populist demands. While this new regime was less repressive and permitted greater political freedom than its precursor (the military junta), it was also prone to political instability and was challenged by various ultra conservative and communist sociopolitical groups intent on seizing political power. This serious and precarious situation created the conditions for aggressive Greek foreign policy behavior during the Cypriot Crisis of 1974. Contrary to the democratic peace hypothesis, democratization actually contributed to severe conflict between two democracies (Greece and Turkey), leading both to the edge of war.

Democratic Peace Hypothesis and its Shortcomings

            The democrat peace hypothesis--that democratic countries do not fight wars with each other and more likely than non-democracies to resolve disputes among themselves in a peaceful manner--has produced a great amount of research dealing with the issues of the democracy and war. One of the founding fathers of this intensive scholarly debate was Immanuel Kant. In his famous treatise, Perpetual Peace, Kant stated that “a republican form of government, exemplifying the rule of law, provides a feasible basis for states to overcome structural anarchy and secure peaceful relations among themselves.” One of the main convictions of his book is that republics band together and create “pacific federations” (foedus pacificum). His foundation for his argument was an analysis of the Delian League alliance, created in the fifth century B.C. by Athens and other democratic city-states to deal with foreign military threats, most notably the menacing Persian Empire.

            Karl Deutsch in his book Political Community and the North Atlantic Area, advance a similar notion, “pluralistic security communities,” in which a study of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) clearly demonstrated that democracies tend to ally with each other to fight a common enemy. In the case of NATO alliance the Soviet Union was the threat. In short, the scholarly consensus is that democracies do not fight wars and are inclined to establish international institutions for the purpose of cooperation on common problems. NATO and the European Union (EU) are strong examples of how democratic nation-states work together.

            Nonetheless, the democratic peace hypothesis has been critiqued on several grounds. The classic literature focuses on the extreme case of war and is largely correct in this regard (i.e., democracies do not go to war against each other). However, as one descends the “interventionist spectrum,” the strength of the hypothesis becomes less evident. The historical record clearly indicates that the U.S. launched a large number of covert operations against democratically elected governments during the Cold War in order to protect its national interests, and in four cases--Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Greece (1967), and Chile (1973)--played a major role in their overthrow. The strength of the democratic peace hypothesis is also dependent on how one defines “democracy” during specific historical periods. For example, some argue that both Athens and Megara were democracies in 427 B.C., while others have argued that Megara was not a full-fledged democracy equal to Athens. The point that is critical to the democratic peace hypothesis is that Athens and Megara went to war in 427 B.C. As a result, there is a continuing debate about the proper definition of democracy, especially during earlier historical periods, with important ramification for the democratic peace hypothesis.

            A more significant critique, is that the democratic peace literature often sites, but fails to explore critical case studies in depth that are typically described as anomalies (e.g., the case of Greece and Turkey in the Cyprus dispute). In this regard, scholars have variously explained the Greek-Turkish “anomaly” by arguing that the conflict occurred due to deep historical and severe cultural differences.  Bruce Russett contended that the Greek-Turkish dispute has its foundation in strong cultural differences emanating from the Byzantine and Ottoman historical periods. Keith Legg and John Roberts stated that Greek-Turkish animosity is based on strong competing geostrategic views concerning the Aegean Sea. Both countries view the specific region as an integral part of their socio-economic and political survival. Finally, Samuel Huntington and Spencer Weart presented the argument that the Greek-Turkish conflict is based on deep religious differences between Orthodox-Christians and Muslims. Such arguments are ultimately unsatisfactory, however, in that if cultural, strategic, or religious reasons are the key to understanding this case, why not others, and what of the presumed applicability of the democratic peace hypothesis across culture and historical periods?

            The most important failing of the democratic peace literature is that it has failed to adequately address the potentially destabilizing nature of democracies in transition. There are two critical points. First, evidence indicates while stable, well-consolidated democratic countries may not fight each other in a potential crisis, a process of democratization or transitions towards a democratic political system might create the sociopolitical conditions for a weak regime unable to establish effective control and maintain political order. Thus, a transition period could lead to the emergence of an unstable government prone to aggressive behavior in time of conflict. The case of the Romanian-Hungarian relationship in the 1990s vividly illustrates the historical phenomenon. Both countries faced a sociopolitical transition from communism to democracy. During that time, they exhibited weak democratic institutions unable to cope with potential crisis. Soon enough the issue of the social and political rights of the Hungarian minority in Romania appeared on the horizon. Unable to solve the specific problem in a peaceful manner, both countries engaged in a conflictual relationship that dragged on until NATO officials sought to resolve the dispute in 1997.

            Second, transitional democratic regimes more often than not provide avenues for newly freed sociopolitical actors to push for aggressive policies in times of crisis. Historical evidence strongly illustrates that most of the time these new sociopolitical actors (e.g., media, interest groups), instead of pushing the government to act in a democratic manner, force the executive to pursue and adopt populist policies. These policies most often exhibit aggressive behavior in times of high-level crisis. Once again the contentious Romanian-Hungarian relationship in the 1990s demonstrates this phenomenon. In both countries media and interest groups pressed their governments to adopt aggressive postures in solving the Hungarian minority issue. Thus, the democratization process in actuality sometimes drives a nation-state to engage in war rather than seeking peaceful resolution of a crisis.

            In short, it is evident that scholarship devoted to the democratic peace hypothesis has resulted in a plethora of evidence of how democracies do not fight each other. However, this scholarship has not adequately addressed the behavior of transitional democracies in time of crisis, and has completely failed to explore the so-called “anomaly” of Greek-Turkish conflict during Cyprus crisis 1974.

Vasillios Damiras is a Defense Consultant in the United States of America.