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If only Sparta was a democracy

One of the most persuasive international relations theories is Democratic Peace Theory (DPT). Both theoretically coherent and empirically solid, DPT has its roots in Emmanuel Kant’s famous essay on Perpetual Peace. The main argument, of course,  stipulates that liberal democracies do not engage in wars against each other.  This has, so far, been empirically proven to be true. The emphasis here is on two key words: stable and liberal. Only states that hold free and fair elections on a regular basis, safeguard the rights of the minority and possess an independent judiciary fall within the province of this definition.

DPT also stipulates that interstate conflicts between two liberal democracies may emerge, but these are settled by peaceful rather than violent means. Moreover, this is not to say that liberal-democracies may not engage in violent conflicts, but that these always involve a non-liberal democratic international actor.

With this understood, my question here is whether DPT can be analysed from the perspective of the “English School”  of International Relations. I argue that there is a strong conceptual basis from which to do so.

The English School Theory (EST) is said to be a via media, a middle-way, between the Realist Theory and the Liberal Theory. Similarly to the Realist Theory, EST believes that the international system is anarchic. However, it argues that beyond the mechanic-like interactions prevailing within the international system, there is an international ‘society’ that binds its members through shared norms, interests and institutions. Thus, institutions such as diplomacy, international law and the balance of power, as well as shared norms and expectations, forge a sense of society at the international level.

Professor Barry Buzan at the London School of Economics, one of the most prominent members of the English School, has contended that the international society is divided into two: on the one hand there is a homogenous group of international actors that share a common historical and cultural background, and on the other a group that is linked by a contractual bond. He argues that there are several circles composing the international society: the closer one gets to the core, the nearest one gets to the smallest circle of shared norms, values and interests.

Following the main tenets of EST, as expressed by its classical members, C.A.W. Manning, Hedley Bull, Martin Wight, and as developed further by Barry Buzan, Richard Little and others, I believe that DST can certainly be analysed through the paradigm of EPT.

What this would suggest is that liberal democracies do not fight each other because they are part of the inner circle of an international society. They share common values, norms, expectations and culture (political culture) that binds them together. In a sense, they are part of a family.

To be sure, the members of this inner circle are not all part of a homogenous social cultural milieu. They share, though, a common political culture that is stronger in its effects on the mutual interactions between them. Thus, the shared political culture has a more permanent impact on the shaping of foreign policy than the differences in social culture.

They form a cohesive group whose common values, shared expectations, and accepted norms are stronger in their effect than the common social cultural values of the major European powers during the period of the Classical Balance of Power in the 18th century. Back then, the socio-political elites had more in common with each other than with members of the lower social ranks in their own respective countries, but not enough to eschew violence and war. Divergent interests and different goals could drive them to  violence.

That is not the case with liberal democracies. Interstate conflicts between liberal democracies occur but never assume a violent manifestation, and certainly never descend into a full-scale war. The common values, norms and expectations are a constraint of such magnitude that war is considered to be unthinkable notwithstanding the divergent interests or different goals entailed.

Liberal-democracies are, in a sense, the highest form of a cohesive international society (or inner circle thereof) that has ever emerged in history.

Under this reading, I suggest, EST has an intellectually persuasive and academically coherent analysis of this singular phenomenon.




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