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.