Military Action in a Democracy

Recent events in the UK, USA and potentially France regarding military action have raised interesting questions about how militaries operate within democracies.  Last week we saw the surprising defeat of David Cameron’s attempts to gain parliamentary legitimacy for military strikes against the Syrian government – his already watered-down bill being rejected by a majority of 13 votes.  Both Foreign Secretary William Hague and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond have said that military action against Syria is now off the agenda, and that we shan’t be joining the USA in any potential strikes.  Interestingly, the votes weren’t even about the actual strikes, merely the timescale, but the defeat seems to have been interpreted as an altogether rejection of the plans.  Opinions on this particular issue aside, I’m convinced that this result was a victory for the democratic system.  Polls have repeatedly shown that the British public is against any military action, which the parliamentary vote reflected.  We’ve since had President Obama announce that Congress will have a vote on the issue*

What’s remarkable is that, to the best of my knowledge, leaders have nearly always been able to go to war without much opposition from parliament.  Before the First World War Britain was admittedly gripped by jingoistic fervour and the idea that wars had little consequence for us, therefore resulting in conflicts in South Africa and the Crimea going ahead without resistance.  But even after the First World War, we entered the Second World War, the Korean War, the Gulf War and the Iraq War without parliament stopping them.  While it’s important to make the distinction which many seem to be forgetting that David Cameron never intended to go to war over Syria, just launch strikes, parliament effectively blocking military action in such a way still seems unprecedented.  This really is a testament to just how war-weary a nation we’ve become.  I read a brilliant quote recently but unfortunately can’t remember the source, which went something like “Such processes must be alien to the Syrian military system“, which sums up precisely why I feel so privileged to live in a democracy.

The British Prime Minister and the French and American Presidents all have the power to authorise initial military action without parliamentary approval, although, unless events unfolded very favourably indeed, it would be tantamount to political suicide for any of these leaders to bypass the wishes of parliament.  So the interesting question is raised: should parliament have the legal power to authorise military action planned by the government?  There’s a strong democratic argument in favour, in that power is with the elected representatives, not one solitary leader, and that forcing debates through parliament encourages all sides of an issue to be heard and considered.  Then again, if parliament was necessary for military action to be used, we’d be helpless within a crisis without passing emergency legislation.  Take the situation in the USA, where any military action taken would occur at least three weeks after the chemical attacks of Gouta.  That’s not a problem here, where it is wise to gather as much evidence as possible before taking action, but it would be a clear problem in other scenarios.  All things considered, I think the best system might be for the elected leader to continue having the power to make decisions regarding war and peace, but parliament should have the power to block such action before it is taken – and the opportunity to do so.  Effectively, the system we have now except more ground into law.

Somewhat relevant is one of my favourite political theories: the Democratic Peace Theory.  In short, this cites statistical evidence of the fact that democracies are far less likely to wage war with one another than authoritarian states.  This could be due to the accountability of democratic militaries, or the democratic culture of achieving aims through negotiation, or the current link between democracy and globalised trade.  It’s one of the main reasons that Western policymakers are so keen to promote democracy abroad, as the theory suggests that once worldwide democracy is achieved, limited world peace might even be a possibility.  You can look at how peaceful Europe has become since becoming a democratic entity as partial evidence of this.  Anyhow, I’ve interpreted recent parliamentary procedures as more evidence of the theory working.

*Because, you know, when faced with an impossible, complex decision, who better than Congress to solve it?

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Good News From the States

I’m very pleased with recent political news I’ve been hearing from the USA (that’s not a sentence I get to write every day!).  There have been two major stories which have left a positive impact:

  1. President Obama reveals plan for action on climate change.
    As anyone following American politics will know, the importance of this announcement cannot be understated.  Climate change is an incredibly contentious issue in the USA, with something like a third or more of Americans denying it is an issue or sometimes that it’s even occurring.  The issue was scarcely mentioned during the 2012 presidential election.  Even if you do deny the human influence upon the climate, it just makes sense to gear an economy in preparation for the point of ‘peak fossil fuels’, where the amount of oil, coal and gas extracted will no longer be enough to meet demand.  That the world one day needs to develop a post-carbon economy is undeniable; the earlier we plan this, the better.
    Obama’s plans are admittedly basic, pledging to cut emissions by only 4% of what they they were in 1990 – five times less than the EU is planning – but the fact this process has begun at all is incredible.  Apparently this reduction would be relative to 33% of the UK’s emissions. It’s a start.  I just hope the Republican-dominated Congress won’t give him too much grief over it.  Despite his dubious record on many issues from drones to state surveillance, Obama is proving himself to be a progressive in many ways – being the first sitting President to endorse the right to same-sex marriage, for instance.  Which brings me to…
  2. Supreme Court Gives Positive Ruling for Same-Sex Marriage
    The Supreme Court has ruled that gay couples should receive the same legal rights as any other married couple.  This has invalidated a section of the ridiculous ‘Defence of Marriage Act’ which denied gay married couples the same benefits to tax, healthcare and retirement, among others.  The Supreme Court also ruled that the decision to remove a ban on gay marriage in California cannot be challenged.  This is positive news not only for gay couples but for the nation as a whole.  I’d like to think the country is that bit more tolerant now.

Two bits of great news.  Please don’t let it stop here!  Next I would like to see the nationwide abolition of the death penalty (though it’s gradually creeping in state by state anyway), the closure of Quantanamo Bay and a complete reform of the political system to make it more representative and less of a corporatocracy.  Well… I can dream, can’t I?  An end to slavery would have seemed ridiculous 200 years ago, civil rights laughable 100 years ago and same-sex marriage a joke just 20 years ago.  Anything is possible.

ANC Party Congress

The ruling party of South Africa, the African National Congress, is holding a party congress in Manguang, where the party was formed nearly a century ago to oppose segregationist policies introduced by the Union Government.  The ANC would go on to oppose the infamous policy of Apartheid, and rose to power in post-Apartheid South Africa, maintaining political dominance ever since 1994.

In this Congress, the ANC’s leader shall be chosen.  Despite criticisms of being lax on corruption and incompetence, current President Jacob Zuma appears the favourite to win the leadership.  However he is facing a tough challenge from his Vice President, Kgalema Motlanthe, who was the interim President of South Africa from 2008-2009 after the resignation of President Mbeki.  Motlanthe could be putting his career on the line by challenging Zuma, but strong competition is a vital element in democracies and so is an encouraging sign for South Africa’s struggling development and progression from Apartheid.

Of course, competition from a variety of parties is also essential for a democracy, yet, barring any extraordinary events, whoever wins this leadership election will undoubtedly go on to become President in the 2014 General Election.  This is not as of yet down to any dictatorial attempts by the ANC to stay in power, but the fear is that the longer the ANC rules South Africa the further entrenched its power will become, until South Africa and the ANC become inseparable  much like South Africa and the National Party were between 1948 and 1994.

Although the Congress will most likely re-elect Zuma as leader of the ANC, it will be an interesting insight nonetheless on the direction South Africa is heading.  I personally, without knowing a great deal about either man, think Motlanthe appears to be the better to lead the party.