Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Democracy and foreign policy

Writing in the Guardian, David Wearing highlights the democratic deficit in UK foreign policy. 90% of the public opposed the war in Iraq, but Blair invaded. 61% opposed Israel's attack on Lebanon - but the UK government supported it. 63% oppose the UK's nuclear deterrent, but the government is renewing it. And this in a country with free elections and the right to protest, which is generally seen as a democracy.

Wearing identifies the core problem as the undue influence of wealth, which benefits greatly from the UK's "special relationship" with the US. That's part of the problem, but only part; a bigger problem is that foreign policy is traditionally seen as being about protecting the "national interest" - and both due to a legacy of absolute monarchy and the influence of foreign policy realists, that interest is seen as being independent of the will of the people, an idea which is simply anathema in a democracy. After all, if government policy isn't in some way reflective of our desires, then it has no mandate and is simply illegitimate.

New Zealand too suffers from this disease - our foreign policy is about making farmers rich and appeasing the American hegemon. MFAT fought tooth and nail against the nuclear ship ban, opposes international human rights treaties which might upset the US, and still opposes real action on climate change. But believe it or not, they've got better. Thanks to MMP, we have more control over the government, which in turn controls MFAT. And on core issues of foreign policy - the nuclear ban, or sending soldiers to die for American imperialism, governments know they will pay a heavy price at the ballot box. Our government can no longer do what it wants on the world stage, secure in the knowledge that we cannot effectively hold it to account.

Which points to one way forward for the UK. Yes, they need to rein in the power of lobbyists and eradicate those undemocratic attitudes amongst the foreign policy mandarins. But they also need electoral reform. Proportional representation will finally make the UK government accountable to its people. And that in turn will start to bring foreign policy under democratic control.