A democratic peace or a feminist peace?

Many years ago when I was in mid academic career, two theoretical strands emerged in the field of international relations and comparative foreign policy. One was the basis for a school of thought that came to be known as feminist international relations theory, which to crudely oversimplify one sub-strand, posited that women have different and less conflictual approaches to politics and therefore, among other things, a world that had more female leaders would likely be a more peaceful one. The second came out of the the democratization literature and, again crudely oversimplified, posited that democracies were less prone to engage in war and therefore a world with more democracies would be a more peaceful one. Although neither strand specifically addressed the possibility, one can infer that if these notions are true a world of women-led democracies would be a Garden of Eden when compared to its present state. 

The two strands have existed in parallel since the early 1990s and continue to be much debated, refined, debunked, reformulated and extended. Arguments over the merits of each continue to this day even though I personally have not contributed to them like I once did (and to be honest I only contributed in an insignificant way to what is known as the democratic peace thesis debate and not the feminist IR debate, which is a minefield for male scholars).

Recently a good friend whose views I hold in high regard sent me an article titled ” The Gender Gap Is Taking Us to Unexpected Places” by Thomas B. Edsall of the New York Times (January 12, 2022). Mr. Edsall is an astute reader of politics and his column is well worth following. His article covers a lot of ground and is worth reading in its entirety but what struck me was this discussion of women’s impact on politics. I have quoted the relevant passage.

“Take the argument made in the 2018 paper “The Suffragist Peace” by Joslyn N. Barnhart of the University of California-Santa Barbara, Allan Dafoe at the Center for the Governance of AIElizabeth N. Saunders of Georgetown and Robert F. Trager of U.C.L.A.:

Preferences for conflict and cooperation are systematically different for men and women. At each stage of the escalatory ladder, women prefer more peaceful options. They are less apt to approve of the use of force and the striking of hard bargains internationally, and more apt to approve of substantial concessions to preserve peace. They impose higher audience costs because they are more approving of leaders who simply remain out of conflicts, but they are also more willing to see their leaders back down than engage in wars.

The increasing incorporation of women into “political decision-making over the last century,” Barnhart and her co-authors write, raises “the question of whether these changes have had effects on the conflict behavior of nations.”

Their answer: “We find that the evidence is consistent with the view that the increasing enfranchisement of women, not merely the rise of democracy itself, is the cause of the democratic peace.” Put another way, “the divergent preferences of the sexes translate into a pacifying effect when women’s influence on national politics grows” and “suffrage plays a direct and important role in generating more peaceful interstate relations by altering the political calculus of democratic leaders.”

That is a pretty strong claim with important implications for the recruitment of women into political management roles. My friend and I corresponded about the article and I thought that it would provide some food for thought for KP readers if I copied and reprinted some of my commentary to her. It is by no means a scholarly treatise or deeply grounded in the literatures pertinent to the subject, but it addresses the issue of whether women’s participation in politics leads to more peaceful/less conflictual political outcomes. Here is what I had to say (in quotes).

“Interesting thesis (that the enfranchisement of women, not democracy per se, contributes to the democratic peace thesis). Of course there has long been a view that if we only had more women in politics there would be less conflict. Tell that to Maggie Thatcher!

In the late 1980s I supervised student research that analyzed the impact of women in revolutionary movements on post-revolutionary social policy agendas. The cases studied were Cuba, Nicaragua, Colombia and El Salvador (two successful revolutions, two peace process-incorporated revolutionary movements so as to allow for proper comparative analysis using a most-similar/most different paired case study design). The results found that the more women participated in combat roles during the revolutionary wars, the more likely that they would be included in post-revolutionary policy decision-making, especially in traditionally female policy areas like family planning, health, education etc. Abortion rights were tied to that as well.

In places where women served as camp followers, concubines, cooks and in other non-combat roles tied to the revolutionary armies, they were excluded from post-revolutionary social policy making, even in traditionally female policy areas. The conclusion my student drew was that men respected women who fought alongside them and took the risks inherent in doing so. In my own experience and study, I have also found that under fire women were/are no more or less cowardly than men, by and large, especially when they received the same guerrilla training, so I accept this view. My student’s research also showed that the reverse was true: men did not respect as equals women who fulfilled “traditional” non-combat roles. 

This translated into very different attitudes towards incorporating women into the leadership cadres once the revolution was over (be they as part of a victorious coalition or when incorporated into post-settlement political parties and governments). That was especially the case for women who showed combat leadership skills under fire, in many cases due to the fact that so many male field-level guerrilla leaders were killed that women were forced step into the breach (sometimes from non-combat roles) in order to sustain the fight.

So basically, if women behaved “like men” in combat, they were accorded respect and inclusion in post-revolutionary policy making, at least in traditionally female policy areas. Or as I used to joke, can you imagine the reaction of these Sandinista sisters coming home from a hard day arguing with their male revolutionary leaders about neonatal and early childhood health care, abortion rights and domestic violence mitigation, only to have their oaf male partners shout out from the sofa that she/they should get him another cerveza? Let’s just say that there would be no “yes, dear” in their responses.

That was an interesting but incomplete conclusion. I am among other things a student of the path-dependency institutionalist school of comparative politics. That is, current institutions are the product of previous choices about those institutions, which in turn set the boundaries for future choices about those institutions. Once a choice is made about the purpose and shape of an agency or institution, it leads down a path of subsequent “bounded” choices–that is, choices made within the framework or confines established by the original choice. I often use Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” or the phrase “a path less chosen” to illustrate the concept. You come to a fork on the trail, and your (hiking) destiny is determined by which route you take. There might be a hungry grizzly on one, and a pristine mountain lake bordering on a serene meadow on the other, but you do not know that at the time you make your decision OR, you know what is ahead and steer accordingly with purposeful intent.

Political institutions are by and large created by and for men. They are masculine in that sense–they arise from the minds of men about how politics should be codified and operationalised. The original choices on institutional configuration and mores were made by and for men, as have most of what followed regardless of regime type. The comment in Edsell’s article about academia being a male domain (up until recently) that channels male competitive urges about status etc. into scholarship is true for political institutions as well (and business, needless to say). Now here is where things get tricky.

For women to do well in these male domains, they must initially “outboy the boys.” Early feminists confronted this in spades, and when they did play hard just like the boys, they were called dykes and worse regardless of their true sexuality. But the problem is deeper than misogynist weirdness and reactions. As the study of revolutionary women showed, they had to adopt male roles and behave as if or just like they were men in order to advance in the organization and achieve ultimate policy goals that were female in orientation. They had to play along in order to not only get along but to move the policy needle in a “feminine” or female-focused direction. But that meant being less feminine in order to prosper. No softness, no weakness (emotional or physical), no “girly” concerns (say, like lipstick or nice clothes) were permissible because that relegated them, IN THE EYES OF MEN, as too fragile and irrational to be respected as peers.

Extending the concept from revolutionary movements to democracies, what that means is that women entering into politics have to conform to the masculine attributes of the institutions that they have entered. Sure, they can change cosmetic things like male-only cigar lounges or dining rooms, but the entire vibe/aura/mana of these institutions is male-centric in everything that they do. Add to that institutional inertia–that is, the tendency of institutions to favor carrying forward past practices and mores (often in the name of “tradition” or “custom and usage”)–and what we get is women who are politically socialized by the institutions that they join to behave in masculine ways, at least when within the institution and carrying out the roles assigned to them by the institution. That makes changing the institution more important than changing the people within it, but that is also why institutions are loath to change (think of resistance to changing the US from a presidential two-party system to a parliamentary MMP-style system). Perhaps the NZ Green Party are onto something with their gender-balanced party caucus selections, but they remain inserted in a larger parliamentary “nested game” with origins and continuities grounded in masculinist behaviour and perceptions.

More broadly, just like we are a product of our upbringings moderated by the passage of time and experience, so too women in politics are institutionally socialized to respond and behave in certain ways. And those ways are masculine, not feminine. If the bounded rationalities of the institutional nested games in which women “play” are male-centric/dominant, then it is unsurprising that women who succeed in them do so because they adopt those rationalities as their own (even if their better angels incline them to more “feminine” approaches to institutional problem-solving). That includes the propensity for conflict and war.

Of course this is not a hard and fast universal rule. Jacinda Ardern is not Helen Clark. But then think of Hillary Clinton as well as Margaret Thatcher. Or Michelle Bachelet. Or Helen Clark if NZ was deliberately attacked in some fashion. I do not think that she would opt for compromise and concession rather than conflict, and I sure as heck do not think that Hillary would turn the other cheek when it comes to Putin invading the Ukraine. But what turned these young idealists into the battle axes they are now? I would suggest that it is their political socialization within masculine institutions.

So, as I mentioned, the franchise of women=less conflict thesis is intriguing but needs more work. Male and female traits and values may be the independent variables and propensity towards or against conflict may be the dependent variable, but the intervening variable is institutions, and more specifically, the bounded rationalities of the nested games that they impose on men and women because of the path-dependent nature of their histories as human agencies. Once we get that figured out and change the masculine nature of pretty much 90 percent of human institutions, then perhaps we will have a chance at a more peaceful world. But with lots of snark.”

Reader’s views are welcome.

6 thoughts on “A democratic peace or a feminist peace?

  1. It is a very interesting subject Pablo. I have a thought; now that there is much greater recognition of non-binary gender issues and people who are transgender, how will that fit in this scenario? It seems to me that many more people (in my experience and from my reading anyway) are moving away from traditional gender stereotypes and I wonder if studies along these lines need to be broadened to include these groups?

    It also makes me wonder if there is any advantage in having women who may then end up displaying masculine characteristics as they become conditioned to the rigors of their endeavours (on the battlefield, in business, in government and sport) in terms of the possibility that they would not have a less conflictual approach to situations that could lead to combat, or other disastrous outcome. I’d be very interested in your thoughts on that. I hope that makes sense. :)

  2. Di:

    I am ignorant of transgender, LBGTQ, TERF and pretty much all other post modern identity politics so cannot offer a comment about their impact on international relations and foreign policy. I know that lip service is now paid to these perspectives in some foreign policy circles but in terms of discernible impact on foreign policy making and IR in general, I would guess that the impact is not as great as many would hope and is mitigated in any event by the masculine bias of foreign policy apparatuses across the globe.

    Heck, if Foreign Minister Mahuta’s attempts to bring a Pacifika/Maori perspective into NZ’s foreign policy outlook has been resisted from both within and without (remember the reaction to her “Taniwha and Dragon” speech last year), then it would seem likely that perspectives that are seen in some quarters as more contentious than indigenous perspectives on the domestic front would be hard pressed to get a word in edgewise in foreign affairs. But who knows? Perhaps there is a more encompassing and inclusive move afoot that I have simply not seen given my own biases.

  3. Thank you for your reply, Pablo. Probably a thought I should have kept to myself! Except it has been quite a topic in certain circles I’ve been mixing in recently. But you are right – I doubt there’d be any recognition or leverage for change by any of these groups in international affairs, given marked homophobia in countries such as Russia and some Eastern European, African, Asian & Arabic countries. Stoning and jailing would be the likely outcome, or worse.

    The words of the Indigo Girls song Everything In Its Own Time spring to mind regarding your post: “all around the table white haired men have gathered, spilling their son’s blood like table wine” I have often wondered if it would be any different if women were in charge.

  4. Women have so rarely been in charge that it is difficult to know or predict. Angela Merkle didn’t appear overly ‘masculanised’ and was a very effective leader. Jacinda Ardern has certainly broken the mould but I guess that may come to be regarded as a ‘one off,’ or aberration. Her brand of reasoned, humane politics will be anathema to more greedy, ambitious and ruthless politicians. Amoral leaders of which there are many, will just dismiss her. Others like Julie Bishop in Australia played both sides, using her very attractive looks and persona yet kowtowed to male colleagues. Their female Prime Minister was ruthlessly hounded and humiliated. Whether this was indicative of Aussie politics in general or generally typical, who knows?

  5. The feminist and probably far more dangerous equalist position, has had far too much power for too long in New Zealand and has done great damage. During the reign of Helen Clark reign, feminists held all the key NZ positions, PM, Chief Justice and CEO of numerous private enterprise and govt departments. Those years did not see much reversal of the 24/7 free enterprise, individualist society society established by Douglas and Richardson. Clark maintained freedom by personal mana and control, but changed the key settings and appointments and destroyed the education system, through low pay of teachers and lecturers and ending external examinations and IQ testing thereby destroying the valid classification function of post primary education.
    Clark and the Labour activists saw the military, railways and public transport ( except in Auckland) as sunset industries to be staffed by unemployable low capability men supervised by modern school teacher types. It has been a disaster meaning there is no modern rail or light rail public transport in NZ. Diesel buses can be staffed by the dumbest, even electric trolley buses require hig tech workers.
    In the current negotiations, if their even that between US, UK, Germany and the Russians it is interesting and a sign of our ignorance of the basic Russian demand to be recognised as the second superpower, rather than China or rather pretentious UK that Blinkin side of the table is usually 7:2 Female/Male ratio while the Russians line up 7:2 Male/Female on the other side of the table
    I think it is obvious female power and equality will not produce peace in this fundamental and traditionally male dominated field. Females are inherently inclusive Males exclusive. And in my reading the USA and USSR both rejected the idea of inherent human equality in 1929 and concluded the French Revolution was wrong.
    China and the UKs rejection of that argument means they are not on the same playing field

  6. Frederick:

    Did you even read the post? It looks like you saw the title and went off on a rant tha shows your true colours. In the future please stick to the topic, or at least read the post before hopping on your soapbox. (The post, incidentally, was whether women adopt less conflictual approaches to politics or whether male-created institutions shape the way in which all people approach politics).

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