Proposal for a Libertarian Peace Theory
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          “[T]he most useful way to test the causal claims of the democratic peace theory,” writes Miriam Elman in Paths to Peace, is to study what democracies do when they “come into conflict.”  By studying “disputes that nearly escalated to war,” we can learn whether the belligerents’ “democratic nature” averted a war.  Elman therefore insists that we survey solely those democracies that share a “potential for crisis” and “opposing interests.”[1]  Yet this method only lets us determine the impact of a state’s “democratic nature” upon those crises or conflicts of interest.  We cannot ascertain whether two states’ “democratic nature” causes them not to have “opposing interests” in the first place.  Other studies also ignore this possibility: qualitative analyses have trouble accounting for “non-events,”[2] and quantitative surveys tend not to discriminate among them.  Nevertheless, this paper argues that one variant of democracy – libertarianism – generates a harmony of interests among the states that adopt it. 


          The paper is divided in three sections.  First, it introduces the concept of a libertarian peace by explaining what it is not.  A review of the cultural and institutional variations of the democratic peace theory enables us to situate the libertarian peace thesis within the latter school.  Second, the paper explains how the dynamics of a libertarian dyad may preclude the possibility of conflict, even if they do not reduce the

likelihood that an existing conflict will escalate to war.  Neither are these dynamics likely to lessen the potential for conflict between libertarian and non-libertarian states.  Third, this paper reviews some indirect empirical support for this argument.


What a Libertarian Peace Is Not


          James Lee Ray addresses R. J. Rummel's hypothesis that libertarian systems mutually preclude violence early in his literature review of the democratic peace theory.  Like many other scholars, Rummel emphasizes the importance of democracies’ norms and institutions on their foreign policies.  From a cultural or normative perspective, he claims that “between libertarian states there is a fundamental sympathy of their peoples toward each other’s system, a compatibility of basic values.”[3]  This is a common view of the role that democratic norms plays, but it differs slightly from Bruce Russett’s more specific thesis.[4]  Russett contends that, because “democratic political culture encourages peaceful means of internal conflict resolution,” democratic leaders are willing to apply these norms “across national boundaries toward other democratic states,” and they expect their foreign counterparts to do the same.[5]  Yet, in both explanations, democratic dyads are peaceful because their members arrive at “positive perceptions of other democracies.”[6]  And it is this attitudinal outcome that Christopher Layne finds lacking in his case studies of “modern historical instances in which democratic great powers almost came to blows”[7] (this paper incorporates Layne’s observations below).


          Addressing democratic institutions, Rummel places a “Kantian stress on the role of pacifistic public opinion and interest groups.”[8]  Here he embraces another familiar causal mechanism: Democratic leaders are wary of entering wars, primarily because they can be voted out of office by the same citizens who “pay the price for war in blood and treasure.”  Other scholars highlight additional structural constraints on democratic leaders, including “political competition” and “the pluralism of the foreign policy decisionmaking process.”[9]  But in both variants of the institutional argument, “democratically elected leaders are unable to act quickly,” and this sluggishness has a dual impact.  On the one hand, “this cautious foreign policy behavior reduces the likelihood that a conflict will escalate to war.”  On the other hand, these institutions signal to other states that they should “anticipate a difficult and lengthy process before [a] democracy is likely to use significant military force against them.”  As a result, these other states will expect – and capitalize on – a greater “opportunity to reach a negotiated settlement.”[10]


          Yet while normative hypotheses explain why a dyad must consist of two democracies before it can achieve a democratic peace, structural arguments tend to posit that one state’s democratic institutions will lower the likelihood of war with a second state, to an extent that does not depend on whether the second state is democratic.  Accordingly, institutional arguments “cannot account for a democratic public’s willingness to fight wars against nondemocracies” more frequently than against democracies.[11]  Layne asserts simply that “[i]nstitutional constraints do not explain the democratic peace,” and he does not bother to test their influence in his case studies.[12]


          As these structural hypotheses limit their theoretical traction over the dynamics of democratic dyads, they also take us farther away from the approach outlined in this paper’s introduction: They treat democracy not as a source of regimes’ (shared) interests, but rather as a device for reconciling states’ (conflicting) interests.  Whereas cultural arguments speculate that democratic dyads produce a joint normative interest in peace, the aforementioned institutional theses claim – at most – that individual democratic leaders have an interest in avoiding war.


          Kenneth Schultz’s structural approach in Democracy and Coercive Diplomacy goes even farther.  He notes that “[t]he availability of information, and the nature of strategic interaction under conditions of uncertainty, intervene in the causal chain between interests and outcomes”; his book therefore concentrates “on information rather than on preferences.”[13]  Specifically, he argues that because a democracy experiences “[o]pen political competition,” it cannot help but reveal some information about its preferences or capabilities “to both domestic and foreign audiences.”  This reduction in asymmetric information helps it and its adversaries to “identify a settlement that both sides prefer to war.”[14]  In fact, Schultz implies that institutional arguments can be collapsed into informational theories: Dictators may run greater “political risks” in going to war than do elected officials, but “the political risks generated by their threats are [less] obvious to outsiders,” and the scarcity of information makes war more likely.[15]  Nevertheless, actors’ interests retain substantial causal weight – unless states have “conflicting preferences over the allocation of disputed goods,”[16] information is of little value to them.


          Institutional approaches to the democratic peace theory, then, seem to have surrendered their explanatory power – both to cultural and even neorealist arguments that build upon states’ preexisting preferences,[17] and to Schultz-like and neoliberal arguments that stress the importance of shared information for achieving cooperative outcomes.  Therefore it may come as a surprise that this paper advances an institutional explanation of a libertarian peace.  As foreshadowed in the introduction, it contends that libertarian institutions preclude conflicts of interest within libertarian dyads.


The Dynamics of a Libertarian Peace


          Rummel, too, frames libertarianism in institutional terms.  “Freedom inhibits violence,” he writes; “libertarian states have natural inhibitions on involvement in violence,” and “economic institutional arrangements” assume a unique importance in his thinking.[18]  However, James Lee Ray suggests that Rummel’s causal mechanisms focus largely on the variables discussed in this paper’s previous section, including “the responsiveness of elected leaders to domestic interest groups or public opinion, which ordinarily will oppose violence, tax increases and conscription.”[19]  Therefore this section will develop a separate model of a libertarian peace, first examining the nature of a libertarian regime – including its “inhibitions on…violence” – and then deducing this regime’s inherent constraints on foreign policymaking.


          In ideal-typical form, a libertarian government has the sole purpose of protecting private property rights.  This fundamentally negative aim prevents the libertarian regime from adopting any positive objectives: It cannot interfere with its citizens’ properties; it cannot interfere with its citizens’ exchange of their properties.  It cannot spend tax monies on anything other than the physical defense of its citizens’ properties; if it did, it effectively would be confiscating its citizens’ monetary properties.  In Weberian terms, a libertarian regime cannot use its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence except to protect private property rights.  In even simpler terms, it may not initiate the use of violence – it may defend its citizens’ properties only.


          This principle parallels Rummel’s notion of libertarian “inhibitions on…violence.”  If we were to treat it as a norm – similar to the democratic norm of peacefully resolving disputes – then we could devise a cultural explanation for a libertarian peace.  But Rummel implies, and the preceding paragraph makes clear, that the non-initiation of violence is an institutional function of a libertarian regime.


          Therefore a dyad of libertarian states cannot experience a conflict of interests that could lead to war.  In an anarchical system where “each unit…is responsible for ensuring its own survival,” both states may seek to increase their military capabilities through internal balancing or external alliances.  But because anarchy also sets each state “free to define its own interests and to employ means of its own choice in pursuing them,”[20] each libertarian regime will advance only the “interests” of its citizens’ property rights.  Put differently, it will forswear any “means” that entail the initiation of violence.  And without the initiation of violence – without any contradictory interests – a libertarian peace will ensue.


          Of course, a libertarian regime will have no “inhibitions on…violence” against a non-libertarian state – even a democracy – if the latter violates its citizens’ property rights.  Like the norm-based models discussed in the preceding section, the libertarian peace can obtain only within a libertarian dyad.


Reviewing the Evidence for a Libertarian Peace


          One tentative implication of this libertarian peace thesis is that a purely majoritarian democracy – the near-opposite of a libertarian regime, in that it elevates collective interests over its citizens’ individual rights – is especially likely to go to war against other democracies.[21]  This proposition finds support in Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder’s Electing to Fight, which finds that “electorates in transitional democracies,” who disproportionately adopt collectivist ideologies such as “belligerent nationalism,” are also especially likely to wage wars against “regimes of all types” – “even against democracies.”  In fact, Mansfield and Snyder appear to merge these two correlates into a single dependent variable – “belligerent nationalism” – that they explain in terms of democratizing states’ internal politics.[22]


          Another implication of the libertarian peace hypothesis is that case studies of “historical instances in which democratic great powers almost came to blows” – in which democracies exhibited conflicting interests even though they did not initiate violence – should reveal that at least one democracy in each dyad adopted non-libertarian goals.  (However, if war did not ensue, then neither democracy need have acted on those goals.)  Christopher Layne’s four case studies support this hypothesis – each portrays one or both states (a) violating the property rights of the other state’s citizens, or (b) adopting political goals beyond the protection of its own citizens’ property rights.[23]  Thus, while a libertarian peace theory cannot summon overwhelming empirical support from this week’s readings, it does appear to be conceptually plausible and invites additional qualitative testing.



          [1] Miriam Fendius Elman, Paths to Peace: Is Democracy the Answer? (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), pp. 47-48.

          [2] Ibid., p. 48.

          [3] James Lee Ray, Democracy and International Conflict: An Evaluation of the Democratic Peace Proposition (Columbia, SC: The University of South Carolina Press, 1995), pp. 15-16.

          [4] Schultz also makes this distinction.  Kenneth A. Schultz, Democracy and Coercive Diplomacy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 12-13.

          [5] Elman, pp. 11-12.  Layne makes the same points, pp. 161-162.

          [6] Christopher Layne, "Kant or Cant: The Myth of the Democratic Peace," in Debating the Democratic Peace, eds. Michael E. Brown, Sean M. Lynn-Jones, and Steven E. Miller (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), p. 161.

          [7] Ibid., pp. 166-167.

          [8] Ray, pp. 15-16.

          [9] Layne, p. 161.

          [10] Elman, pp. 12-13.

          [11] Ibid., p. 13.

          [12] Layne, pp. 164-165.

          [13] Schultz, pp. 16-17.

          [14] Ibid., pp. 3-7.

          [15] Ibid., pp. 14-15, pp. 18-19.

          [16] Ibid., p. 24.

          [17] Of course, neorealist arguments would derive state preferences from the properties of the international system.  The question is whether these preferences outweigh those created by democratic institutions.

          [18] Ray, p. 15.

          [19] Ibid., pp. 15-16.

          [20] Layne, p. 163.

          [21] Here I consider “other democracies” to be an extremely rough proxy for “other majoritarian democracies.”  The aim is to determine whether, as a state becomes less libertarian, it is increasingly likely to wage war against other states that share its regime type.

          [22] Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder, Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), pp. 10-23.

          [23] Each case study supports both realism and the libertarian peace thesis developed above:

          First case study: In 1861, a United States frigate “acting without express orders from Washington” boarded a British mail ship in a neutral port and arrested two Confederate passengers – apparently breaching British property rights in addition to “international law.”  Washington eventually released the passengers because it could not “afford” an Anglo-American war.  Layne, pp. 168-173.

          Second case study: In 1895 and 1896, the United States insisted that Great Britain seek arbitration for “an obscure long-standing dispute between London and Caracas over the Venezuela-British Guiana boundary” – not out of concern for its citizens’ South American properties, but as a “pretext for asserting America’s claim to geopolitical primacy in the Western hemisphere.”  This time London gave in to Washington because of America’s military strength and Britain’s international isolation.  Ibid., pp. 174-177.

          Third case study: In 1898, Britain and France nearly went to war over Fashoda, on the Upper Nile France sent an expedition to Fashoda – not to secure its citizens’ African possessions, but “to force the British to negotiate the Egyptian question and thus to increase France’s great-power prestige.”  Britain, too, dispatched a military force to Fashoda – not to achieve political ends (e.g., protecting private property) but to satisfy an economic need (i.e., Egypt’s dependence on the Nile).  France eventually retreated in recognition of British naval power.  Ibid., pp. 180-185.

          Fourth case study: In 1923, France occupied the Ruhr in order to fulfill its own economic desire (increasing its aggregate economic strength relative to Germany) – not to protect French properties within the Ruhr.  Too weak to mount a military defense, Weimar Germany adopted only a passive resistance.  Ibid., pp. 185-189.




(c) 2008 Jacob Jaffe