Does democracy fit in international politics?

Muskan Punia


When a country talks about being a democracy, it is natural to think that it must be free, people-centric, rights-based, and peaceful, while, on the contrary, we see non-democratic regimes, as vicious, arbitrary, oppressive, and violent. Indeed, there are conflicts in every country, but it’s assumed that democracy would settle them peacefully, however, this position changes when it invades, or wages war against a non-democratic regime, whether to bring democracy there or for some other good reason. Isn’t that arbitrary? Is that even what being democratic means? Many questions come up but most importantly, what even is a democracy?

Unfortunately, there is no clear or mutually agreed-upon definition of democracy. Many non-democracies have some democratic features, and democracies, on the other hand, often try to concentrate power. It then makes it hard to understand theories like the Democratic Peace Theory (DPT), based solely on democracies and their intrinsic inclination toward peace. It argues that democracies do not go to war with each other, at least none have till now. However, there are instances when two democracies almost or entirely went to war (depending on how one reads the situation), like the Kargil war of 1999 between India and Pakistan. Were they both democratic? Was it a war? Hence, when there is no clarity on what constitutes being a democracy or when a fight can be labelled as war, how can one prove or disprove this theory. This presents more of a theoretical problem. For instance, the Fashoda Crisis between France and Britain, where they almost went to war but then decided to hold back. So, what made them stop, morals or realist cost-benefit analysis? Both sides had prepared for war, hence it rules out morality influencing their decision in any way.

Fareed Zakaria argues that democracy may mean different things. A liberal democracy based on constitutional liberalism (i.e., a given set of rights and government’s limited power) is different from simple or illiberal democracy, limited to the elections procedure and not what happens after a fascist gets elected. DPT mainly talks of liberal democracy, which resembles the republicanism of Kant than talking of democracy which Tocqueville and others viewed as a “tyranny of the majority”. The deeper we dig, the more complex definition and variables of democracy would come up, hence, to judge a country’s action based on its domestic structure becomes very complicated.

In contemporary times, democracy is being preached by the USA to create its narrative of being a world leader. It uses the DPT to carry forward it. Hence, it does not care whether power in these countries is limited, as long as it gets its work done. For example, the US war on Iraq in 2003 was never a way of bringing democracy there, i.e., imposing democracy on another country by force, but a self-interest of a superpower which used democracy as a façade to carry out its ulterior purposes. Thus, countries which are democracies at home need not be democratic abroad. Self-interest and not genuine care for others drive states in the international realm. Even the USA’s support to Ukraine in the Russian invasion has behind it strategic reasons. So much politics determines how a government would act, in which situations and against whom. Countries sanctioning Russia for committing war crimes have themselves done the same if not worse. The US is not even a ‘state party’ to the ICC, established to punish war criminals, and wants a trial on Putin for this.

“Although the United States led the drafting of the Convention on Genocide from 1946 to 1948, Washing ton took 40 years to ratify it”. (Kaufmann & Power, 2002). why hadn’t the USA come to help other countries like Rwanda, the Armenian or Bosnian Muslim genocide but it never shied away from interfering in the internal matters of other countries like during the cold war, supporting and financing coups. when there was apparent genocide, why were these democracies silent then? “The rest of the World does not act because the United States does not. The United States does not act, in turn, because public support for humanitarian intervention is diffuse and rarely mobilised- hence, domestic support is not there. Hence, presidents are cautious and believe that pushing for action cannot benefit them politically but can only cost them”. (Kaufmann & Power, 2002). Hence, humanitarian intervention is not based on humanity as such it is based on cost-benefit analysis.

So, the bigger question is whether morals or principles play a role in international politics? Realists would argue that the moral a state follows is that of self-interest, even if it means not doing the right thing. Democratic “even altruistic act of democracy promotion be derived from the self-regarding and centralising logic of power politics…America has been using democracy to gain public support in its war efforts, in constructing and sustaining international alliances required for victory” (Whitehead, 2001) The USA waged war on Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of democracy and helping the people there, but it only left them destroyed and ultimately handed over to extremist groups.

Not intervening in countries could be excused to not infringing upon their sovereignty, but then on what basis are other interventions justified, why are countries so selective? Ukraine is not even a part of NATO, which necessitates the USA to come to its help; then why? To contain Russia or to help people there, the answer seems clear. After WW2, the World promised “never again”; however, genocide still happens because the post-WWII international system was designed to protect human rights and ensure the power of the powerful. No US president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no US president has ever suffered politically for his indifference.” Again and again, powerful countries decide to protect the concept of national sovereignty or advance their international agendas rather than stop the mass murder of civilians. The international system is not failing. It is operating exactly as it was designed. (READ: Why Does Genocide Still Happen (Article), 2019)

To sum up, “If democratic public opinion really had the effect ascribed to it, democracies would be peaceful in their relations with all states, whether democratic or not”. (Layne, 1994)


Kaufmann, C., & Power, S. (2002). See No Evil: Why America Doesn’t Stop Genocide.

Foreign Affairs, 81(4), 142.

Whitehead, L. (2001). The International Dimensions of Democratization: Europe and the

Americas (Oxford Studies in Democratization) (Revised ed.). Oxford University Press.

READ: Why Does Genocide Still Happen (article). (2019). Khan Academy.



Layne, C. (1994). Kant or Cant: The Myth of the Democratic Peace. International Security,

19(2), 5.