Is democracy that causes peace… or trade?

The relationship between democracy and armed conflict, and inter-State conflicts in particular, has been explored by many scholars [1]. The idea that democracies rarely or never fight each other is often traced back to the theory of perpetual peace of Immanuel Kant, who in his essay “Toward Perpetual Peace” argues that democratic states do not fight with each other because of their distinctive political institutions and propensity to externalize democratic norms.

On the other hand, Solomon Polachek, in “Why democracies cooperated more and fight less: The relationship between international trade and cooperation” (Review of International Economics, 1997), after examining the history of wars from 1800 to 1986 comes to the conclusion that a higher degree of democracy does not necessarily decrease risks of conflicts, but rather, it is a higher level of trade between nations to reduce this possibility. This is because countries do not want to go into wars with their trading partners. And the more two States are mutually dependent on each other in terms of trade, the less willing they will be to enter into a conflict, because in this case the costs they will incur will be catastrophic to their economies and citizens, due to the severe disruptions in supplies from their trade partner. 

The theory that free trade decreases the possibility of conflicts has some empirical evidence. Somalia and Kenya for instance, two countries that frequently face tensions, are little integrated in the trade dimension, compared to their other trading partners. 

The World Trade Organisation (WTO), aware of the importance of trade in reducing possibilities of conflicts between nations, launched in December 2017 the Trade for Peace Programme, which aims to highlight the role of trade and economic integration in promoting peace and security. The goal of the Trade for Peace Programme is to assist countries in transitioning from fragility or conflict to stability and economic well-being. It aims to achieve this through: (i) political engagement, (ii) public dialogue and outreach, (iii) research, and (iv) capacity building. 

In Africa, inter-State conflicts and tensions between states are ascribed to many factors, including undemarcated borders, irredenta (i.e. a territory that is under the political jurisdiction of one nation but is tied to another by reason of cultural, historical, and ethnic ties), resource distribution or refugee questions[2].

Irrespective of their causes, a higher trade integration with their neighbors is certainly a factor that African policymakers should consider for mitigating risks of conflicts with neighboring countries. In order to do so, it is essential to renounce to restrictive trade policies such as trade bans on products originating from the territory of their counterparts or cumbersome border procedures that discourage trade. 

The question is: is this a realistic possibility?

The truth is that most of African nations are engaged in nationalist policies that still prioritise national economic interests on regional interests[3], and this is obviously an obstacle that hampers any trade integration effort in the regional and Continental contexts, as well as any dream of building a “one Africa” vision as envisaged in the AU’s Lagos Plan of Action, the Abuja Treaty, and more recently, in the AfCFTA Agreement. 

[1] For a comprehensive literature review see Håvard Hegre, “Democracy and armed conflict, Journal of Peace Research, 2014, Vol. 51/2, available at

[2] Joseph M. Kum, African Interstate Conflict: A Perceptual Approach, Journal of Peace Research Vol. 27, No. 4 (Nov., 1990).

[3] For  a more in-depth analysis of this issue, see:

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