An assessment of whether the US’ foreign policy decisions are consistent with the Democratic Peace Theory (DP) is critical because it helps the determination of whether there are limits to what actions one democratic state will take against other democracies under tense situations. The DP Theory demonstrates that democracies rarely if ever go to war with one another. However, there are numerous instances of democracies – especially the US – using covert means to remove democratically elected governments from office. This is otherwise known as Covert Foreign Regime Change (CFRC). Specifically, this has been the case of Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Indonesia (1955), Brazil (1960s), Chile (1973), and Nicaragua (1980s).[1] These cases of CFRCs falsify the DP Theory: democracies do go to war with one another. However, the proponents of DP argue otherwise. To explain, it is first critical to note that this paper discusses dyadic DP as opposed to a monadic one. Dyadic DP refers to the explanation of DP provided above, while the latter refers to the idea that democracies are inherently more peaceful than others. To continue, the logic behind DP is based on the idea that there are both intuitional and normative constraints built into the democratic system that restrain democracies from waging war against other democracies. Selectorate Theory is the most prominent institutional constraint of the DP model. The Theory posits that democratic leaders are extremely careful about waging wars as a lost or a stalemated war could sharply increase their risk of losing office. When the administrations of two democracies act under this premise, a peaceful resolution is likely to be favored over the option of war –since there is no guarantee of a victory in a war.[2] In the case of the normative DP model, the two main constraints are “Non-violent Conflict Resolution” and “Respect for Individual Autonomy and Rights”. The former posits that democracies are inclined to make compromises and negotiate their differences with one another to peacefully resolve conflicts. The latter posits that the externalization of democratic rights and freedoms prevents democracies from attacking other democracies as a war would suppress those rights and freedoms from individuals of the targeted state.[3]

The proponents of DP argue that, in the case of CFRCs, these built-in constraints of the democratic system did not operate due to the fact that the targeted states were not mature democracies. These states had a mix of both democratic and autocratic traits. The proponents also argue that covert wars that occur in the midst of CFRCs do not qualify as wars. This is because covert wars (1) do not cross the threshold of one thousand battle deaths, and (2) also because the intervening state does not pit its own troops to fight in the targeted state. There is no direct interstate war. For these reasons, the DP supporters argue that CFRCs do not falsify the DP Theory. However, the two reasons above are inconsistent with the CFRC that occurred during the 1973 Coup in Chile. At the time of the Coup, Chile was a mature democracy, and while the Coup resulted in deaths fewer than a thousand, the dictatorship that consolidated following the Coup led to the deaths of 60,000 Chileans until its collapse in 1990.[4]

This paper looks at the 1973 Coup in Chile to argue that the institutional and normative constraints outlined in the DP Theory do not restrain democracies like the US from waging war against other democracies. This is because democratic institutions and norms are subordinate to the US’ economic and security interests when the US makes its foreign policy decisions. The order of the paper is as follows: (1) the paper first outlines the events leading up to the Coup; (2) and the following demonstrates why the case of Chile is consistent with the DP model; it argues why Chile was a mature democracy at the time of the Coup, and why the disqualification of covert war as a war is meaningless in the discussion of the DP Theory. (3) Lastly, the three arguments of this paper look at how the constraints outlined in the DP Theory failed to retrain the US from covertly attacking Chile. The first argument looks at the institutional constraint of Selectorate Theory, and the fact that – contrary to what the Theory predicts – the Nixon administration was not concerned of the US public opinion when making its decision to covertly attack Chile. The second argument examines the normative constraint of “Non-violent Conflict Resolution”, and the Nixon administration’s refusal to negotiate with Allende’s Chilean government. The third argument looks at the normative constraint of “Respect for Individual Autonomy and Rights”, and the fact that the Nixon administration was fully aware that the new military dictatorship it supported following the Coup would subdue Chile’s democracy and violate the civil rights and liberties of Chileans.

The US covert operations in Chile can be divided into three distinct phases: Phase I: 1958-1964 (Presidency of Jorge Alessandri); Phase II: 1964-1970 (Presidency of Eduardo Frei); and Phase III: 1970-73 (Presidency of Salvador Allende until the Coup on 11 September). The US decision to covertly manipulate Chilean politics started when Allende came within 3 percentage points of winning the Chilean presidency in 1958. The US was concerned about the platform that Allende ran on: Allende leaned towards left-wing ideologies and advocated for the nationalization of key industries in Chile that the US multinational corporations (MNC) were intricately involved in. To reduce Allende from winning the upcoming election in 1964, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was involved with (1) directly funding Allende’s rival candidate Frei, and (2) started a massive propaganda campaign against Allende. As a result of the CIA’s efforts, Allende indeed lost the 1964 election to Frei: Allende only earned 39% of the popular vote compared to Frei’s 56%. The CIA’s efforts from Phase I continued in Phase II as well – as the CIA anticipated that Allende would run for the 1970 elections. However, these efforts notwithstanding, Allende won 36% of the popular vote, while his runner-up candidate received 35%. Under Chilean law, when no candidate wins by a majority, the Chilean Congress has the authority to decide who to grant the presidency. The Nixon administration attempted to lobby the Chilean Congress. The lobby failed and Allende was inaugurated into office on 4 November 1970. To discredit Allende’s new government, the US dramatically increased its funding to opposition political parties and media. On the economic front, the US substantially decreased its economic aid to Chile, and blocked Chile from borrowing loans from international banking organizations. At the same time, while the US continued to isolate and ostracize Allende, it simultaneously solidified its ties with the Chilean military in an attempt to foment a military coup. Consequently, on 11 September 1973, Allende was overthrown, and a new military dictatorship took over Chile under General Pinochet.[5]

The Coup in Chile is consistent with the DP model due to the fact that Chile was a mature democracy in 1973 and decades prior to 1973 as well. Both the academics and even the US policymakers who were involved in the planning of the Coup had no doubt about this fact. To start, in 1973, all three of the leading academic/research institutions that measured a country’s democracy index concluded that Chile was a fully functioning democracy. This includes the Polity IV Project, the Tatu Vanhanen’s Polyarchy Variable, and the Freedom House. To explain, the Project ranked a country’s democracy based on several dimensions – like competitiveness of political participation and executive recruitment and institutional constraints on executive power. According to its 20-point (-10 to +10) index, Chile scored +6 from 1965 until the Coup in 1973. The Project regarded any country that scored +6 or above as a mature democracy. Furthermore, the Polyarchy Variafble – which bases its score on the level of competitiveness and participation in the political system – gave a score of 19.78 to Chile in 1973. This was more than the US’ score of 14.66. Finally, the Freedom House’s measurement of a country’s observance of political and civil rights gave Chile a score of 1 for the former and 2 for the latter. This was based on a scale of one to seven: one being the best and seven being the worst. It is critical to point out that Chile received the same score as well-established democracies like France and Italy.[6]

Furthermore, like the academic/research institutions, the US policymakers also had a consensus that Chile was a mature democracy. To start, with the anticipation that Allende would not be able to win the 1964 Chilean presidential election with a majority vote, the CIA planned on lobbying the Chilean Congress to vote for the runner-up candidate instead of Allende. However, J.C. King, the chief of the Western Hemisphere Division of the CIA advised that the lobby would fail due to Chile’s long-standing democratic tradition. Although Allende lost the 1964 election, he was elected into office in 1970. In response to Allende’s victory, Henry Kissinger – Nixon’s National Security Advisor – acknowledged that there was nothing that the US could do to deny Allende from his legitimacy as an elected leader of Chile as he was elected legally and had all the legitimacy in the eyes of the Chileans. Also, the CIA Chilean Task Force – which was responsible for devising a plan to overthrow Allende – failed to convince any of the high ranking military officials to support the Coup. The Force expressed that, while anti-Allende currents did exist, the leaders unwilling to disrespect the outcome of the democratic process.[7]

Critically, the fact that the academic/research institutions and both low and high levels of decision making in the US acknowledged that Chile was a mature democracy makes the case of Chile consistent with the DP model. However, the issue of whether or not the covert war qualifies as a war must be addressed as well. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), for an armed conflict to be categorized as a war, it needs to involve at least two state or non-state actors and produce a minimum of 1,000 battle deaths.[8] By this definition, the covert war in Chile does not qualify as a war. The Coup was orchestrated by the Chilean military, and while the US did materially supported the Coup, no US troops were sent to Chile. Furthermore, fewer than 60 Chileans died as a result of the Coup. However, this does not necessarily make the case of Chile inconsistent with the DP model. Aforementioned, the UCDP’s definition of war puts an emphasis on casualties and that the armed conflict needs to have two or more actors involved. Critically, although the US decision makers did not apply overt use of US force, the US launched an equally, if not more destructive brand of covert warfare in Chile that was responsible for the demise of Chilean democracy, civil rights and liberties, and the rise of a military dictatorship that would kill more than 60,000 Chileans.[9] Furthermore, while the US was not directly involved in the orchestration of the Coup, the US was intricately involved in the events that made the Coup a success. Therefore, the argument that the US’ covert war against Chile is inconsistent with the DP model because covert wars do not qualify as wars can hardly be substantiated. As demonstrated, the case of Chile is consistent with the DP model. Critically, under this premise, a failure of the democratic constraints to restrain the US from attacking Chile would then falsify the DP Theory.

The institutional constraint of Selectorate Theory – which posits that democratic leaders are extremely careful about waging wars as a lost or a stalemated war could sharply increase their risk of losing office – neither restrained nor had relevance to the Nixon administration’s decision to covertly overthrow Allende. Although the US public would have been unaware of the US involvement in the Coup due to its covert nature, it is critical to point out that the Nixon administration was warned that: (1) the likelihood of success of the Coup was extremely low, and (2) that a failure would lead to the discovery of the US involvement in the Coup.[10] Therefore, due to the high likelihood of the US public discovering the US involvement, the Nixon administration should have been – as posited by the Selectorate Theory – either restrained or at worst, hesitant about its decision to covertly attack Chile.

The Nixon administration was indeed hesitant, but not out of fear of the US public discovering its involvement. Rather, the administration was hesitant because a failure was guaranteed to backfire on the US. A failure meant that the US would instantly lose its prestige as a beacon of democracy, and that its diplomatic ties with Chile and other Latin American countries would deteriorate. According to a memo from Kissinger to Nixon on November of 1970, Kissinger warns Nixon that a failure to covertly overthrow Allende could turn the rest of Latin America into a violent and intense opposition to the US.[11] Moreover, the National Security Study Memorandum 97 also notes that an unsuccessful attempt would have grave consequences for the US’ relations with not only Chile, but with the entire Western Hemisphere and elsewhere in the globe.[12] Critically, in the decision making process of whether to covertly attack Chile or not, the Nixon administration considered to whether or not risk US prestige and diplomatic status as its determining factor. The US public opinion played no relevance. As demonstrated, the institutional constraint of Selectorate Theory was subordinate to the security interest of the US in its making of foreign policy.

The normative constraint of “Non-violent Conflict Resolution” (NCR) – which posits that democracies are inclined to make compromises and negotiate their differences with other democracies to peacefully resolve conflicts – was completely absent and failed to restrain the US from covertly attacking Chile. To explain, it is critical to understand the extent to which the Nixon administration considered Allende’s new Chilean government as a threat to the US’ security and economic interests in Latin America. According to a note from Kissinger to Nixon on November 1970, Kissinger was fully convinced that Allende’s presidency in Chile would pose the most serious challenge the US has ever faced in the Western Hemisphere. Kissinger notes that Allende would develop military ties with left-wing powers, and would seek to be actively hostile to US interests in Latin America. Likewise, on the same month, Nixon expressed his worries at a National Security Council meeting. Nixon was worried that a successful leftist Allende government would convince other Latin American countries that were “one the fence” like Brazil and Argentina to mirror Allende’s leftist ideologies.[13] Also, other US officials were concerned about the possible economic ramification of Allende’s decision to nationalize several key industries in Chile that the US MNCs had ownership in. Certainly, while the officials were afraid that the MNCs would not receive a fair compensation for their losses, the possibility of other Latin American countries nationalizing their key industries and driving out US MNCs was alarming as well.[14]

Critically, the Nixon administration perceived Allende as a grave threat to the US security and economic interests in Latin America. The normative constraint of “NCR” predicts that in cases of conflict of interests, the US should have attempted to make compromises and/or negotiate with Allende. However, the US did not. As evidenced from comments of Kissinger and Nixon above, the two perceived Allende as a threat – not Chile. The US wanted Allende to be unseated from office, and that was not negotiable. Therefore, in the case of Chile, even though both the US and Chile were mature democracies, because the US’ goal of unseating Allende was not negotiable, the normative constraint of “NCR” failed to operate. Furthermore, the US’ refusal to negotiate with Allende also indicates that the US could not afford to compromise any of its security and/or economic interests for better diplomatic ties with Allende. A compromise of either security or economic interest of the US in Chile would have made the US more vulnerable to either security or economic threats. This argument has demonstrated two points: (1) certain conditions have to be met for NCR to work; and (2) the option of NCR could be easily ignored when it is not possible for an actor (the US) to compromise its interests. The latter point indicates that the normative constraint of NCR failed to operate because it was subordinate to the security and economic interest of the US in the making of US foreign policy.

The normative constraint of “Respect for Individual Autonomy and Rights” (RIAR) – which posits that the externalization of democratic rights and freedoms prevents democracies from attacking one another as it a war would suppress the rights and freedoms of individuals in the targeted state – completely failed to restrain the US from covertly overthrowing Allende. To explain, shortly after the US failed to prevent Allende from succeeding to office, the CIA informed the Nixon administration that their “Track I” or non-violent means to overthrow Allende – like lobbying the Chilean Congress or financially aiding Allende’s opposition political parties – would certainly fail. The CIA advised that the only prospect of success of overthrowing Allende was a military coup – which would result Chile under the control of a military dictatorship. As a result, after Allende’s inauguration, the US invested its efforts into fomenting a military coup.[15] Aforementioned, despites the low likelihood of success and the risk of the US involvement becoming revealed to the Chilean public, the US efforts eventually led to General Pinochet overthrowing Allende on 11 September 1973.

Critically, subverting Chile’s democracy and replacing it with a military dictatorship was convenient for the US’ efforts to defend its security and economic interests in Latin America. This is because dictators are more likely to put forward public/foreign policies that are more compatible with the intervener’s interests – as dictators are not accountable to voters.[16] For this reason, the US enthusiastically supported General Pinochet. Almost immediately after Pinochet’s inauguration, the US resumed all forms of economic assistance and military aid to Chile that had been previously cut off under Allende. The CIA also helped to establish the Directorate of National Intelligence to aid Pinochet’s control of Chile.[17]

It is critical to emphasize that the US supported Pinochet with the full knowledge that the new military dictatorship meant the end of Chile’s democracy. The CIA warned the Nixon administration that there would be a “severe repression” under Pinochet. In fact, under Pinochet, Chile’s high Polity IV Project score of 6+ dropped to a low -7. Furthermore, Chile’s Polyarchy Variable score plummeted from 19.78 to a 0, and the Freedom House rankings also dropped from 1 to 7 for political rights and from 2 to 5 for civil rights.[18] Additionally, for the crimes of opposing Pinochet, 60,000 Chileans either died or disappeared, and another 200,000 were exiled to Europe.[19] As demonstrated, the normative constraint of RIAR failed to prevent the US’ support of the Coup and the consolidation of a military dictatorship – a regime the US was fully aware that would severely repress Chile’s democratic rights and freedoms. This was because the democratic rights and freedoms of Chileans was subordinate to the US’ security and economic interests in the making of US foreign policy.

In retrospect, the institutional and normative constraints of Selectorate Theory, NCR, and RIAR failed to prevent the US from covertly attacking Chile. This is because these constraints that are built into the democratic system are subordinate to the US’ security and economic interests when the US makes its foreign policy decisions. Furthermore, because the 1973 Coup in Chile is consistent with the DP model, the failure of these constraints falsifies the DP Theory. Therefore, under certain conditions, democracies will go to war with other democracies.

[1] Forsythe, D. (1992). Democracy, War, and Covert Action. Journal of Peace Research, 29(4), 385.

[2] Downes, A., & Lilley, M. (2010). Overt Peace, Covert War?: Covert Intervention and the Democratic Peace. Security Studies, 19(2), 278.

[3] Downes, A., & Lilley, M. 273-274.

[4] Kim, J. (2005). Democratic Peace and Covert War: A Case Study of the U.S. Covert War in Chile. Journal of International and Area Studies, 12(1), 5-6.

[5] Kim, J. (2005). 6-7.

[6] Downes, A., & Lilley, M. 288-289.

[7] Downes, A., & Lilley, M. 290-293.

[8] Definitions (Intensity Level of War). (n.d.). Retrieved June 11, 2015, from http://www.pcr.uu.se/research/ucdp/definitions/#Warring_party_2

[9] Kim, J. (2005). 16.

[10] Downes, A., & Lilley, M. 297.

[11] Downes, A., & Lilley, M. 294-295.

[12] Downes, A., & Lilley, M. 298.

[13] Downes, A., & Lilley, M. 300.

[14] Downes, A., & Lilley, M. 301.

[15] Downes, A., & Lilley, M. 293-294.

[16] Downes, A., & Lilley, M. 282.

[17] Downes, A., & Lilley, M. 294.

[18] Downes, A., & Lilley, M. 293.

[19] Kim, J. (2005). 16.