Democratic peace theory is featured prominently in the latest issues of two different major IR journals. First, in International Studies Perspectives, Jameson Lee Ungerer tells us that the democratic peace exemplifies in three respects the Lakatosian ideal of a progressive research program, and provides an overview of the research agenda from 1970s to the present. He describes many (though not all) of the key causal arguments claiming to explain the democratic peace, concluding that:

Of all the theories examines, two [are] the most progressive: the economic norms explanation, which proposed contract-intensive markets as a confounding variable that leads to both peace and democracy… and the reverse causality explanation based on the resolultion of territorial disputes… with limited resources available, scholars would be advised to address these areas.

He’s right that the new work by Mousseau on the “capitalist peace” and Gilber and Tir on settled borders and regime type is pretty interesting. But Ungerer’s implication that there’s not much left unexplored among earlier explanations rests on the fact that he declines to discuss constructivist work at all under his review of the “normative explanation.” In fact, it’s still unsettled precisely how this explanation (what Ungerer calls “T2”) works – whether through elite preference construction and international socialization or public restraint. And Ungerer discusses only the portion of the normative explanation that focuses on norm externalization. He omits constructivist scholarship that focuses on shared identity and perception. In fact, too few constructivist accounts exist that take seriously how precisely democratic “states” come to view others as part of a security community, and the jury is certainly out on precisely how this process works to constrain belligerency among democracies.

To examine this further, Jarrod Hayes‘ new article in International Organization explores a single “hard case” in depth. Hayes examines why Nixon and Kissinger were unable to persuasively cast India as a national security threat in the 1971 crisis despite the fact that they very much saw India as a threat. Nonetheless Hayes shows Nixon and Kissinger were limited in their ability to “securitize” the dispute. Hayes argues therefore that it is not elites’ own perceptions of democracies that lead to dyadic peace: it is the way in which they are constrained by the perceptions of their constituents and the cognitive dissonance that arises from appearing to pick fights with members of a putative “in-group.” Hayes’ article is based on a discourse analysis of the contrast between Nixon’s/Kissinger’s private meetings and their public statements about the crisis.

I think Hayes’ piece is a great example of where the DP literature needs to go. We know a lot about the quantitative correlation between regime type and dyadic peace, but to the extent that the “normative explanation provides a causal process for the empirical observation” as Ungerer claims, we need process-tracing of specific militarized disputes to build a qualitative understanding of how this works and why. In emphasizing that this “us-ness” is reproduced through the public imaginary rather than by elites, Hayes’ argument represents a helpful advance.

Yet I think Hayes analysis would also be stronger if he drew more directly on the constructivist emphasis on perceptions (Risse 1995, 30). Arguably, it’s not how democratic countries actually are, but rather how democratic they are perceived to be (apparently by the public in other democracies rather than elites themselves) that constraints elites in those democracies. Hayes’ mentions the constructivist literature on dyadic identities only briefly and almost as an aside on p. 71, but surely his work has a bearing on precisely the dynamic authors like Risse and Williams are describing: the maintenance of a shared sense of “in-group-ness” between democratic dyads. And constructivists would argue this is about perceptions not facts.

How are these perceptions created and sustained? Hayes’ case doesn’t answer this question. In fact Hayes himself skirts it: he writes about “democracies” rather than “perceptions of democracy” as if a certain package of attributes constitutes “shared democratic identity” – rule of law, human rights, a capitalist economy, etc. But if it’s not the attributes themselves but others’ perception of them that matters in social identity analysis, then we need more careful research on how such attributes are conceptualized, measured and communicated and how they take root in the public imaginary to really foreground the analysis he provides.

Indeed, Hayes’ data suggests an interesting way to reconcile the “normative” and “economic norms” explanations: political leaders (Nixon and Kissinger) saw India as a threat primarily because they saw India as possessing different economic norms (a tendency toward socialism and affinity for the USSR) and thus their preference construction, while inconsistent with the “democratic peace” is consistent with the “capitalist peace.” However the “capitalist peace” research agenda hasn’t (yet) been about perceptions or shared identities, but rather domestic-level social processes. Future work in Hayes’ tradition focusing on social identity analysis could clarify whose perceptions matter, and how different perceptions of different pieces of the “liberal identity” manifest and play out in different historical cases. In fact, Hayes is calling for just such a research agenda in his new review essay in EJIR.

I also think we need to give consideration to how much room elites have to maneuver in terms of reconstructing these perceptions in given crises. Clearly, Nixon and Kissinger were not effective at doing so, but based on the data Hayes’ presents, they also didn’t really try. The diplomatic record suggests they were constrained by the understanding of the public’s understanding of Pakistan and of India despite their own perceptions and preferences. But Hayes’ analysis doesn’t suggest that they gave much thought to how they might re-frame these understandings to pursue their own interess. This might mean that elites don’t really have the ability to do so; but it might also simply mean that these two particular actors simply weren’t as clever at wielding soft power as they were at blustering around angrily behind the scenes. To examine this further, we need a different kind of “hard case” – a case where public figures are actually good at this and made an effort at it, and failed anyway.