this post also appeared on the Monkey Cage.
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.
Note: This post also appeared on the Monkey Cage blog.
In my last post I suggested that public reactions of nationalism and political intolerance in Japan and China in the wake of the recent Senkaku Islands dispute actually follow a pattern similar to most other territorial disputes. Here, I describe the possible long-term effects of territorial issues like these—when territorial disputes remain unresolved and both states continue to be threats to the other.
While the dynamics of this latest dispute between Japan and China do not presage large-scale, long-term institutional changes in either country, that has not been the case for other disputes between these countries in the past (for example, the 1930s and the Japanese establishment of Manchukuo). Indeed, China’s centralized state and large army is largely a function of responses to its threatening neighbors, including Imperial Japan.
Consistent threats to homeland territories can both strengthen and centralize the institutions of the state. The Senkaku Islands differ from most other territorial disputes in two very important ways. First, the major prize is a group of islands, not bordering territories, so land armies will not be sitting within the state challenging the territories. Second, the islands do not compromise core territories for either state, so the level of threat to the homeland is not immediate or large. Both of these factors discourage the centralization that follows most territorial disputes.
In most cases the defense of territories requires large armies to both respond to the challenges and also hold sovereignty over the disputed territories. This causes problems for the citizens in nearby areas since large armies can also eventually bring repression by the state. However, immediate survival takes precedence over state or elite strength, and already-nationalized citizens will support increased militarization. In Chapter 5 of my book, the Territorial Peace: Borders, State Development, and International Conflict, I demonstrate a strong connection between territorial disputes, army size, and eventual repression. No matter how small or insignificant, territorial disputes over homeland territories lead the average country to immediately increase state military personnel by over 100,000 men (after controls added for wealth, population, etc). In turn, these military increases are associated with 20-30% increases in the level of repression by the state in the three years following the territorial dispute.
Armies in these cases tend to just sit in or near the contested territories. Demobilization risks power asymmetries, and peace accords without the withdrawal of forces do not eliminate the likelihood that each state will continue to threaten the other. This creates a cycle of conflict and constant threat in the area that can cause dramatic institutional changes.
For example, in the last post I described how opposition parties are likely to support the leader at early stages of a territorial dispute. This type of political climate makes institutional centralization for the leader much easier. Wanting to stay in power and/or forward their policies, leaders use the new political environment created by the dispute to eliminate veto players within the state. This is intended to increase the ability of the executive to wield power during crisis—and that power tends not to go away. With control of the army by the executive, few can challenge the process of state centralization. That is why I find that rivalries over territory lead to more than a 5% reduction, per annum, in the number of checks on the executive. A case like the dispute over Manchukuo, lasting over fourteen years, would cause a reduction of over half the veto players in the state.
Authoritarianism and Democracy
This argument explains why territorial issues and authoritarian governments co-evolve regionally, as Alex Braithwaite and I point out in a forthcoming article in the British Journal of Political Science. Territorial disputes tend to fester, causing large armies and an institutional centralization that magnifies the power of the executive within the state. Without checks on executive power, a repressive authoritarianism is the result. This is why, following centuries of territorial disputes with its neighbors, Japan and the Soviet Union, China has developed a state with strong executive power and an army capable of repressing its large population.
Think of the converse of this story, though. What happens when territorial issues are resolved? In Japan’s case, the United States removed both the emperor’s institutions of control within the state and the influence of the military on politics. Japan, an island with few direct threats to its core homelands, became a territorially satisfied state and, eventually, a strong democracy.
Once territorial issues are resolved in a state, public opinion becomes more diverse, and the need for large-scale militarization disappears. Party competition returns, checks on the power of the executive grow, and de-centralization of the state follows. Further, if the state has the requisite level of wealth, or a middle class, or whatever other factors are necessary, then democratization becomes likely in the state, as Jaroslav Tir and I find when examining states at “positive territorial peace”, or those that have settled their borders with peaceful territorial transfers. Imagined in this way, the argument implies that democracies are but a subset of all the states that are at Territorial Peace.
NOTE: This post also appears on the Monkey Cage.
The recent row between China and Japan over sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands, as well as the water cannon fight between Taiwan and Japan, has highlighted again the importance of territorial issues in interstate relations. The dispute led the New York Times to speculate on other possible conflicts around the globe (perhaps fancifully), and the Monkey Cage has covered what the protests mean for both countries. What hasn’t been asked is why disputes like these matter so much for the countries involved. Why are a few rocks in the middle of the ocean so important?
My argument in The Territorial Peace: Borders, State Development, and International Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 2012), suggests that territorial issues, unlike other issues, are dangerous because of how they affect the citizens and the institutions of the state. The Senkaku Islands dispute provides a nice example of the types of attitudinal changes that occur in the wake of territorial conflict, across all types of states. In this post, I discuss three of those changes.
Changes in Individual Attitudes
I argue that public opinion tends to centralize, often in nationalistic ways, when the territories of the state are targeted by conflict. It begins with the fear of conflict. Land means survival in many poor countries, and few would want to risk remaining proximate to any type of conflict. Even in developed countries, land is often an individual’s most valuable asset, and few would want armies fighting for sovereignty of the land. Threats to land force individuals to band together in groups when their lands are directly targeted. But, no one lives on the Senkaku Islands and these are not valuable rocks, at least for the average individual, so why should citizens care?
Most individuals are socialized to have an attachment to their lands, and this is often encouraged by the state. Socialization reinforces group identities, which are helpful for governing and maintaining the group. Conflict reinforces these group identities by providing each individual with a stark method of group contrast: the out-group necessary for self identification actually has their guns drawn. For example, the major finding in a forthcoming Comparative Political Studies article is that individuals in states targeted by territorial issues tend to ignore their ethnic or group identity and instead self-identify as members of their nation. This is true globally, as multi-level analyses of individual responses in 43 countries of the World Values Survey demonstrate that being targeted by territorial conflict is the largest single predictor of nationalism. It is a stronger predictor than even a combination of individual characteristics like education, age, media, occupation type, and rural or city residence—the traditional predictors of identity. We also discover this relationship in sub-Saharan Africa. Using the same model, we find that territorial issues predict nationalism at a much higher rate than any individual characteristics, or state characteristics like elections, economic development, and electoral competitiveness. Only very large scores on our ethnic fractionalization measure have a stronger substantive effect.
In chapter four of the book (see also an early article in the JoP), I show that these dynamics affect other types of political behavior. For example, in-group members seldom tolerate members of out-groups when the state is threatened and will most often refuse to let them participate in the political process. Democratic governments have always been associated with general tolerance within society, but this changes when considered jointly with territorial issues. Indeed, using multi-level analyses of individual responses to World Values Survey questions on political tolerance, there is no statistically significant relationship between democracy and tolerance once the presence of a targeted territorial dispute is added to the model. Most democracies have resolved all their outstanding territorial disputes, but those that still have territorial conflicts tend to be less tolerant of their minority groups. This is why countries like Israel tend to score so much lower on citizen tolerance surveys than islands like Australia or New Zealand, or even the United States (a virtual island, with oceans and friendly neighbors). Threat changes individual attitudes toward others. [See here also for several essays from my student, Steve Miller, on other changed attitudes in the wake of territorial conflict; Steve, currently visiting at Illinois, is on the market this year.]
I argue that the centralization of public opinion also stifles political competition within the state. Opposition parties are put in a precarious strategic position, for example. Opposition leaders are facing an increasing nationalistic electorate that does not appreciate dissent. The majority also wants deliverance from the threat and supports the leader. This environment forces the opposition to also support the leader because to do otherwise would risk being labeled as treacherous to the state and an attack on majority opinion. This is where the strength of rallies around the flag can best be measured, as I demonstrate that, since 1960, there has never been a significant, active opposition party in a non-democracy when the state has been targeted by a territorial issue (see here for an earlier JCR piece). Democracies behave similarly; the opposition must wait until either more information from the conflict is revealed or the attitudes of the electorate change.
The nationalism and political tolerance displayed by the citizens of the countries in the Senkaku Islands dispute (see here, here, here, and here) is following a pattern common to most territorial disputes. Even the opposition parties are demonstrating their resolve (see here and here). While this dispute most likely will not lead to war in the foreseeable future, the sensitivity of the populations to these rocks in the ocean underscores the strong processes of centralization underlying most territorial issues. In my next post I will return to a discussion of China and Japan and outline how, historically, territorial animosities have led to institutional centralization in both states at various times over the last couple of centuries. Think of it this way: if these rocks can change so many attitudes, imagine what the invasion of Manchuria may have done!
This blog provides additional commentary on current events and academic discussions on themes related to my book, The Territorial Peace: Borders, State Development, and International Conflict, available from Cambridge University Press, September 2012.