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.
I will be using this blog to provide some commentary and discussion on topics I develop in the book. To get a sense for my argument, I'm including the jacket description below:
"There is continued discussion in International Relations surrounding the existence (or not) of the 'Democratic Peace' - the idea that democracies do not fight each other. This book argues that threats to homeland territories force centralization within the state, for three reasons. First, territorial threats are highly salient to individuals, and leaders must respond by promoting the security of the state. Second, threatened territories must be defended by large, standing land armies and these armies can then be used as forces for repression during times of peace. Finally, domestic political bargaining is dramatically altered during times of territorial threat, with government opponents joining the leader in promoting the security of the state. Leaders therefore have a favorable environment in which to institutionalize greater executive power. These forces explain why conflicts are associated with centralized states, and in turn why peace is associated with democracy."
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.