The US position on democracy

The US position on democracy
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First Published: Thu, Jul 30 2009. 01 15 AM IST

Photo: Evan Vucci / AP
Photo: Evan Vucci / AP
Updated: Thu, Jul 30 2009. 11 11 AM IST
The recent visit by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton to India marked a historic moment in Indo-US relations. After all, it is always noteworthy when the foremost champion for democracy engages the largest democracy in the world.
But the Barack Obama-Clinton positions relating to the events in Honduras and Iran should be a cause for concern. To summarize, their behaviour has been “diplomatic” in both instances. Yet, it appears their aim in diplomacy involves compromising US ideals while gaining nothing for doing so.
Photo: Evan Vucci / AP
Despite the media gushing about the résumés of US President Obama and Clinton, their actions on the world stage suggest serious limitations. As it is, they waived democratic credentials in supporting the reinstatement of the ex-president of Honduras after he was removed from office using constitutional means. Yet, more than a week passed before the US offered solace to demonstrators in Iran who wished to let the world know that the regime had trampled on their democratic rights.
In this first instance, the response to events in Honduras was “racial profiling” in assuming that removal of office holders in Latin America is always an act of right wing militarists. The reality was that all organs of the civilian government concurred the president had overstepped his constitutional authority. But it was ex-president Manuel Zelaya who attempted to engage in a coup d’état by defying orders from the Supreme Court to respect the constitution.
And so, the Supreme Court instructed the military to arrest him and remove Zelaya from office under the terms of the constitution. In the end, his own party that controlled Congress moved to replace him. All aspects of civilian government remained unperturbed except the removal of the chief executive, something that often happens in parliamentary democracies.
Of course, member states of the Organization of American States as well as those in the United Nations also objected to the use of force for Zelaya’s removal. But many of these countries view democracy as a means to validate or justify the consolidation of political power by a single party or single person.
Unfortunately, former US president Jimmy Carter swans around the world and gives cover to the puerile pretences of going through the motions of having an election and casting a vote. There needs to be a bit more grown-up discussion of these matters. As it is, the essence of democracy is nothing more than an imperfect means towards goals such as freedom and secure rights. As is the case in North Korea, citizens may be allowed to vote yet have few fundamental freedoms.
Surely, a government selected by majority rule must face limits from the higher law of constitutions so that groups and individuals disliked by the majority cannot be abused. History shows that an unrestrained majority is a grave threat to liberty.
Absolutism imposed by a majority as a “tyranny of the many over the few” is no better than a monarch or autocrat with a “tyranny of one” or aristocrats or oligarchs operating as a “tyranny of the few over the many”.
The threat of tyranny of the many can be addressed with constitutional limits on majority rule to protect minority rights. And so it is that constitutional democracy in Honduras and the US involves popular consent and majority rule with the power of the majority limited by a supreme law.
Perhaps the Obama-Clinton response to the events in Honduras reflects the administration’s constitutional temperament. Insisting that Honduras adhere unconditionally to democratic outcomes elevates voting over intentional constitutional restraints on majority rule and the executive branch.
Along these lines, it is instructive to consider Obama’s ideas about the attributes of supreme court nominees that might influence their constitutional interpretations. It is well known that his preference is for the ultimate protectors of the constitution to apply empathetic judgements to a “living constitution”. Alas, these ideas undermine the purposeful and intentional fetters that a stable constitution imposes on the expansion of government powers.
While seeking the moral high road in the case of Honduras, the Obama-Clinton position in Iran was tone-deaf to protesters wishing to have their democratic voices heard. The collective yawn from the White House and Foggy Bottom to Iranian demands for accountability after a sham exercise of democracy is a very odd contradiction.
Perhaps understandably, there is a reflexive tendency for the Obama administration to renounce anything with fingerprints of the Bushies. But former US president Bush’s cheerleading for democracy and freedom should not induce an instinctive repudiation of the fundamental institutions underpinning the US.
It is widely believed that Clinton was shunted into foreign affairs to limit her engaging in rearguard actions that might have strengthened her hand in the 2012 elections. This reduces US diplomacy making to a mix of political intrigue, a heaping cup of ignorance and a big dollop of ideological contempt for restraints on political action. It turns out that the world is made more dangerous with an ingénue, selected as a matter of political convenience, running US foreign policy and sending mixed signals to friends and foes.
Christopher Lingle is a research scholar at the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi and visiting professor of economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala. Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Jul 30 2009. 01 15 AM IST