By Jason Sibert
The United States has frequently held itself up as a beacon of democracy to the world. We’ve sometimes seen the development of democracy as the way to a peaceful world. It’s nice to see the U.S. becoming more electorally democratic in time. In the earliest days of the republic, only white men with a certain amount of property could vote. Women gained the right to vote with women’s suffrage in the 1920’s and People of Color (POC) gained the right to vote with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (POC voting was confined to certain regions prior to that key law). America became more democratic in economics from the 1930’s to the 1970’s with the adoption of some moderate social democratic reforms.
The democratic republican form of government does a lot for the idea of international law and peace, as international relations scholars have long realized that democracies do a lot for foreign relations because of their stability, according to Rachel Myrick (“American is Back – But for How Long?”, Foreign Affairs, June 14) In autocracies, when leaders are removed from power via revolution or military coup, the transitions often mean dramatic swings in foreign policy. This makes for a less stable international system. Our political system is currently polarized, and foreign policy is no exception. Former President Donald Trump challenged or withdrew from more than a dozen international agreements or institutions, including the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, and the World Health Organization. Polarization presents a problem for foreign policy because it chips away at a key component of power – our reputation for stability and reliability.
Political polarization means a tendency to dislike a particular party, and this gives leaders an incentive to undo the accomplishments of the prior president. Trump was determined to undo all of Obama’s foreign policy accomplishments. Democracy holds another advantage over other forms of government when it comes to constraining leaders. Since leaders are held in check by the people, they are less likely to make threats or make promises they cannot keep. In international negotiations, the signals a democracy sends to foreign actors tend to be more credible because democracies also tend to be better at keeping international agreements.
Treaties are a problem in U.S. politics because they require two-thirds of the Senate to ratify. Myrick points out a solution to the ratification process and the problem with that solution: “anticipating partisan opposition, presidents now usually avoid the congressional approval process altogether by entering into political commitments or executive agreements instead. Although this strategy allows leaders to enact their preferred policies, there is a cost: agreements that are not ratified by Congress are more easily undone by subsequent administrations.”
Myrick points out that some feel the geopolitical competition between our country and the People’s Republic of China might be cause for partisan cooperation. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case because foreign policy is becoming more polarized by the moment. The polarization is weaking our democratic republic which could lead to a weaker international system and a less stable and more armed world. Despite our long Cold War with Soviet Russia, our country managed to engage in quality arms control with the SU and rachet down tensions at times, particularly in the nuclear realm. There was a policy of detente with Soviet Russia that emerged in the 1970’s under President Richard Nixon, broke up under President Jimmy Carter, and reappeared under President Ronald Reagan. Would this be possible today? I don’t think so.
The concept of international law is only a valid concept if there is a group of nation-states that back up the law or laws in question. The U.S. cannot be a part of that body if it’s always going back on agreements it made in the previous presidential administration, and it cannot be a beacon of hope to those who aspire to the democratic way of life if we fall out of the democratic republic orbit and into the orbit of authoritarian democracy.
This brings us to the issue of voter suppression, a tool of those – like former President Donald Trump – that support the abolition of portions of our democracy that might weaken their power. All those who believe in the causes of democracy, international law and peace should fight voter suppression and the trend toward authoritarian democracy. A less stable international system and more deadly arsenals don’t point to a better future. Social democrats have historically believed in political and economic democracy – let’s continue to fight the good fight in the future.
Jason Sibert is the executive director of the Peace Economy Project.