“Mr. Prime Minister, what is happening?”

It was May 1999.  Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee asked the question over the telephone to his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif.  Vajpayee wanted to know why Pakistani forces had invaded high-altitude areas of Kashmir.

India had just discovered these Pakistani incursions, which were in clear violation of the understanding the two leaders had reached a few months earlier.  Vajpayee and Sharif were unable to resolve the dispute, and the nuclear-armed South Asian neighbors ended up fighting a three-month conflict known as the “Kargil War” from May to July 1999.

Remarkably, Prime Minister Sharif later disclosed that his telephone call from Vajpayee was the first time he learned of his own military’s incursion into Kashmir.  The man who kept the invasion secret for several months, according to Sharif, was none other than General Pervez Musharraf — who, of course, also kept his coup plans secret, until he suddenly seized power in Islamabad on September 12, 1999.

The Kargil War is an anomaly: it is one of a very few instances in which fellow democracies have fought on opposite sides of a war.  The “democratic peace” is routinely hailed by presidents and pundits, after all, and has become a well-established phenomenon in political science.  But the Kargil War stands as a notable exception.  When it was fought in the spring and summer of 1999, both India and Pakistan had democratically elected governments.

In fact, the Kargil War is instructive, and helps us understand the true nature of the democratic peace.  Democracies have fought each other. But if we look at the relationships between stable democracies, we find a strong and durable pattern of peace, amity, and cooperation.

What are the stable democracies? The map below presents the “coup-free zone.”  In each of the black-colored states — as I discussed earlier this week — there were no coups or serious coup attempts throughout 50 continuous years of independent existence, from 1961 through 2010.  As shown on the map, almost every other independent state did experience coups or coup attempts during this time. (For additional information, see the data and references supporting this map, the rise of the coup-free zone, or the first chapter of Vanishing Coup.)

On the map, we might notice something about the black, coup-free states. Their leaders may disagree at times, but they never resort to force against each other, or even threaten to do so.  In a troubled world, plagued by wars, tensions, and terrorism, the coup-free zone is an oasis of compromise and cooperation.

Why is this?  As I contend in Vanishing Coup, coup-free democracies are at peace because they are uniquely transparent and predictable.

By their very nature, democracies — even unstable ones — broadcast reams of information about the public attitudes, fears, interests, and concerns ultimately guiding and constraining foreign policy.  Democratic assemblies debate the big questions regarding alliances, tensions, war, and peace.  Electoral campaigns bring all of a state’s anxieties and security concerns into sharp relief, especially when candidates pander to voters’ fears, and try to present themselves as tough-minded and plausible commanders-in-chief.  In this way, democracies make it abundantly clear who they perceive to be a threat.

Dictatorships, unlike democracies, are opaque.  The most critical information about the long-term posture and intentions of an autocracy remains hidden inside the tyrant’s head.  Two months after forming a pact with Stalin, for example, Hitler surprised his army chiefs. Poland, he told them, would serve as an “assembly area for future German operations.”  Soon afterward, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union.  Oligarchies can be similarly impenetrable, especially when they are relatively small.  Witness the USSR before and after Stalin’s dictatorship, and the largely futile attempts by Western “Kremlinologists” to decipher factional alignments and policy debates within the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

Transparency between democratic nations advanced to new levels during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the rise of instantaneous communications technology, mass media, and multiple sources of thorough, relatively objective news reporting.  In this environment, political leaders, journalists, commentators, and ordinary citizens are inundated with thorough, real-time, reliable information on the full range of opinions, concerns, and security fears within other democracies.

With this type of transparency in place, two democracies can readily perceive that, within both states, there are powerful and numerous constituencies opposing a war.  Any war between democracies, after all, would harm the interests of most citizens, while benefiting few if any.  Cost-benefit calculations push both populations toward compromise.  More importantly, leaders in both states understand that rational considerations are also urging the other side back from the precipice.  War appears avoidable, reducing any temptation for preemptive attack.

In this manner, a “democratic peace process” begins.

By avoiding war and establishing a pattern of negotiation and compromise, each democracy becomes increasingly confident that it will not find itself at war with the other.  This is a self-reinforcing cycle of mutual trust and cooperation.  As witnessed in the rise of the Anglo-American “special relationship” since the end of the 19th century, both populations come to regard the other state as a solid partner in an otherwise treacherous world.

But this mutually reinforcing cycle of trust does not necessarily arise right away, and some democracies have gone to war — as did India and newly democratic Pakistan.  But in the long run, democracies consistently find their way toward cooperation and trust.  Thus, the element of time is essential to building the democratic peace.

Coup-free democracies, of course, are permanent democracies — providing an abundance of time for the “democratic peace process” to set in.  Also, coup-free democracies are even more transparent and reliable than unstable democracies. This is because their foreign policies do not “flip” overnight following coups d’état, and because rule-of-law systems minimize or eliminate rogue actions, thereby rendering state actions far more comprehensible, and state leaders far more accountable, to the outside world.

When a state’s upper echelons are riddled with corruption, as appears to be the case in Pakistan, Iraq and Russia, among many others, it is a matter of sheer guesswork to understand the true interests, knowledge, constraints and activities of its leaders.  Corrupt officials always hide their criminal activities, and may keep political superiors in the dark.  Under these circumstances, it is impossible to determine just what the state is doing, and who within the state knows about it.  This is not the kind of transparency that facilitates peace.

People implicitly understand that coups and revolutions won’t be toppling governments in London or Washington, D.C., anytime soon — or in Berlin, Jerusalem, or Tokyo, for that matter.  Because of this, the mutual trust is undimmed by fears of future events.  No one worries that instability will allow weapons to “fall into the wrong hands,” as they do with nations like Pakistan.

There is no real threat to democracy within the coup-free zone.  As a result, the faith in peace, amity and cooperation between coup-free states is adamantine.

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I have really enjoyed guest-blogging this week on the Volokh Conspiracy. Special thanks to Eugene, and to everyone else for reading and taking an interest in coups, revolutions, peace, stability, and the rule of law. Please feel free to reach me through

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