For too long the community of IR scholars has been preoccupied with three debates that question whether democratic peace is a real-life phenomenon. If true, which theory can explain democratic peace, and in a different, though related, thrust, does theory have a real-life impact? We have been so busy with these scholarly debates that we let those with a keener political eye make off with the theory, trying to implement it. An important real-world process has been happening behind the backs of IR scholars—the rise of democratic-peace-driven American policies. The case of democratic-peace theory indicates how politically influential theories can be, and yet how politically insignificant theoreticians are. Absurd as this assertion is, it is painfully true. Hence, there exists a democratic imperative for theoreticians to gain control over their theories’ political destinies, in order to be able to truly contribute to public discourse and decision-making.

Conceiving theories does not guarantee any control over their destinies. When Dean Babst titled his 1964 seminal article “Elective Governments – A Force for Peace,” he meant exactly that democracy carries within itself pacifying powers. Since then the optimism of this groundbreaking article has been somewhat circumstanced. We learned to limit our expectations of democracy. Subsequent studies have taught us that democracies do not fight each other, but can be as war-prone as any other state. IR scholars have also learned that although democracy may be a “force for peace,” the process of democratization may be a force for destabilization. Yet the thrust has remained the same as Zeev Maoz and Bruce Russett conclude in “Normative and Structural Causes of Democratic Pease, 1946-1986,” “But if enough states become stably democratic – as may be happening in the 1990s – then the possibility emerges of reconstructing the norms and rules of international system to reflect those of democracies. A system created by autocracies may be recreated by a critical mass of democratic states.”

The Kantian spirit of “Perpetual peace” lingers with the democratic peace literature. Nevertheless, wars are being fought today in the Middle East for the sake of democracy. Moreover, those wars are justified and legitimized with the same theoretical assertions that identify democracy with peace. Whatever the intentions of the democratic peace's theoreticians were, their theory has turned into a force for war. The political vortex has carried the theories away from the serenity of academia to an arena which is altogether different. In a complex socio-political process, the theory (including its many variants, among them both normative and structural explanation of the democratic peace phenomenon) was reformulated into a simplified and politicized version that contributes to the current wars of democratization.

While the first publications of the democratic-peace theory are dated from the 1960s and 1970s, it made its real theoretical impact in the 1980s and 1990s with contributions by scholars such as Michael Doyle, R.J. Rummel, Bruce Russett, and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita. The theoretical progress and the academic consensus that was building around the theory—backed up by accumulating empirical data—attracted attention from thinkers outside of academia. Among the first individuals outside of academia to refer to the democratic peace theory was the neoconservative Joshua Muravchik, who wrote in 1991, “the more democratic the world, the more peaceful it is likely to be. Various researchers have shown that war between democracies has almost never occurred in the modern world.” This reference was the first step in expropriating the theory from academia. The second step was much more political in nature.

In 1992, Bill Clinton adopted the theory for his presidential campaign. The neoconservative Muravchik made the democratic peace into a sectarian creed; the liberal Clinton made it a national vision. As Clinton declared during the campaign, “Our strategic interests and moral values both are rooted in this goal. As we help democracy expand, we make ourselves and our allies safer. Democracies rarely go to war with each other or traffic in terrorism.” Clinton had two objectives in embracing the democratic-peace theory. The first was to secure a power base inside the Democratic Party. In the early 1990s the neoconservatives had not yet finalized their political transition from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, and they were indeed a major political force to recruit. The second objective was to find weak points in President George H.W. Bush record that enjoyed high ratings on foreign policy issues following the American victory in Desert Storm. The neoconservatives criticized Bush for failing to oust Saddam Hussein and his authoritarian regime. Additionally they, together with Clinton, criticized Bush for his failure to advance the cause of democracy in places such as the newly formed Russian Republic, Somalia, and Haiti. The reasoning was both strategic and moralistic. Democratic peace concluded that expanding the zone of democracy would expand the zone of peace, stabilize international relations, and consequently contribute to international trade and American economic growth. Embracing the theory achieved both objectives. Important neoconservatives, Muravchik included, announced their support for Clinton which, although started as the underdog, won the 1992 elections.

The democratic peace became a public convention taken for granted and shaping the commonsensical codes of thinking and behavior. The process of simplification stripped the theory from its probabilistic nature, from the conditioning inherent in it which explicitly states its validity only between pairs of democratic states, and from the built-in academic sense of cautiousness and culture of criticism. This process resulted in a simplistic yes-no reading of the democratic-peace theory, which allowed a theory aimed at identifying a force for peace to provide a justification for war.

In becoming public convention the theory lost any nuance it ever had. Oversimplified, the theory became an actor in the American political arena. Then, it became a political conviction—that is, a specific knowledge engendering a strong, opinionated view that necessitates political action—driving political action on the scale of warfare. To understand the way in which the public convention of democratic peace was translated to a political conviction we need to look into the internal debates of the American right. The 1990s saw the publication of two very influential conservative works analyzing global processes. The first was Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, and the second was Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. These two works are the two endpoints of the conservative spectrum on international relations. At one end is the universalism and optimism of Fukuyama, and at the other is the relativism and pessimism of Huntington. Whereas Fukuyama claims the victory of Western/US capitalism and liberal democracy, Huntington anticipates the decline of the West and the United States, and the rise of Chinese civilization. And where Fukuyama sees universal truth and morality, Huntington sees incompatible systems of truth and morality between the different civilizations.

In their efforts to reconcile Huntington’s relativism and Fukuyama’s optimism neoconservatives embraced the structural explanation of democratic peace; the explanation that highlights not the normative western content of democracy, but rather the structural almost value-free form of democracy. This explanation offers a way to reconcile relativism and universalism while maintaining a degree of optimism. The conventions of the democratic-peace theory assert that war, including civilizational war, can be averted via democratization. It enables enlarging the zones of peace. As Charles Krauthammer, wrote in 2001, “To extend the peace by spreading democracy and free institutions. This is an unassailable goal and probably the most enduring method of promoting peace…. The zone of democracy is almost invariably a zone of peace.”

The implications of the political conviction do not stop at the goal of democratization. They also involve the means of achieving democratization. Allegedly, democratizing other countries draws them into the zone of peace and is a vital US interest. And vital interests must be pursued even against harsh resistance. The democratic peace theory as a political conviction motivates and provides reasoning for the use of force. If democratization is viewed as a long and complex internal process of socialization and norm dissemination, then imposing democratization from outside makes little sense. The neoconservatives, however, influenced by Huntington’s civilizational relativism, understand democratization mainly as bringing about a different kind of political structure. This requires regime change, after which the democratic structure can be built according to universal guidelines. Consequently, a foreign country can be democratized at bayonet point.

The translation process of the democratic peace to political conviction was thus completed. The theory in its neoconservative reading offered specific guidelines of enhancing the security of the United States; it manifested itself as a dogmatic and rigid strategic scheme, advocating the maxim of forcefully democratizing the Middle East. Put differently, what in the academic setting is taken modestly as a nuanced and contested theory that ought to be treated cautiously has become a totalistic and dogmatic political representation that acts as an undisputed and authoritative policy handbook. Because many neoconservatives were well positioned inside the Bush administration and functioned as successful public intellectuals they were able to implement this handbook by conveying—following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks—to President Bush and the American public those political convictions of forcefully democratizing the Middle East. The results were the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which were reasoned and legitimized for the sake of the strategic merits of democracy.

The process described here is complex and long. It expounds how politically influential theories can be, yet how politically insignificant theoreticians are. It also exemplifies how democratically problematic it is to allow theories to be made off by politicians and ideologues, and to be simplified and politicized in a manner that distorts their meaning and intent. The example of the democratic peace demonstrates that simplification and politicization of theories generate policy mishaps. More than the specific content of this or that theory, it is the dogmatic and totalistic reading of theories in the form of political representation which may be responsible for policy rigidness and policy mishaps. To avoid these outcomes, theoreticians should guard their theories from the distortions inherent in the process of politicization.

Theoreticians have a democratic imperative to gain control over their theories’ political destinies. At minimum this calls upon them to act as whistle blowers when they have identified a simplistic, misguided reading of their theories. By exposing the political simplification they may help guarding against policy mishaps. A more demanding reading of the democratic imperative would oblige theoreticians to continuously participate in public deliberations and contribute nuanced theoretical insights to the process of policy forming. This would guarantee that academic research will truly enrich public discourse and decision making. We should all strive to bring in the theoreticians to the public arena and make them politically significant; if not for their own sake, at least for the sake of democratic peace of mind.