New Research on Democratic Peace Theory Showcases Gender Differences in War Preference

By Bhaso Ndzendze

One of the most empirically-backed theories in international relations scholarship is the observation that democratic countries have never gone to war with each other. Named the democratic peace thesis, this theory nevertheless observes that democractic states are not any less intrinsically withheld from fighting other non-democratic states (and indeed such domestic audience inclinations may pressure their governments towards the initiation of a conflict against non-democracies).

The main debate has been around what causes this. One view emphasises the dyadic aspect, while the other emphasises the domestic context. That is, the former emphasises that two democracies have such deeply shared liberal values that war between them becomes unthinkable as they will more likely prefer the route of negotiation. On the other hand, the latter emphasises the internal domestic institutions that work to curtail executive authority. New variants of this highlight domestic audience costs, including the fact that war mobilisation and taxation make governments reluctant to initiate wars as the government of the day would risk electoral defeat.

In a new research paper, to be published in the journal International Organization, Joslyn N. Barnhart, Robert F. Trager, Elizabeth N. Saunders, and Allan Dafoe follow in the variation of the latter as their evidence shows that women’s suffrage is an important contributor to the democratic peace. As they sum-up in a summarised version published in Foreign Affairs magazine, they note that

“Women are less likely than men to support the use of military force. Their pacific preferences don’t always prevail within democratic institutions, but our research shows that democratic states with women’s suffrage initiate fewer disputes with all countries and that they experience more peaceful relations with other suffrage democracies.”


This is anticipated by Joshua Goldstein in War and Gender, where he showcases some data showing that women are less inclined toward violence than men, across time periods and national contexts.

“Across all studies, the average level of support among men for using force was just over 50 percent, compared with 38 percent for women. The size of the gender gap varied—for example, the gap was largest in Japan and smallest in Is ael, perhaps reflecting the particular role of the military in those countries—but it existed in all the countries and settings we examined. “

Thus women’s preferences depended on context and were thus susceptible to changing their opinions based on new information.

But the key finding that our research confirms is that women have lower baseline levels of support for the use of violence and tend to view belligerence more negatively than men do.

Thus acknowledging – like many democratic peace theorists – domestic audience preferences do not always inform policymaking, they nonetheless shape the behavior of democracies. This adds a new dimension to the literature on the democratic peace and will integrate various theories of international relations, including on feminism and constructivism.