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Democracies, Domestic Politics, and War

Democracies, Domestic Politics, and War

Photo credit: Dan Fitzgerald

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Bausch, A. W. (2015). Democracy, war effort, and the systemic democratic peace. Journal of Peace Research52(4), 435-447.

Talking Points

  • The pressures of reelection force democratic leaders to avoid difficult wars.
  • Democratic leaders spend more on war than autocratic leaders, leading to a greater percentage of democratic victories.
  • Increasing the number of democracies in the world does not affect the number of wars until democracies reach 60% of the global governments.


This study examines the Democratic Peace Theory, questioning whether peace is maintained by the unwillingness of democratic nations to fight one another, or perhaps on a more individual level, by the accountability democratic leaders must preserve if they hope to be reelected.

The focus of this study is on leadership choices between the heads of wartime democracies and autocracies. The author assumes that all leaders hope to retain their office, and that democratic leaders are more accountable by nature because they have to answer to a greater number of people. Autocratic leaders only have to appeal to a certain number of high-ranking persons, and therefore are often less concerned with the approval of the greater population.

The assumptions where tested in a sort of war game, where a system of fictitious democracies and autocracies were paired in conflict and the leaders of each government were given the option between diplomacy and war. The conflicts varied in difficulty, creating the necessity for leaders to weigh their chances of winning with the odds of their reelection if they lose.

The war game produced the following results:

  1. Democratic leaders are more reluctant to participate in difficult wars due to the fact that loosing may cost them their reelection.
  2. If democratic leaders participate in a difficult war, they will outspend autocratic leaders which leads to a greater percentage of democratic victories.
  3. Increasing the amount of democracies in the world does not affect global peace (total number of wars) until more than half of all governments are democratic.

When the choices of democratic leaders where compared to those of autocratic leaders, 70% of the conflicts between autocratic leaders resulted in war, and only 2.5% of the conflicts between democratic leaders resulted in war. In mixed government conflict (between a democracy and autocracy), nearly one-third resulted in war. Also, when the ratio of democracies to autocracies is increased, the number of conflicts resolved diplomatically doesn’t begin to rise until democracies are the clear majority. In fact, the findings showed when less than half of the world’s governments are democratic, an increase in democracies won’t affect total peace at all. Only when democratic government systems reached 60% of the global system, the rate of war started to drop.

One key finding in this study was the unbalanced success rate when democracies and autocracies went to war against each other. Even though democracies and autocracies were given the same resources, democratic states won almost two-thirds of the time. This result proved the assumption that during war, democratic leaders outspend autocratic leaders to maintain public support in hope of being reelected, thus resulting in a greater ‘success rate’.

Another important finding was the difference in aggression between the democratic and autocratic leaders. Democratic leaders chose diplomacy 99% of time when matched with other democracies, and 98% of the time when matched with an autocracy. However, autocratic leaders chose diplomacy 74% of the time when matched with a democracy, and only half the time when matched with another autocracy.

It is important to note that many of the above variables would make it hard for the study to repeat itself in the real world. In this game, both sides of the conflict were given the same amount of resources to contribute to war, which levels the playing field considerably compared to the world’s reality. In the war game, leaders were matched with an opponent with equal capabilities to wage war, meaning that war would be less likely in the game due to the fact that no side held an advantage, especially if the two sides had the option to split the ‘prize’. Autocratic leaders also held a strategic advantage in the war game through the capability of dismissing any accountability to their people, which explains why autocracies more often target democracies than democracies target autocracies.

Also important to note, is that just because the war game model highlights the peaceful tendencies of democracies, doesn’t mean that they always choose diplomacy when faced with conflict. In reality, democracies are often wealthier than autocracies, which may provide an advantage, or even motivation to pursue conflict with a nation less advantaged to wage war—especially if the less advantage nation has oil. The findings suggest that due to the accountability requirements of the democratic system, democratic leaders are under more pressure to carefully consider the means used to address conflict for fear of losing reelection if their policies fail. Alternatively, autocratic leaders can engage in war more freely without having to worry about losing their hold on power. Because of this difference, democratic leaders invest nearly twice the resources in war, leading to a greater ‘success’ rate over their autocratic counterparts.

Contemporary Relevance

Even though this study is a theoretical simulation, we find several relevant aspects. Assuming that leaders in democratic systems are held more accountable to their constituents, it becomes even more important to have an informed citizenry aware of all viable options in the face of conflict. Autocratic leaders, as the study suggests, rely more on the support and consent within their own leadership hierarchy. This helps us understand that both democracies and autocracies need to be approached differently when it comes to influencing leadership structures on war and peace issues.

Practical Implications

If more pressure is put on our politicians to prove they understand and have considered the alternatives to war, they may be less likely to use military force when faced with conflict. Like-minded constituents can inform their representatives that if they vote in favor of war, they will loose votes come election day.

Editor’s Note: The “success rate” in war is used in this study to calculate the win/loss ratio of the war game. Outside of this study, the field of Peace and Conflict studies still debates over how a party can call any war “successful” considering the casualties and the social and economic repercussions seen on all sides of a conflict.

Keywords: democratic peace, war games, public opinion, war support

The above analysis is from Volume 1, Issue 1, of the Peace Science Digest.


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