Recently the BBC chose democracy as the theme for it’s Radio 4 program The Moral Maze. We were asked to consider the question “Is democracy an absolute good?” and the program went on to debate the legitimacy of The West installing democracy in Iraq and whether that country is capable of sustaining democracy given it’s various ethnic and religious groupings. The BBC missed a chance to explore the role and limits of democracy.
In The West we are used to our governments arguing that a regime is beyond the pale, it’s actions unacceptable and siting the lack of democracy as proof that the regime is illegitimate and the cause of the unacceptable behaviour. But is democracy a guarantee of good behaviour?
At the beginning of The Moral Maze we were asked what was meant by democracy and the debate quickly got bogged down discussing the technicalities of Western democracy such an independent judiciary and separation of powers.
The program failed to define the essence of democracy. Such a definition might run something like “A society whose governing institutions and policies are those broadly in agreement with the wishes of a majority of it’s citizens.”
We can argue endlessly about the definition, how well these systems work and how widely spread is the suffrage but the methods of implementing democracy necessarily vary and are unavoidably imperfect. Essentially democracy is an ideal and the preceding definition attempts to summarise the expectations of democracy.
The reason democracy is considered desirable is that it provides government with policies broadly in line with public opinion. It also provides some protection for the citizen against exploitation and suffering caused by governing institutions. It does this by a self-correcting mechanism; if we don’t like a government we throw them out.
At an economic level especially democracies provide this self-correcting mechanism. No amount of spin and propaganda can disguise the failing economic policies of a government. If a policy does not provide prosperity for it’s citizens then it’s citizens will vote for something else and incompetent or misguided politicians are replaced.
While it is possible that the policies of dictatorships around the world may be those desired by it’s citizens this is unlikely as the citizen is not given any chance to provide feedback. Quite understandably, the goal of citizens living under dictatorship is for democracy. The desired policies may be more in line with Western values but the fundamental principle is not Westernisation but democratisation. People want to decide for themselves. In America people want free market polices, in Germany they do not want to invade Iraq and in Algeria they want Islam.
All this rests on the premise that citizens guide policy in democracies. Citizens notice when something is not to their liking and vote in such a way as to force the government out of office or into a U-turn. In domestic policy this is undoubtedly true. If the price of petrol is increased or if the police attempt to intimidate citizens then people will notice and react. But what if the people don’t notice? What if the people don’t react?
It is in the arena of foreign policy where the link to democracy becomes tenuous. While it is of course true that foreign policy affects citizens the connection is indirect and not always obvious. Most people take no special interest in foreign affairs and this understandable. Life is busy enough and there are a huge number of topics in which people do take an interest. Foreign policy must compete for a person’s attention alongside education, the economy, housing, crime, religion, gay rights, sport, soap operas and a plethora of other subjects. The result is that foreign policy becomes decoupled from democracy.
If we assume that the government remains genuinely committed to the well being of it’s citizens then it will continue to make policy pursuant to their best interests. However these policies will be unrestrained by democratic accountability. Policy may become overly complex, contradictory and based on dubious premises. Crucially there is no feedback from the electorate. Even amongst citizens who do take an interest in foreign policy most will consider domestic policy first when they come to vote. Incompetent politicians are not replaced and unwanted policies not corrected.
Though policies may be considered to be in the best interests of the electorate, they are not necessarily the wishes of the electorate. Allowing the import of cheap foreign goods from foreign sweatshops may result in cheaper shoes but given the choice most citizens of The West would support an end to such practices.
If Western foreign policy is not driven by a mandate from the electorate then what does drive foreign policy? The answer is lobby groups.
Lobby groups are an accepted part of political life and a legitimate method for presenting opinions to government. This is true on both domestic and foreign policy. It is right that the citizens are able to make representation to government not only individually but as part of a group of like minded individuals.
But it is the contribution of funds to political parties which should cause concern. There are strong arguments for allowing financial contributions to political parties and these are based on liberty. If I have money why should I not be able to contribute to a political party advocating policies which I support? The waters are muddied when lobby groups donate to multiple parties as they then lay themselves open to the accusation that they are merely trying to buy policy.
The danger is that political parties come to rely on such contributions and, in the absence of guidance from the electorate; parties simply adjust policy to garner funds. Many lobby groups are no more than vested interests and so policies are not arrived at democratically. He who pays the piper calls the tune and some of these lobby groups can afford to pay very well indeed.
There are lobby groups for many different issues. In the UK these interest groups include industry, commerce and The British Commonwealth. The current Labour government claims to be running an ethical foreign policy, yet still supplies fighter jet trainers to Indonesia and advocates selling a military grade air traffic control system to Tanzania. The lobby group in these examples is obviously British Aerospace.
While Western democracies send millions in aid they make billions from trade. In the interests of their citizens Western democracies use trade tariffs to protect their markets from third world goods while insisting that those same third world countries restructure and develop market economies open to Western multi-nationals.
It is in The United States where lobby groups dominate foreign policy.
The United States has a peculiar history. Isolated from the rest of the world for so long it was eventually colonised and the indigenous culture practically destroyed. The United States became the destination for people from across the world fleeing persecution or simply seeking a better life.
On arrival in The U.S. these émigrés built a great country so vast, successful and free that the citizens of the U.S. are now notorious for their ignorance of the rest of the world. Understandable in a country as large, diverse and, let’s face it, convenient. It is surprising any of them travel abroad at all.
Of course not all Americans are ignorant of the Old World. The second generation Cubans take a great interest in Fidel Castro and the second generation Irish wax lyrical about the old country. The second generation Brits trade on snob appeal and it is a cliché that American Jews run policy toward Israel. It is disturbing to note that Christian fundamentalist now also contribute to shaping policy toward Israel.
The United States continues to impose punitive sanctions against Cuba 43 years after the revolution which brought Fidel Castro to power yet how many Americans know of the disgraceful role of The United States in Cuba prior to the revolution?
Until 9/11 Irish Americans would throw dollars into buckets carried around pubs in Boston. These funds were collected by NORAID, ostensibly an Irish American support group but recognised by the British government to be channelling funds to the IRA. How many Americans know the first thing about Ireland?
For decades now The United States has not found itself able to condemn Israel’s illegal settlement of Palestinian territory in The West Bank and Gaza. Last year George Bush called the current Israeli Prime Minister a “man of peace.” Yet how many Americans know that was held responsible by a Knesset parliamentary committee for the 1982 massacre of Palestinians in Lebanon? Though the U.S. rages against France’s threatened security council veto how many Americans know that the U.S. has used it’s veto over 70 times mostly on resolutions relating to the Middle East?
As the majority of Americans know little and care less about Cuba, Ireland or Israel, how can these policies possibly be said to be democratic?
Democracy is a great thing, it defends liberty and ensures domestic policy remains broadly in line with public opinion but citizens derive no benefit from the democracy of other countries. It may be argued that democracies are less likely to launch aggressive wars but politicians learned long ago how to present war as humanitarian intervention. The British Empire was built on such deception and to those subject to policies of a foreign nation the form of government is irrelevant. Just recently, while America looked the other way, the policy of democratic Israeli lead to the death of an American peace activist under a military bulldozer.
The Nazis were brought to power by democracy, the British Empire was ruled by a democracy and a democracy was the first and, so far, only country to use nuclear weapons in anger.
The impetus for democracy lies in each individuals desire to run their own affairs and the acceptance that this is true of everyone else. As Churchill famously noted “Democracy is the least worst for of government” and indeed our faith in democracy lies in the understanding that a democratic government’s capacity for ill is limited by the necessity of obtaining the consent of the governed. Foreign policy has not such limitation and is therefore not democratic.
– © 2003 Nigel Chaloner