How Are Democratic Wars Justified?

International Relations in the Modern World

Term Paper, 2012

14 Pages, Grade: 1,00


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The problem of definition

3. The Democratic Peace Theory

4. Empirical Evidence for the belligerence of democracies

5. Justificatory arguments for democratic wars
5.1 Humanitarian intervention and the role of the media
5.2 Moral duties
5.3 The construction of images of the ‘Other’
5.4 Wars of democratizing states

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

In this paper, I will illustrate how wars conducted by democracies are justified. I chose this topic because democracy, at least in the Western world, has been seen as a preferential and desirable constitution because of its association with peace and cooperation. The Democratic Peace Theory certainly bolsters this viewpoint, but still, we notice as we look at empirical data that democracies are not peaceful at all. This is a noteworthy gap in this theory. Through answering my central question, I want to explain this gap and also how democracies cleverly elude the constraints imposed on them to go to war, which one would not expect of them. Additionally, through outlining the justifications, I want to help understand why democracies are belligerent.

I will first refer to the problem of definition, for democracy and war are not clear-cut terms in political science and outline how I understand democracy and war in this paper. In the second section, I will provide the theoretical ground, the Democratic Peace Theory which I will refute through empirical evidence, after which five arguments of justification will follow: First, humanitarian intervention and the role of the media, second, moral duties, third, the construction of images of the ‘other’ and fourth, wars within democratizing states. Lastly, in the conclusion, I will summarize the arguments, briefly refer to their discrepancies and provide suggestions for further research.

In each of the arguments, I will present what it is, how the justification comes about and add an example to illustrate it. In the first three arguments, I will also show how approaches used to explain the peacefulness of democracies are being reversed. As well, I will provide some definitions of a few major terms used in the arguments to establish clarity. Because justifications should not always be considered true, I will provide critical points for each argument incorporated in the respective section. Those are also summarized in the conclusion.

2. The problem of definition

Before I start with the question at hand, I need to define its terms in order to create clarity and avoid confusion. As it occurs so often in political science, we confront problems of definition, as well in this case. Therefore, I want to cast light on the definition of war and also briefly of democracy in order to correctly understand my usage of terms the further course of my paper.

Small and Singer (1982), cited in Lawrence (2007, p. 203) in their Correlations of War Project define war as an armed conflict between two centrally organised war parties with armed forces. One of the parties must be an official government with at least 1,000 battle-related deaths in one calendar year. More recently, the Department of Peace and Conflict Research (2010) gives an identical definition. This is not the definition I want to explicitly follow here, for it leaves out many violent conducts of states (in this examination, democracies). Surely it applies to many bigger conflicts (which I will, no doubt, refer to). But it does not take into consideration, for example, military interventions and conflicts which a state carries out, inside or outside, which would result in the death of (sometimes much) less than 1,000. Those actions still lead to a resort to violence against individuals and are therefore included in my paper as well, for it contravenes the peaceful nature of democracies and thus, questions of legitimacy and justification for those actions arise. To whom those are directed to – citizens, minorities, terrorists, government officials – does not play a role here. Likewise, there are also many types of conflicts which are distinguished like inter-state and extra-state wars, for instance (Small and Singer 1982, cited in Chojnacki 2006, p. 17)), but this kind of specification will not be important here, either.

To sum it up, any action of a democracy that concerns structural violence against individuals, at home or abroad, shall be examined here as I explain how they are justified.

Having outlined my comprehension of war in this examination, I shall now turn to the concept of democracy. As one scholar holds, “defining democracy is a tricky endeavour” (Knüpling 2000, p. 21). There are many definitions of democracy, and even distinctions between certain types of democracies are made, but I will not go into deeper detail. For my main question, the definition of a democracy whose system allows “competitive, free and regular elections” (Lawrence 2007, p. 203) of officials to rule over people shall suffice.

3. The Democratic Peace Theory

As I have stated in the introduction, my question on how democratic wars are justified has its theoretical origin in the Democratic Peace Theory. This theory argues that democracies in general conduct peaceful actions much more than non-democracies do and that they hardly go to war against each other (Goldstein and Pevehouse, 2012). This provides the assumption that democracies are bearers and warrants of an “eternal peace”, as Kant argued (1984, p. 1). But as I will outline later on, this theory has proven futile. Much evidence exists which does not concur.

4. Empirical evidence for the belligerence of democracies

For a long while we have seen wars, military inventions and conflicts conducted by democracies which refute the democratic peace theory. We only have to think of the post-colonial wars, the two World Wars (in which some democracies like the USA, France, and Great Britain were involved), proxy wars (e.g. USA intervening in Korea and Vietnam) and also of post-Cold War conflicts, such as the Gulf War in 1991 and the military intervention in Kosovo carried out by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (with democratic states such as Great Britain, Germany, France and many others as members) in 1999. Also, very recently the wars in Afghanistan (since 2001), Iraq (2003-2011) and Libya (2011) are also wars with democratic participation. Risse-Kappen (1994) lists thirty wars in the period of 1816-1988, Small and Singer (1982) counted 155 wars against non-democracies. Note that in those wars not only major democracies participated, but also democracies like India and Israel.

We should not forget civil wars within young democracies such as those in Rwanda, Burundi and Sierra Leone (in the late 1990s and early 2000s, respectively) either, nor ethnic cleansings, e.g. those perpetrated by the USA against the native Indians in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

Those empirical facts show us that democracies are not so peaceful at all as they are alleged to be. The fact that war and violent conflict resolving are forbidden due to International Law and even the establishment of the UN Security Council in 1945 have not erased democracies’ belligerence. Democratic leaders are aware of those legal restrictions imposed on them and still, they find justifications to legitimize their aggressive actions. Especially lately, the issue of humanitarian intervention has been served as a justificatory basis, which I will now examine.

5. Justificatory arguments for democratic wars

5.1 Humanitarian intervention and the role of the media

A humanitarian intervention is defined as “the forcible invasion of sovereign territory by one or more states, with or without the backing of international bodies, motivated supposedly to alleviate suffering within that state” (Brown and Ainley 2009, p. 236). Those interventions have therefore often been justified as protection of its inhabitants, especially minorities which are repressed, terrorized or even purged by the government – in other words, the issue of human rights is at stake (Brown and Ainley, 2009). A good example (among many) for this would be the Kosovo war triggered by the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic oppressing Albanians in the Serbian province Kosovo in 1999. The Albanians had formed the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) because Milosevic had revoked its autonomy in 1989. The Army fought intensively against the Serbs in 1998 who in turn committed atrocities against the Albanians which led to the military intervention by the NATO in 1999, which succeeded and put Serbian control of Kosovo to an end.


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How Are Democratic Wars Justified?
International Relations in the Modern World
University of Potsdam  (Department of Economic and Social Sciences)
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democratic, wars, justified, international, relations, modern, world
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Emre Yildiz (Author), 2012, How Are Democratic Wars Justified?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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