Democratic peace theory and Georgia

Georgia’s decision to launch an offensive attack against Russian personnel occupying the contested regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia seems to contradict the theoretical underpinnings of the Democratic Peace Theory. However, further analysis of Georgia’s and Russia’s regimes reveals some of the criticisms of the theory itself and their impact on the Intelligence Community’s (IC) ability to provide warning in the region.

The Democratic Peace Theory states that democratic states do not go to war with each other, or at least, are much less likely to. The basis of this theory is two-fold: first, that democracies are like-minded in fiscal and political polices and that democratic political culture makes going to war less likely, and second, that political constraints on leaders of democratic states discourage the use of force as a foreign policy option.[1] In his book, Democracy and International Conflict: An Evaluation of the Democratic Peace Proposition, James Lee Ray further describes the cultural and structural explanations of democratic peace: “Disputes between states do not escalate to war because the leaders expect, on a basis of common culture, to be able to work out their differences,” and that “greater decisional constraints [i.e., political structure] on a leader produce a lower probability that a dispute involving the state will escalate to war.[2] Additionally, studies have argued that when democratic leaders do choose to escalate international crises, their threats are taken as highly credible, since there must be a relatively large public opinion for these actions.[3]

In August 2008, Georgia and Russia, both democratic countries, went to war over two disputed regions within the borders of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, that had long been sources of conflict. South Ossetia and Abkhazia also have established, democratic governments, although Georgia does not recognize the government of South Ossetia as legitimate. Prior to the break-up of the Soviet Union, all had coexisted relatively peacefully under Soviet control. Conflict over the desire for independence by the territories and nationalism by Georgia had erupted after the break-up and had been simmering since then, with Russia quietly supporting the regimes in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in a covert attempt to assimilate first the population, then the territory into the Russian Federation.[4]

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The conflict impacts stability in the region, which has implications for the safety and control of major oil pipelines, roads and railways between Russia and Armenia and between Georgia and Russia through South Ossetia. Support to Georgia, as an emerging democracy in the region and a member of the coalition in Afghanistan, puts the U.S. at odds with Russia, which is counterproductive to stability in the region and even globally.

Given the cultural and structural explanations of the Democratic Peace Theory, the conflict between two democratic states can be explained through criticisms of the theory. First, one of Dean Babst’s four indicators of a democracy is the “country must have been independent.”[5] Georgia was part of the Soviet Union until gaining independence in 1991, and the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is not agreed upon by the international community. Georgia, despite its independence, is still in the process of establishing state sovereignty within an ethnically divided nation. Next, the vulnerability of democracy is a criticism of the theory.[6] President Mikheil Saakashvili’s election in 2008 was hotly contested, and it “threatens to unhinge the real progress Georgia has made towards institutional, democratic and economic reform” from 2004.[7] Additionally, the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church has proposed a constitutional Monarchy to guarantee stability.[8] Therefore, Georgia’s infant democracy, after it spent years under a communist regime, is far from security. Finally, Spencer Weart stated wars “have never occurred between ‘well-established’ democracies.”[9] However, he does not delineate what constitutes a “well-established” democracy.

Georgia has operated as a democracy for almost two decades and fulfills Babst’s other three indicators of a democracy.[10] While Russia is fundamentally structured as a representative democracy, Freedom House lists Russia as “not free” based on the Kremlin’s stage-managed parliamentary election campaign, Putin’s move to Prime Minister after two terms as president, and an alarming increase in state power over civil society.[11],[12] The point at which Georgia and Russia can be considered democracies that will not go to war with each other is vague. Therefore, the United States and the IC cannot apply the Democratic Peace Theory to the conflict in Georgia.

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In order for the IC to assess the threats to U.S. interests in Georgia, analysts must predict Georgia’s willingness to resort to armed conflict with Russia over the disputed regions. Georgia has troops in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and they are politicking heavily to become part of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).[13] In this sense, they are striving to become part of the international democratic community. If Georgia is part of the EU and NATO, then any action they take against Russia would require support on the part of other member nations. The United States assisted Georgia in their efforts against Russia, specifically through airlift. However, U.S. combat and combat support forces did not deploy to the region due to undesirable outcomes from United States combating Russian forces. While Georgia continues to present itself as a U.S. ally, the IC needs to provide warning to U.S. policy makers of any impending conflict in the Russian occupied regions. President Obama needs to use other national instruments of power to resolve the dispute or stabilize relations between Georgia and Russia in order to avoid going to war with Russia over a civil conflict within a sovereign state.

The Democratic Peace Theory seems to be well supported when applied to states which have both the cultural and structural aspects of democracy. However, it falls short of establishing criteria to consider a country truly democratic despite giving indications of democracy. Georgia and Russia, both newly democratic states, cannot be viewed through the lens of the theory, especially in light of the recent trend towards authoritarianism by Russia. With Russia occupying regions in Georgia and declaring them independent states, the IC must continue to analyze relations between the two states and provide warning to policy makers in the United States.

  1. James Lee Ray, Democracy and International Conflict: An Evaluation of the Democratic Peace Proposition (Studies in International Relations), p. 30, Columbia: Univ Of South Carolina Pr, 1998.
  2. Ibid.
  3. “Democratic Peace Theory ,” Wikipedia, (accessed November 30, 2009).
  4. “The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation,” Open Democracy, (accessed November 30, 2009).
  5. Ray, Democracy and International Conflict, p. 12.
  6. Ray, Democracy and International Conflict, p. 204.
  7. Robert Parsons, “Mikheil Saakashvili’s bitter victory.” Open Democracy (January 2008), (accessed November 30, 2009).
  8. Giorgi Lomsadze “Time for a King for Georgia?” Eurasia Net (October 2007), 101207a.shtml (accessed November 30, 2009).
  9. Ray, Democracy and International Conflict, p. 35
  10. Ibid., p 12.
  11. “Russia,” Wikipedia, (accessed November 29, 2009).
  12. “Freedom in the World – Russia (2008),” Freedom House, fiw/inc_country_detail.cfm?year=2008&country=7475&pf (accessed November 30, 2009).
  13. Ambassador Batu Kutelia (lecture, National Defense Intelligence College, Washington, D.C., October 5, 2009)
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