Why liberal democracies avoid war, reduce civil conflict


International Peace Day is an appropriate occasion for assessing democracy’s contribution to peace and security.

The Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, also known as the Paris Peace Pact, does not have a good reputation, for obvious reasons, notes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Max Boot. But Yale law professors Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro contend in their provocative new book, “The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World,” that the naysayers are wrong,” he writes for the New York Times:

They claim that while “it did not end war between states,” the Kellogg-Briand Pact did mark “the beginning of the end.” More than that, “it reshaped the world map, catalyzed the human rights revolution, enabled the use of economic sanctions as a tool of law enforcement, and ignited the explosion in the number of international organizations that regulate so many aspects of our daily lives.” Oh, and it led to “the replacement of one international order with another.”

Many reasons have been given for the decline of interstate war over the past 70 years, Boot adds:

They include aversion to the bloodletting of two world wars; the decline of racism, which once justified wars of colonial conquest; the development of nuclear weapons, which make a great-power conflict less likely; the rise of American dominance, which has been employed to stop aggression like Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait; and the spread of democracy and free trade, which make states more likely to cooperate than to fight.

Madeleine Albright

Strong liberal democracies not only avoid war with one another, but also have much lower levels of civil conflict, deadly terrorism, attacks against women, violent crime, and poverty, according to a new analysis, launched last week at the Brookings Institution by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (right) and former Tunisian Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa (left). The report, “Liberal democracy and the path to peace and security,” is the final report of the Democracy and Security Dialogue held under the auspices of the Community of Democracies.

“Instead of closing our societies and limiting civil liberties, political leaders are better off addressing the root causes of insecurity by repairing the social contract and living up to core democratic principles,” As Albright and Jomaa wrote for DefenseOne. “Similarly, on the international front, our leaders should not embrace authoritarians or turn away from the hard diplomatic work of settling conflicts. Instead, we need to help fragile states advance democratic governance, inclusive politics and human rights.”

States at intermediate stages of democratization—hybrid regimes with mixed features of democracy and autocracy, elite-driven patronage systems, and/or weak institutions—are generally the most vulnerable to insecurity, whether from violent crime, terrorism, or entrenched poverty, the report states:

These are states where there is both weak institutional capacity and weak political legitimacy, which together contribute to a breakdown in the social contract between citizens and the government. This report argues that to foster domestic and international security, and to address the underlying drivers of violent extremism, this social contract must be repaired. It is essential, therefore, to adopt strategies to institutionalize democratic governance, inclusive politics, and human rights in fragile states. Civil society—as independent participants, monitors, and critics of our democratic institutions—are also critical ingredients to any strategy for peace.

Stronger democracies are less prone to civil war for at least two reasons, the report contends;

  • First, at the elite level, healthy democratic institutions and regular electoral processes create incentives for political participation by a wide range of ideological actors at relatively low cost, while taking up arms involves much higher costs.
  • Second, rebel groups are less likely to find support among citizens if popular grievances are being met through peaceful and credible political processes. Strong autocracies also tend to avoid civil wars because of the repression and cooptation employed by their state institutions.


There are good strategies available for preventing and ameliorating civil wars if we are prepared to make the long-term investment in political reforms that address the underlying roots of conflict, the COD report suggests:

  • Widen channels of political participation: First and foremost, the world’s democracies should support broad political participation by a wide range of political actors through credible and transparent mechanisms at all levels of government….
  • Embrace women and youth as partners in security: Given the strong empirical evidence that more gender-equal societies experience less conflict, the international community should make special efforts to support the participation of women in politics, peace processes, conflict resolution mechanisms, and political negotiations. Special efforts should also be made to incorporate youth in decision-making processes wherever possible.…
  • Build strong state capacity: Creating meritocratic, accessible, and properly resourced state institutions—for example, in the realms of social services or the rule of law—is critical to reducing the risks of conflict associated with states dominated by faction-driven patronage….
  • Prioritize support to emerging democracies: In deciding how best to assist other states, the international community should prioritize support to countries undertaking genuine political reform or emerging from conflict and committed to the democratic path. States that systematically exclude segments of their populations, and are therefore at higher risk of conflict, deserve special attention. In addition to offering expertise on the design of more inclusive and transparent political systems, the international community should support and protect civil society actors engaged in projects of political, economic, and social liberalization.
  • Prepare the ground for competitive politics: Post-conflict situations are particularly vulnerable to backsliding and, therefore, should not be rushed into competitive politics without time to prepare the ground for fair electoral processes and peaceful acceptance of electoral results….


  • Carry out civilian-led security sector reforms: One of the more vexing problems associated with strengthening democracy is achieving state monopoly over the use of force while simultaneously reforming the security sector, especially in countries emerging from civil war.


The report is complemented by several policy briefs and working papers, prepared by researchers at Brookings and the Institute for Security Studies. They can be accessed here.

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