Friday, November 5, 2010

"Democratic Peace" and Central America - Part I

-Immanuel Kant-
In his influential 1795 essay, Perpetual Peace, Immanuel Kant argued that in an international setting, a state that guarantees the principles of freedom, independence and equality is a necessary condition to achieve a true peace - a "perpetual peace". Under these conditions, when citizens are the ones who must weigh the costs of going to war, its difficulties and the fact that they are the ones who must fight it, they will always prefer peace to war. By contrast, in situations where is only a head of state the one who has to make this decision, going to war is much easier, since the ruler does not evaluate each of those consequences in the same way as citizens do. While Kant did not speak of democracies, but instead of constitutional republics -understood as states where the branches of power are separated- his arguments have led to what today is known as the Democratic Peace Theory: two democratic states do not go to war with one another.

The theory has been subjected to various empirical studies over the past decades and has generally left unscathed. Although many democratic states have been involved in various conflicts throughout history, these conflicts are, with a few exceptions, against undemocratic regimes. It is not surprising, then, to see authoritarian regimes fighting one another, (eg. Iran and Iraq during the eighties), or weighing war against democratic societies, not necessarily caused by those (eg. Iraq and the United States in the last two decades.) Following this line of analysis, it is not surprising to see the extent to which un-democratizing societies, increase the likelihood of going to war with others. Take the example of Venezuela and Colombia in recent years: while each of these countries watched their democratic institutions deteriorating, they increased the risk of entering into an armed confrontation.

The situation we see today between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, does not escape from this scenario. Costa Rica has been a country with a democratic history dating back to the last decade of the nineteenth century; no major domestic problems have threatened its political stability and  it has reached the point of considering not to need an army, but instead relying on multilateralism in the case of a possible aggression against its sovereignty. Nicaragua, meanwhile, has been a country with a very limited democratic experience; its process of democratization began in 1979 but still lacks basic political institutions. However, and despite the advances achieved in recent decades, during recent months Nicaragua has faced a series of maneuvers by the elite that governs it and seeks to perpetuate itself in power.

As we have seen, as democracy gives its way the likelihood of international conflict increases. In the latest days we have seen the development of a border dispute about the sovereignty over some parts of the San Juan River, which partially determines the borderline between the two Central American countries. Therefore, what Costa Rica considers an invasion of its territory, is regarded by Nicaragua as part of a plan to dredge the Rio San Juan and thus attract tourism. Similarly, Costa Rica condemns the environmental damage that its northern neighbor has caused and says the operations in the river are an attempt to change its course and, thus, change the border between the two countries, certainly in favor of Nicaragua.

Following the escalation in tension between the two countries -the Nicaraguan army and Costa Rican police troops have been moved to the border- the case has been brought to the Organization of American States (OAS), which has been successful in resolving conflicts between countries in the region. Thus, the OAS requested Managua to withdraw its troops from the border and stop any work that affects the territorial integrity of Costa Rican or its environmental heritage. Nicaragua justifies the presence of the army in this area as part of the war against drugs.

The text was rejected by Nicaragua on the grounds that the OAS has no jurisdiction over these matters and that it is the International Court of Justice (ICJ) the one that must make a decision in this case. It is worth noting that the dispute over the sovereignty of the Rio San Juan dates back to 1858, and last year the ICJ recognized the sovereignty of Nicaragua, but also perpetuated the right of navigation of Costa Rica for a distance of 140km.

The latest party involved in this dispute has been the company Google because, according to the Nicaraguan version, the so-called "invasion" to Costa Rica was due to an error in Google Maps, issue on which the company has remained silent.

The events in this matter are still developing which means that any conclusions drawn from it may be premature. What does call the attention is the reappearance of differences between these two countries and even the likelihood of a conflict, precisely at a time when one of the parties involved performs important political changes that undermine democracy. This type of events and their possible consequences -which hopefully will be avoided- invites to a serious reflection about the support offered to some authoritarian regimes, backed up by majorities who prefer a leader over the institutions of a country -this is not even true in many cases. We will certainly have a chance to see how these events develop.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know much about the tensions between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, but regarding the democratic peace story, there is an interesting article you may want to look at:

    Keep up the good work!