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Bueno de Mesquita, Morrow, Siverson, and Smith: An institutional explanation of the democratic peace

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Bueno de Mesquita, Morrow, Siverson, and Smith. 1999. An institutional explanation of the democratic peace. American Political Science Review 93 (December): 791-807.

Yet another application of these guys' selectorate theory. This one isn't persuasive. The general idea:


In selectorate theory, you have three groups. The population is everybody; the selectorate is everybody who has (even a small) say in who leads; the winning coalition is the group of people whose support keeps the leader in power.

If S is large but W is small, then the incumbent has a big advantage: any members of W that threaten to defect can easily be replaced by some other member of S. When W is small, the leader provides private goods.

If W is large, then the leader has to focus on public, not private, goods. This is the case in democracies. Leaders are judged based on domestic and foreign policy performance (public goods), not on their ability to funnel private goods toward W.


When faced with conflict, therefore, autocrats have less to fear from losing. As long as loss doesn't entail loss of sovereignty (e.g. Saddam in 1991, I guess), then losing doesn't knock you out of power. Democrats have much to fear, however. A lost war costs the country a lot, so democratic losers will promptly be voted out.

Therefore, expect democracies to (1) only pick fights that they are sure they can win (autocrats will engage in riskier conflicts) and (2) work harder to mobilize resources and win.


This is stupid. It cannot explain the democratic peace (its stated goal). It can only explain why democracies would fight each other less often, not why they wouldn't fight at all. There is no explanation here of why Norway doesn't invade Iceland, or why Poland doesn't invade Lithuania, or why Germany doesn't invade Denmark, or why the US doesn't invade Canada. It's just not there. This theory does not explain the democratic peace.

Further, it seems odd to assume that autocrats don't mind losing, as long as they can continue channeling private goods to W. Is that really what was going on in 1991, or did Saddam really think he could win?

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce (author)Morrow, James (author)Siverson, Randolph (author)Smith, Alastair (author)International RelationsSelectorate TheoryDomestic Politics and International RelationsDemocratic PeaceWar

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