Democracies Don't Fight Democracies

By R.J. Rummel | 1999-05-01 12:00:00

In the literature on the "democratic peace," this term refers to the idea that democracies do not (or virtually never) make war on each other. I will call this the war version. I believe it is misleading to focus only on this version. Democracies not only have not made war on each other; they also have, by far, the least foreign violence, domestic collective violence, and democide - a much greater killer than war by several orders of magnitude. (Democide is the murder of any person or people by a government, including genocide, politicide, and mass murder.)

Democracy is a general cure for political or collective violence of any kind - it is a method of nonviolence. I call this understanding of the democratic peace the general version.

Within this general understanding of democratic peace, democracy in its 20th Century form means:

regular elections for the most powerful government positions,

competitive political parties,

near universal franchise,

secret balloting, and

civil liberties and political rights (human rights).

Research on pre-20th Century war within the war version of the democratic peace, however, has required a relaxation of the definition of democracy to mean:

periodic, competitive elections, that the powerful can be so kicked out of power, and

that a body of citizens hold equal rights regardless of class or status (see, for example, the research by the historian Spencer R. Weart, Never At War: Why Democracies Will Not Fight Each Other). Such research finds that as far back as classical Greece, democracies rarely, if at all, made war on each other.

In early 1994, under the title "The Most Important Fact of Our Time," I posted a finding on several internet news groups and e-mail lists: that democracies do not make war on each other.

A list of current liberal democracies includes: Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bolivia, Botswana, Bulgaria, Canada, Cape Verde, Chile, Costa Rica, Cyprus (Greek), Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominica, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Grenada, Guyana, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Kiribati, Korea (South), Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malawi, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Micronesia, Monaco, Mongolia, Namibia, Nauru, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Palau, Panama, Poland, Portugal, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, San Marino, Sao Tome and Principe, Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Vanuatu, and Western Samoa.

The list would be different, of course, for previous decades. For certain years of the 18th century, for example, it would include the Swiss Cantons, French Republic, and United States; for certain years during 1800-1850 it would include the Swiss Confederation, United States, France, Belgium, Great Britain, Netherlands, and Denmark.

I suggested that through democratic freedom we now have a solution to war. This argument stimulated a variety of questions and challenges, such as the following:

Q: But can you really apply today's definition of democracy to previous centuries?

The fundamental question about any definition is: Does it work? Does it define something in reality that predicts something else? If we have so defined an x such that it regularly predicts to y, then that is a useful and important definition of x. In the aforementioned definition of democracy it predicts a condition of continuous peace (nonwar) between nations defined as democratic. If you do not agree that these are democracies, fine. Then call them "xcracies." We still can say that "xcracies do not make war on each other" and by universalizing xcracies we have a solution to war.

Moreover, we have statistics. That there have been no wars between democracies since, say, 1816, is statistically significant. Given the historical number of democracies, the probability of the hypothesis (that democracies have never made war on each other) being wrong is very low. Indeed, the odds must be surely millions to one.

Q: But do not other factors (such as geographic distance) really account for the lack of war between democracies?

A number of studies have tried to determine if there is a hidden factor accounting for the finding. Is it caused by economic development? Industrialization? Geographic distance, trade, alliances, and so on? Always, democracy comes out as the best explanation in a statistically significant sense, as gauged through analysis of variance and various kinds of regression analysis. The probability is very low (odds of tens of thousands to one) that democracy would not be a determinant when these other factors are considered.

Now, some statistics. If one defines an international war as any military engagements in which 1,000 or more were killed, then 353 pairs of nations (e.g., Germany vs. USSR) engaged in such wars between 1816-1991. None were between two democracies, 155 pairs involved a democracy and a nondemocrcy, and 198 involved two nondemocracies fighting each other. The average length of war between states was 35 months, average battle deaths was 15,069.

For the years 1946-1986, when there were the most democracies and thus the hardest test of the proposition that democracies do not make war on each other, there were over this period 45 states that had a democratic regime; 109 that did not. There were thus 6,876 state dyads (e.g., Bolivia-Chile), of which 990 were democratic-democratic dyads, none of which fought each other. Thirty-two nondemocratic dyads engaged in war. Thus the probability of any dyad engaging in war between 1946 and 1986 was 32/6876 = .0047; of not engaging in war is .9953. Now, what is the probability of the 990 dyads not engaging in war during this period? Using the binomial theorem, it is .9953 to the 990th power = .0099, or rounded off .01. This is highly significant. The odds of this lack of war between democracies being by chance is virtually 100 to 1.

The lack of war has been tested in different ways for other periods, other definitions of democracy, and other ways of defining war. In each case it has been significant. The overall significance is a function of these different significant probabilities, which would make the overall probability of the results being by chance alone surely at least a million to one.

Q: But your statistics are for the Cold War period. Was not the lack of war between democracies really due to the threat of the Soviet Union?

It may be true that the Cold War accounted for the particular lack of war between democracies, but what about other periods? Also, ignore the statistics and consider Europe since the end of the Cold War. Unity has grown, rather then hostility. Those old enemies, France and Germany, have even considered forming a common army. As former enemies become democratic, they are being integrated into a larger Europe.

However, no researcher should accept any one or two statistical tests as definitive. Only if a range of tests are consistent over many kinds of data, researchers, and methods can one have confidence in the results.

Q: But where is your theory explaining why democracies do not make war on each other?

The first theory goes back to Immanuel Kant's Perpetual Peace, published in 1795, before the empirical research. Kant's theory has yielded the modern explanation, which is that:

democratic leaders are restrained by the resistance of their people to bearing the costs and deaths of war;

the diversity of institutions and relations within and between democracies creates checks and balances and cross-pressures inhibiting belligerence among them;

a democratic culture of negotiation and conciliation means that in their interaction with other democracies, democratic leaders are basically dovish;

democracies see each other of the same kind, sharing the same values, and thus are more willing to negotiate than fight.

Q: But what about the American Civil War, War of 1812, Spanish-American War, World War I, democratically appointed Hitler and WWII, Finland versus the Allies in WWII, and the current war in former Yugoslavia?Did not these constitute wars among and between democracies? Were not Britain, Spain, and Germany democratic?

Those who have investigated these and many other exceptions have concluded that these do not constitute meaningful exceptions. The United Kingdom versus Finland is perhaps the most often mentioned, next to the War of 1812, as a possible exception.

During the War of 1812, Great Britain was not a democracy, despite having a parliamentary government. Voting was not secret, the franchise was highly restricted to a small minority, many new cities had no representation in the House of Commons while small villages might send two or three members. Less than one-third of the Commons was properly elected. Most seats were appointed or selected (such as by guilds) or bought or rented. Democracy did not come to Great Britain until the franchise was extended to the middle class by the Reform Act of 1832, to industrial workers by the Reform Act of 1867, and to the agricultural laborers by the Reform Act of 1884.

As for Spain, at the time of its war with the United States, the two major political parties alternated in power, not by election but by arrangement preceding elections, and the election outcomes were then controlled.

Then there was Imperial Germany's war against the democratic allies in World War I. Its citizens did have certain civil and political rights, including universal male suffrage, and the legislature was fully elected. But the unelected Kaiser appointed the chancellor, directly controlled the army and involved himself in foreign affairs. The well established democracies of the time did not see Germany as a fellow democracy.

Although the United Kingdom did bomb German-run mining operations in Finland, there was no actual fighting between Finnish forces and those of the democratic allies.

Regarding Hitler, once he was given the power to rule by decree in 1933 and suppressed opposition, his government was no longer democratic. Freedom of speech and religion, along with other rights, were eliminated; regular competitive elections were no longer held; and the Nazis were above the law.

Regarding the American Civil War, an often mentioned exception, the South was not a sovereign democracy at that time. It was not recognized as an independent state by any major power. Moreover, the franchise was limited to free males (which constituted about 35 to 40 percent of all males in the Confederacy). President Jefferson Davis was not elected, but appointed by representatives selected by the confederate states. There was an election in 1861, but it was not competitive.

As noted in the bibliography, political scientists Bruce Russett and James Lee Ray and historian Spencer Weart have intensively studied these and other possible exceptions to the claim of no wars among democracies. None were found.

All alleged exceptions are at the margins of liberal democracies. Although none have been accepted as exceptions to the rule by those who have done research on them, let us suppose that they are in fact exceptions. This still would not weaken the proposition that well established democracies do not make war on each other. This is because in no case have undoubted democracies (such as Sweden, Norway, Belgium, France, United States, and Canada) made war on each other and none are mentioned as exceptions. A well-established democracy is one for which enough time has passed since its inception for peace-sufficient democratic procedures to become accepted and democratic culture to settle in. Around three years seems to be enough for this.

One can be precise about the characteristics of undoubted democracies, scale them, weigh and sum them some way, and thus measure democracy and array nations on a scale of democracy. This has been done by a number of researchers, including those who have tested whether democracies make war on each other.

Q. Does not the fact that Great Britain has fought more wars than any other country and that France and the United States have also fought many wars disprove your assertion?

No. Statistically, the more democratic a nation, the less severe its wars. Britain, France, and the United States may have fought many wars, but many of these were for them low intensity wars, whereas many nondemocracies such as Japan (1900-1945), Germany (1900-1945), and the Soviet Union fought more violent wars, as judged by their casualties. The number killed that a nation suffers in war is an important indicator here. In democracies many restraints inhibit leaders from choosing to go to war and the more potentially violent the war, the greater these inhibitions. Moreover, as the body bags start coming back from a war, domestic opposition to the war rises and makes it increasingly difficult for democratic leaders to pursue it. Nondemocratic leaders, not having a domestic opposition to contend with and not being responsible to their people through elections, are free to seek victory without such concerns. Thus, for example, we have the human wave attacks so characteristic of Chinese communist warfare or the Soviet use of prisoners - their own citizens - to clear minefields by walking back and forth across them.

Q. What about the colonial violence by democracies and the 19th century extermination of American Indians?

During the age of colonization which ended in the three decades following World War II, many democracies took and managed colonies. In some cases this was a bloody conquest, involving many massacres as in the American-Philippine War of 1899-1905. However, democracies committed far less democide during this period and were involved in much less severe violence than were other countries. All one need do, for example, is compare the treatment by the United States and Britain of their colonial subjects with that of Kaiser's Germany in Africa where Germans launched a systematic campaign to eradicate the Hereros and massacred perhaps as many as 65,000 or the Soviet Union viz. her foreign subjects. The Soviets systematically killed a country's intellectuals, clerics, and possible leaders and deported hundreds of thousands to labor camps in Siberia where few could expect to survive. And the Japanese colonization of Korea and Manchuria is another story of massacres, executions, and horrific cruelty.

Moreover, when the time came, the democracies usually gave up their colonies without much violence. Examples of this include Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Philippines, and dozens of other colonies in the Middle east and Africa. Hawaii, at first made a territory of the United States by force, voted overwhelmingly to be a state of the United States and became such in 1959. Puerto Rico, another territory, voted to remain a territory of the United States. There were some exceptions to the comparatively favorable colonial record of democracies, most notably French Indochina and Algeria where France fought bloody wars to keep them. But what was an exception for democracies was a rule for nondemocracies which gave up their colonies only at the point of a gun. Such was the case for Kaiser's Germany, Mussolini's Italy, militarist Japan and fascist Spain and Portugal.

Q. But how could you ignore the American Civil War, Northern Ireland, the French massacres in Algeria, and other civil wars in democratic states?

These are not ignored. To say that democracy will minimize internal political violence is not to say it will eliminate such violence. Nor is it to say that, in some cases, such as the American Civil War, there may not be great violence. But on the average democracies have much less violence than other forms of government, and this knowledge gives us the greate t practical tool for reducing world political violence by and within countries. One can point to cases of much more deadly internal violence within nondemocracies. The Teiping Rebellion in China during the 19th century may have killed 20 million people, even possibly 40 million. The Mexican Revolution near the beginning of our century left about two million dead. Ignoring the associated famine, the Russian Civil War killed over two million people. Then there was the Chinese Civil War which was fought from 1928 to 1949 and killed at least 10 million Chinese. Internal conflicts in smaller nondemocratic nations have been deadly. The list is long and sad, including El Salvador (during its nondemocratic periods), Colombia, Haiti, Sri Lanka, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mongolia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Czar's Russia, Hungary, Rumania, Yugoslavia, and Uganda. Recently 500,000 or more Rwandans were likely slaughtered in a couple of months of civil war.

Q: Okay, okay. What about democracies, particularly the United States, carrying on covert action against other countries, some of which were democracies?

A: Yes, during the Cold War actions were taken about which in hindsight many democrats are embarrassed. Even then, there was no military action between democracies. Still, democracies are not monolithic; they are divided into many agencies, some of which operate in secrecy and are really totalitarian subsystems connected only at the top to democratic processes. Examples are the military, especially in wartime, and such secret services as the CIA. Outside of the democratic sunshine and processes, these islands of power can do things that would be forbidden, were they subject to democratic scrutiny. The answer to this problem is more democratic control. With the spread of democracy around the world, armies and secret services can be eliminated altogether.

Q. How can you write about freedom minimizing violence? Look at all the violence in the United States and the murders in the inner cities. Is not the United States the most violent country in the world?

Actually, the United States does have the highest murder rate among Western democracies, but there is much more criminal and social violence in other countries, such as Colombia, Peru, India, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and Brazil. Still the question is important. In any case, do not take such violence in the United States as paradigmatic of democracy. We could as well focus on the lack of such violence in Sweden or Switzerland.

The argument here is that freedom reduces to a minimum political violence, not civil violence between racial groups, strike violence, or interpersonal murder and assaults. Although this violence is important and we must find a way of reducing it, this violence is irrelevant to my argument. This is not to say that my argument only covers a narrow range of violence. It includes the most violent and deadliest - civil wars, revolutions, coups, guerrilla wars, anti-government riots, rebellions, mutinies, assassinations. It involves any violence against or by governments. To minimize all this kind of violence would alone be a revolutionary step toward world peace.

Q: How can you generalize to the future? If something never happened in the past, you cannot say it will not in the future.

All scientific predictions are based on established past theoretical and empirical patterns. The question is: How good are the established patterns that underlie the predictions? Are they reliable, well verified, theoretically understood? That democracies do not make war on each other, that they create a zone of peace among themselves, is now the most firmly established and the most important proposition in international relations. Even those who have been very skeptical when starting their research on this have become convinced. Given the absolute importance of eliminating war, should we not implement the best empirical/theoretical solution now at hand: to universalize democracy?

I started research on war and peace in 1956 and have spent a professional research career in political science on it since. The whole character of this life time of research supports the proposition. Others have done their own research and come to the same conclusion. And like others I have gone from unbelieving to "maybe-but," to full acceptance as the number of positive research studies and theoretical elaborations have accumulated.

There has been considerable effort among social scientists and historians to understand why freedom has the effect it does. In my own research, a theory about democracy and violence led to the remarkable results given here, rather than the other way around. Freedom produces a diversity of groups and interests that inhibit violence and a culture of discussion, negotiation, and compromise, of tolerance. Moreover, freedom produces bonds and restraints between democracies. Where each democracy perceives the other as democratic they expect their differences to be resolved by peaceful means. Economically, by theory, freedom should release creative forces, motivate people to improve their products and services and create a most efficient use of resources.

It will take a large investment of resources by democracies to help other nations democratize. Russia alone needs tens of billions in aid to further democratization. Such aid will be more forthcoming only if there is a wider understanding among the democracies that by providing it we are not only promoting the freedom and prosperity of other countries but also peace and nonviolence. Such aid is cheap compared to the likely human and material cost of future wars.

There is also the struggle for human rights. It helps the struggle not only to justify human rights for their own sake, but to point out their importance for global peace and security.

Q. You are promoting universal democratization? Is this not really a call for the West to impose its values on nonWestern countries and cultures?

This is not an imposition of foreign values, but the enabling of people of all cultures to realize the values inherent in their being human beings. Everywhere people oppose the genocide and mass murder that would be virtually eliminated by democracy. They fear the horrors of war that democracy would end. They desire the wealth and prosperity democratic freedom would produce. They desire the freedom, at least the freedom to choose to be free or unfree, that democracy entails. And, therefore, they would accept the democratic principle of freedom, that they be free to chose their way of life and kind of government.


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* From the manuscript of the "Appendix to Chapter 1" in R.J. Rummel, Power Kills: Democracy as a Method of Nonviolence, 1997.

Rudolph J. Rummel is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Hawaii.

See Professor Rummel's excellent and extensive web site, where these materials any many other related research reports can be read. <>.

Peace Magazine May-June 1999

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