Stasis or Decay? Reconciling Covert War and the Democratic Peace

The democratic-peace thesis—the proposition that stable democracies do not fight wars with one another—continues to occupy a prominent place in the study and practice of international relations (Dafoe, Oneal, and Russett 2013; Gartzke and Weisiger 2013; Mousseau 2013; Ray 2013). Notwithstanding the staggering volume of scholarship over the last three decades, however, a surprisingly scant literature directly grapples with the relationship between covert war and the democratic peace (Forsythe 1992; James and Mitchell 1995; Downes and Lilley 2010; Kim and Hundt 2012). This lacuna is troubling. On the one hand, critics often cite the use of covert force between democracies as evidence that the democratic peace is chimerical (Rosato 2003: 591). Even some proponents concede that the use of covert force between democracies presents a major challenge to the thesis, especially those variants that focus on norms-based explanations (Reiter and Stam 2002: 159–163; Lipson 2003: 3; Kinsella 2005: 455).

In this article, I confront the challenge that inter-democratic uses of covert force poses to democratic-peace theory. I argue that expectations surrounding a regime's future status as a democracy determine the conditions under which democratic states will target their counterparts with covert force. If decision makers expect an existing democracy to break down—what I term an expectation of “democratic decay”—the restraints of democratic peace will atrophy, rendering these states susceptible to covert forcible regime change. [1] Conversely, if decision makers anticipate that a regime will remain democratic—generating an expectation of “democratic stasis”—the constraints of democratic peace should obtain.2 When decision makers consider the risk of decay moderate, democratic interveners may attempt to strengthen an incumbent regime and weaken perceived opponents of democracy. The logic of stasis and decay is agnostic as to why democratic interveners might use force covertly. Possible candidates include the reputational effects for overtly intervening in another democracy and legitimation problems at home and abroad. The theory requires, however, that expectations of decay precede the decision to use force against another democracy; the reasons for “going covert” come afterward. ...

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