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Democratic Peace and China – U.S. Relations: The end of History or End History?

Nov 02, 2023
  • Vasilis Trigkas

    Visiting Assistant Professor, Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University

The academic family of international relations has become poorer. Last month, Professor Bruce Russett, the founding father of democratic peace theory, passed away. Professor Russett was not only a pioneer in the scientific and normative study of war and peace but also a scholar with deeply influential ideas in the policy domain. Perhaps no other modern scholar in international relations had as much influence on the strategic mindset of post-Cold War America, exemplifying John Maynard Keynes' argument that, "The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some theorist."

The concept of democratic peace, central to Russett's work, has left its mark on the highest echelons of U.S. policymaking. It has been referenced in every single U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) since the end of the Cold War, except for the Trump administration's NSS. In the post-Cold War era, American presidents, from George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have consistently emphasized the significance of democratization as a safeguard for world peace.

Democratic Peace Theory has yielded significant influence in shaping U.S. strategy towards China. During a joint conference in 1998, U.S. President Bill Clinton told Chinese President Jiang Zemin that Jiang was on the wrong side of history. Clinton asserted that historical forces would sooner or later turn China into a liberal democracy. Earlier that year, President Clinton had declared that the economic changes in China would help to “increase the spirit of liberty over time.…I just think it’s inevitable, just as inevitably the Berlin Wall fell.” In 2010 the Nobel Committee awarded Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize citing his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China." During a visit to Oxford University to deliver a lecture, the president of the Nobel Committee found himself face-to-face with a wave of impassioned Chinese students. Unfazed, he resolutely explained that Liu's Nobel Prize was a recognition of his persistent efforts to foster democratization within China. Referencing democratic peace theory, the president of the Peace Nobel committee said a democratic China would be a positive force for world peace. 

With Democratic peace being the closest thing we have to an “empirical law” in international relations, American officials have long faced the puzzle of how exactly to facilitate China's transformation into a liberal democracy. The tentative solution to this puzzle was discovered within the framework of modernization theory, which posits that economic growth is a catalyst for democratization. Hence, it was reasoned, fostering the economic development of China would not only yield profits for American corporations but would also play a pivotal role in liberalizing the Chinese political system. In his endeavors to garner support from the U.S. Congress for China's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), which would contribute to China’s economic growth, President Clinton contended  that by joining the W.T.O., “China is not simply agreeing to import more of our products; it is agreeing to import one of democracy's most cherished values: economic freedom. The more China liberalizes its economy, the more fully it will liberate the potential of its people — their initiative, their imagination, their remarkable spirit of enterprise. And when individuals have the power, not just to dream but to realize their dreams, they will demand a greater say.” In fact, in 1996, Stanford political scientist Henry Rowen predicted that China would become a liberal democracy around 2015. By 2007, Rowen had slightly adjusted his timeframe, asserting that rising levels of wealth and schooling make it highly likely that China will be a "Partly Free" country by 2015 and a "Free" one ten years. 

While Americans viewed liberal democracy as a path to perpetual peace, the Chinese instead believed that calls for liberalization were part of a scheme of “peaceful evolution” (heping yanbian) which aimed to infiltrate and subvert socialist countries, notably China. This subversion was thought to arise by the spread of Western political ideas and lifestyles, inciting discontent, and encouraging groups to challenge the party leadership. If the strategy were successful, the Chinese feared that China would collapse from within, akin to the fate of the Soviet Union. For the Chinese, that was a horrifying scenario. In the 1990s Russia’s life expectancy plummeted. The number of people living in poverty rose from 2.2m to 74m in just a few years. Half a million women were trafficked into sexual slavery. 

Therefore, it is not surprising that China went to great lengths to avoid that scenario. The party adapted to what Andrew Nathan has referred to as “resilient authoritarianism.” It combated corruption and continued to deliver relatively inclusive growth for the Chinese citizens. In 2021, China eliminated extreme poverty and in 2023, may become the world’s largest exporter of automobiles surpassing even Japan.  

The resilience of China’s sui generis system led American strategic elites to declare the failure of the democratization strategy. In 2018, Kurt Campbell, who currently serves as the U.S. Czar of Indo-Pacific strategy, declared that the U.S. foreign policy elites “have remained deeply invested in expectations about China - about its approach to economics, domestic politics, security, and global order-even as evidence against them has accumulated. The policies built on such expectations have failed to change China in the ways we intended or hoped.” For Campbell, the solution to the failure of the democratization was the “deterrence of primacy.” But what Campbell sees as deterrence, China may well perceive as an effort of encirclement and containment. Security dilemmas abound in Sino-U.S. relations. It is not clear if the new, post-democratic peace U.S. strategic posture of primacy towards China offers a more effective approach to managing the consequential issue of hegemonic transition.  

But what if China had indeed embraced liberal democracy, without imploding? Would Beijing and Washington have peacefully resolved the challenges of hegemonic transition? This is a wicked question. The central premise of Democratic Peace Theory is that liberal democracies rarely fight wars against other democracies. The empirical record of DPT appears impeccable, with no wars occurring between liberal democracies since 1945. However, complexities arise when one delves deeper into the causal mechanisms connecting peace with democracy. The normative logic of live-and-let-live leading to respect among democracies is undermined by historical cases of covert action by the United States to subvert other democracies and install authoritarian puppet regimes that align with U.S. national security interests.  

Professor Russett's response to this was that the very necessity for the United States to conceal offensive operations against fellow democracies from the American public was symptomatic of a democratic governance deficit, allowing such covert actions to unfold. Thus, his argument centered on the idea that rectifying this deficit and conducting foreign policy debates transparently could alleviate the problem. In fact, in 1983, when the U.S. Congress discovered U.S. intelligence efforts to subvert democracy in Nicaragua, it swiftly blocked the operation, triggering subsequent prosecutions of officials who had attempted to circumvent the Congress's decision—a chapter etched in history as the Iran-Contra Scandal. Evidently, the U.S. democratic political system demonstrated its capacity to curb interventions against fellow democracies. 

We will never truly gauge whether the counterfactual of China becoming a liberal democracy in America's image would have addressed what even George Kennan, the father of the "containment strategy," viewed as the most pressing task of international politics: “not to inhibit change but to permit change to proceed without repeatedly shaking the peace of the world.” Professor Russett held steadfastly to the belief in the validity of his Democratic Peace Theory. Nonetheless, he vehemently opposed the notion of forceful and coercive democratization. In his words, “‘the model of ‘fight them, beat them, and make them democratic’ is irrevocably flawed as a basis for contemporary action.’’   

Russet instead called for “democracy by example and peaceful incentives.” This approach demanded that the United States excel in its domestic democratic institutions, steer clear of missionary endeavors to impose democracy on other nations, and restrain the use of coercive tools in its foreign policy. It was a vision that hinged on the metaphor of the shining city on a hill—a symbol of moral leadership and aspiration. Regardless of one’s acceptance of democratic peace theory, the prudent call for excellence at home and restraint abroad makes no harm; it may even offer the most competitive solution to the contemporary puzzle of American grand strategy in the post-unipolar era. 

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