Democracy Deficits and Foreign Policy

Democracy Deficits and Foreign Policy

Who Speaks for America?
By Eric Alterman
Cornell University Press, 1998, 224 pp $25


Probably no important area of public policy presents such a daunting challenge to the theory and practice of democracy as foreign policy. Not only does foreign policy virtually escape popular control, but it will be difficult, and perhaps even impossible, to rectify this enormous democratic failure—or, to use the expression many Europeans apply to the European Union (EU), the “democratic deficit” in the way foreign policies are made.

Although others have dealt with the problem, in Who Speaks for America? Eric Alterman provides an impressive body of evidence and a vigorous argument intended to show how fully this failure applies to the experience of the United States. As Alterman shows, the democratic deficit in making American foreign policy is no recent phenomenon. Indeed, it has existed virtually from the founding of the republic.

Despite George Washington’s concern in his farewell address for the importance of an enlightened public opinion in a republic, in Alterman’s view he also “inaugurated a tradition of presidential secrecy in foreign affairs that would ultimately make such enlightenment impossible.” Nor did his successors much improve matters. Jefferson not only purchased Louisiana without explicit congressional sanction but he helped mightily to create the public doctrine that was to influence American policies for untold generations to come: the “equation of the preservation of republican virtue and liberal prosperity with ceaseless physical expansion.” To spread democracy and liberty throughout the benighted regions of the world was, it seems, the unique destiny and obligation of the Americans (that is, white male citizens of the United States).

By the end of the century, this theme had been reinterpreted by Admiral Mahan and Frederick Jackson Turner. Turner’s work in turn influenced Brooks Adams, who “closely advised the president and his secretary, John Hay, during Theodore Roosevelt’s two terms” and “counseled a policy of expansion, both commercial and political, into Asia, which required a Navy of the sort Mahan envisioned.”

I shall leap over Alterman’s detailed account of the intervening years. Among other crucial events, the readers of this journal do not need to be reminded that it was “the best and the brightest” who led this country into the disaster of Vietnam. Although some may take comfort in the role that public opinion played in bringing the war to an end, Alterman remains skeptical even there. I’m inclined to think that his skepticism is justified. He writes:

Regarding the Vietnam protests, widely credited with having ended U.S. participation in that war, the evidence is mixed. It is certain that presidents Johnson and Nixon did not relish the domestic unrest the war was causing and may have rejected arguments in favor of escalation on behalf of domestic peace. But both presidents—Nixon in particular—derived great sympathy from large majorities of the country on Vietnam-related issues owing to the unpopularity of the protesters themselves. It was not until important establishment figures joined the ranks of the antiwar cause that either Johnson or Nixon seemed even to take it seriously. In either case, protest movements are no more or less democratic than other special-interest movements, except to the degree that they represent genuine majorities. More often than not, their demands are co-opted by politicians who learn to speak their language but finesse the substance of their complaints.

Alterman devotes an entire chapter to the creation of free-trade policies, particularly the adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). He shows that these decisions were left almost entirely in the hands of the foreign-policy elites. As usual, the views of the general public were weakly held, ill-informed, or nonexistent, and little respected by members of the foreign-policy establishment. Yet the consequences for Americans were far from trivial. For example, in Alterman’s view GATT poses a serious challenge to the federalist structure of the United States, because its rulings are binding on the states; threatens U.S. safety laws, including regulations about the safety of the food we eat; and endangers wildlife and environmental protections. The important point is not, I think, the extent to which Alterman’s fears are justified. It is, rather, that decisions about GATT, NAFTA, and foreign trade are reached by bureaucratic and political elites virtually without public debate or widespread public consultation about the crucial issues.

To his credit, Alterman does not see conspiracy in all this. Others before him have discovered that the more closely you observe the details of American national policy-making (and not just foreign policy) the more likely you are to find confusion and chaos than conspiracy. Although, as Alterman points out, the American foreign-policy elites have consisted mainly of “Anglo-Americans” there are revealing exceptions. One is the highly influential role of American Jews in shaping American policies toward Israel. Although one might take their influence as a sign that democracy works pretty well after all, Alterman contends that even in this case the process is hardly democratic. It simply shows how special circumstances sometimes enable particular interests to influence foreign policy.

That the pro-Israel position may have been morally correct in most or all of these interventions is beside the point. At the highest levels, U.S. foreign policy is not made with morality uppermost in the minds of decision makers. That so tiny a minority as American Jews have been so successful, with one tragic exception [the failure to respond to Nazi genocide], in shaping U.S. foreign policy despite a considerable history of anti-Semitism at nearly every level of American society demonstrates just how open the U.S. foreign policy process is to such manipulation, given the right circumstances.

For similar reasons, Cuban Americans dominate American policies toward Cuba. No doubt historians and political scientists will challenge some of Alterman’s specific assertions and interpretations. He is perhaps more confident at times than the facts permit, and his argument may strike some readers as one-sided, even a bit strident. Yet I am convinced that his portrayal is essentially correct.

If it is in the main correct, then we need to confront at least two crucial questions. Why is the democratic deficit in foreign-policy decisions so huge? And what, if anything, can and should we try to do about it?

Alterman’s answer to the first question is twofold. To begin with, there are all the usual weaknesses in democratic control over policy-making: low political participation, the decline of social ties, the failures of the media, the obscenities of campaign finance, and so on. To these standard handicaps on civic deliberation and participation, foreign policy imposes further obstacles. For many citizens, foreign affairs seem remote; the issues are complex; the discussions among elites are inaccessible, technical, arcane, and alienating; Americans are often poorly informed about the issues and many citizens have few if any incentives to improve their understanding; sometimes they make sense of what is happening by demonizing foreign antagonists, a distraction from the real issues that politicians often encourage. In addition, “Americans’ admirable tendency to rally around their leadership during times of perceived crisis” undermines dissent and inhibits a critical discussion of the alternatives.

If Alterman’s diagnosis is roughly correct, what is the best prescription for improvement? Can foreign policy be brought under greater democratic control? How?

Alterman presents his solution “not as a detailed blueprint, but rather as a suggestive road map.” The novel institution he proposes is an assembly consisting of a body of citizens who would deliberate on foreign-policy issues of signal importance. Although what he proposes resembles the highly innovative “Deliberative Polls” conducted by James Fishkin, it would differ in several crucial, and quite possibly fatal, respects.

Citizens selected in Fishkin’s Deliberative Polls are, as in standard opinion polls, roughly representative of the population as a whole and sufficiently numerous (five hundred or more) to allow for statistically significant conclusions. However, Deliberative Polls avoid the limitation of standard surveys, in which the respondents simply answer questions posed to them, often many questions, with no opportunity for reflection, investigation, or discussion. In contrast, the citizens selected for a Deliberative Poll actually assemble under one roof for several days to reflect on a specific issue. They discuss the issue among themselves, ordinarily in small groups, and meet with experts and key policy makers for questioning. After several days of discussion and consultation they then express their considered judgments about policy. As Fishkin has demonstrated in the half dozen or so Deliberative Polls he has conducted in Britain and the United States, under these conditions a substantial number of citizens end up by changing their views. Almost certainly they come out far better informed. What is more, although all the evidence is not yet in, it seems altogether likely that their relatively brief experience heightens their lasting interest in and understanding of the issue on which they have deliberated, and perhaps in their concerns about public policy questions more generally.* At a minimum, it gives a good idea of the views that citizens in general would probably hold if they were to have greater opportunities for deliberation. Thus their views are entitled to far more serious consideration than the often superficial opinions people express in standard polls.

As best I can tell, Alterman wants to blend Fishkin’s Deliberative Polls with a proposal for randomly selected advisory councils that I suggested some years ago.** I have grave doubts, however, that Alterman’s solution will achieve the admirable end he has in mind.

In a discussion that is not always clear, at least to me, Alterman proposes that the members of his citizens assembly, or “jurors,” be elected “by the population at large.” Except for remarking that, as in Deliberative Polls, “citizen-jurors would not be self-selected” he does not explain precisely how they would be chosen, or how the aim of representativeness that he so strongly stresses, which would be achieved by statistical sampling, could be combined with elections. His solution is proportional representation in the form of cumulative voting “in a manner proposed by the unfairly maligned Lani Guinier.” “Voting,” he writes, “would be undertaken strictly on the basis of biographies and short statements provided by the potential jurors.” He does not explain how such a limit could be enforced without running straight into formidable First Amendment problems. The “jurors would be paid a decent middle-class salary for their efforts” and having contracted to do so would after serving their terms “return to their former lives and hold seminars in local schools, libraries, and public-access cable-television stations explaining how they came to hold their current beliefs.” Their salaries would continue, presumably throughout their lives, and they would be prohibited from re-election and lobbying. How all these restrictions could be enforced he does not explain.

He concedes that most of his readers will have trouble imagining how his proposals will ever come to fruition. He is, of course, dead right. But he attributes this as “less a comment on the nature of the reforms . . . than on the paucity of imagination in contemporary American politics.” This remark seems to me not altogether fair to his critics. Surely it is not unreasonable to ask for more than a rough sketch of a solution that stimulates serious doubts even in a reader as sympathetic with his aims as I am, and as many others may be.

Even more serious obstacles stand in the way of his solution to the problem of the democratic deficit. Let me suggest four. First, if the problem of democratic control over foreign policy has persisted virtually since the beginning of the American republic, as Alterman argues persuasively, I suspect that its causes are even deeper, more enduring, and more difficult to eradicate than he seems to assume.

Second, the problem is not unique to the United States. A huge democratic deficit in making foreign policy exists, I believe, in all democratic countries—a bit more in some, perhaps, a bit less in others, but none has found a satisfactory solution. The generality of the problem reinforces my fear that to push back the existing barriers to popular participation in and control over foreign policy may be a far more formidable challenge than Alterman appears to believe.

Third, the globalization of economic activity, society, communication, and culture helps to transfer many important matters away from the control of nation-states to the bureaucratic and political elites who largely determine the decisions made on behalf of international organizations. Even where nominally democratic structures exist, as in the EU, they are weak. After all, the term democratic deficit originated in discussion about the EU. Yet nothing comparable even to the shadow democracy of the EU exists for other international organizations. I do not mean to suggest that the work of international organizations is unimportant, or that the trade-offs between democracy and international systems are, on balance, necessarily unfavorable. If that were so, the problem would be rather easy to solve. The fact is, however, that international systems are often highly beneficial to human welfare, even necessary to it. Nonetheless, the trade-offs with democracy are rarely taken into account and almost never adequately estimated, discussed, and debated. I believe it may be taken as a general rule that whenever marginal gains achievable from international systems are posed against marginal losses to democratic control, democratic controls will prove to be the loser.

Finally, any effort to persuade Americans to confront seriously the flabbiness of their control over foreign affairs and international organizations may well be met with indifference or hostility from intellectuals and academics. They (honesty compels me to say we) are overwhelmingly internationalists. Many of us travel and live abroad, may read one or more foreign languages, perhaps speak one or two at least passably, meet often with foreign colleagues, count foreigners among our best friends, and overwhelmingly oppose the parochial visions of populist nationalists like Patrick Buchanan and ideological Neanderthals like Jesse Helms. As a result, many academics and intellectuals might reject Alterman’s argument without giving it the serious attention it deserves.

To do so would be irresponsible. His interpretation is important, well buttressed, and, I think, basically correct. Although I am more pessimistic than he about the prospects for solving the problem he so ably poses, I hope his book is read, as it should be, by everyone who is concerned about the underachievement of American democracy.

I hope, too, that it stimulates a dedicated search for workable solutions. Unless democratic processes can be more effectively applied to foreign and international issues, these matters will pretty much remain, I fear, in the hands of bureaucratic and political elites. As globalization grows, which it surely will, their influence will increase still further, at the expense of the traditional democratic institutions by means of which citizens in many countries have attempted to govern themselves.

Robert Dahl is the author of numerous books about democracy, of which the most recent is the forthcoming On Democracy.

*James Fishkin presents the basis for “deliberative polling” in democratic ideas and needs in The Voice of the People, Public Opinion and Democracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995, 1997).

**In After the Revolution? (Yale University Press, 1970), pp. 149–50, I proposed the creation of councils of randomly selected citizens, chosen to serve for a year, who would provide advice to mayors of large cities, state governors, and members of the House and Senate. I returned to the idea in Controlling Nuclear Weapons: Democracy versus Guardianship (1985) where I suggested that the assembly be called a minipopulus. The term never caught on—probably a good thing. With his Deliberative Polls, Fishkin moved from theory to action, as I did not, and in a way far more feasible than my minipopulus. I have proposed that something like his Deliberative Polls should be employed at national and local levels as part of a five-stage process for resolving the issue of Medicare (Dissent, Summer, 1997).