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Do democracies and non-democracies behave similarly in international politics?

Answer
drawing on international relations theory and module readings.

The question of similarities between the behaviour of democracies and non-democracies


has been a subject of debate in international relations discourse for a very long time, and
as always there is a variety of answers, each depending on the lens of analysis adopted.
Firstly, the objective differences between a democracy and a non-democracy must be
outlined. Democracy means “rule of the people” and describes a system of popular
participation in public interest, ie. voting and majority rule. The positions of power aren’t
held forever, and those in those positions are placed there by election. A non-democracy
however, implies the opposite, the total rule by one (or a few) for whom there are no
barriers of behaviour. While democracy has become convention, there still exist many
non-democratic states today. The ethical question of non-democracy notwithstanding,
many scholars of international relations seek to identify similarities and differences in the
behaviour of these two types of state, with which to form other assumptions or new
theories of international relations. The potential similarities of these two systems of
government, al always rely on the lens of understanding applied.
In realism, states are the principal actors in an anarchic international system, and
therefore have no incentives but to act out of self interest. As Carr outlines in his Twenty
Years Crisis, states act to increase their share of the global balance of power, and to
consolidate their own assets whether through war or just the shoring up of defenses.
Decisions of policy are made in the pursuit of wealth and power, and so the ideals of
peace, freedom and representation typically seen in democratic states are not of
importance to state leaders. Decisions are made with careful consideration of the benefits
incurred solely to the state and its people. As states are the only principal actors, and all
act out of self interest without exception, the realist sees similarities between the
behaviour of democracies and non democracies - both seek power and security regardless
of regime type or ideology. This is why historically we can see many instances of both
democracies and non democracies deliberately engaging in war for material gain, such as
the (democratic) US invasion of Iraq to gain control of oil supply and (non-democratic)
Hitler’s invasion of europe in seeking ‘lebensraum’ for the German people. However, as
realist states are rational egoists, it follows that a head of state in democracy may act
differently than in a non democracy in order to protect their position of power, as in a
democracy there is the possibility of deposition and election of a different leader/party,
and their perception by the public is of utmost importance.
Similarly, in institutionalism, which maintains the importance of international
organizations and institutions in inter-state relations and cooperation, states act out of self
interest, the incentives to cooperation are marked by benefit for the state without
incurring risk. As states are rational egoists in institutionalism, regardless of their
democracy or not, their behaviour will remain uniquely self interested and so
democracies and non democracies will act similarly.
On the contrary, liberalism presents a fundamentally different point of view on
the behaviours of democracies and non-democracies. Liberalism redefines the parameters
of state power, disregarding the outdated military power and instead examining power
through relative economic growth, potential peace and cooperation and liberal ideals such
as human rights and political freedom. These fundamental liberal values mean that
liberalism and democracy must go hand in hand, as the freedoms allowing democracy to
succeed are liberal in nature. As such, democracies and non democracies do not act
similarly in international relations under the lens of liberalism, as elected policymakers
are not acting solely out of self interest but out of liberal ideals, namely peace and
cooperation on the international scale. Non democratic states, according to Doyle in
Liberalism and World Politics, are aggressive in nature due to their dictatorial control and
limitation of the freedoms granted under liberalism, and thus non democracies continue
to act in the self interest of the chosen few with power. Doyle describes three facets of
liberalism, outlining the pacification between states brought about by liberal democracy
and the tendency of authoritarian non democracies to engage in warfare in order to
maintain security or power. Under the lens of liberalism, democracies and non
democracies do not work similarly, as there state preferences differ at their very
foundation, one liberal democracy desiring peace and cooperation (or occasionally
territorial expansion but less so within the past few decades), and the other authoritarian
acting out of self interest and desire for consolidated power.
In a similar vein, social constructivism argues that the ideas of a state shape the
structure of said state and dictate state behaviour. Just as democratic and liberal ideals go
hand in hand, these ideals in society shape the expected social and political norms. In
democracies state behaviour is expected to be fair and ethical, citizens are to be treated
with respect and state behaviour is with the interests of those citizens in mind.
Democracy is founded on the context of freedoms and fairness, as well as the preference
of peace and cooperation over conflict and war (as illustrated by Mueller). State
behaviour is governed by and reflects these societal norms, however in an authoritarian
state, social norms are drastically different, as the society is not founded on personal and
political freedoms and fairness. State behaviour is not governed by norms of fairness or
equality, and so only caters to those whose ideas are deemed relevant, those ideas being
absolute power and control of the citizenry. Non democracies act entirely differently in
international relations than democracies, as the ideas behind state behaviour are in direct
contrast with each other.
State behaviour of democracies and non-democracies can simultaneously be
similar and different depending on the lens of understanding applied, as ultimately when
considered egoist, state behaviour remains constant across regime type, whereas when the
impact of changing social norms and ideas is considered, differences in behaviour are
evident.

(word count: 997)

Ruairi Vickery 19335152