I have written earlier about the fact that the consequences of American politics spill over the borders of the US and directly affect people far removed from the US who are invisible (metaphorically as well as literally) to Americans. This poses the following problem for the people outside the US so affected: how are they to have any impact on the decisions of the US government? Of course, this question itself is premised upon the possibility of a democratic politics, where governments supposedly act as agents of the popular will.
At first sight, the following common sense and intuitively obvious options come to mind for civil society:
1) Influence its own government to act through diplomatic channels. But this assumes a functioning government that is receptive and responsive to civil society, and representative of its wishes and desires. It also assumes a society that is aware of the issues, and is able to present its views coherently and in a unified manner to the elected representatives. In practice, governments turn out to be more keen to serve the interests of an elite, whose interests may not coincide with those of the people: as in Saudi Arabia and many of the other Gulf States, as well as in Egypt, Pakistan, and in many other countries where the trappings of democracy exist without any of the substance.
2) Civil society contacts, such as cultural and academic exchanges and dialogue, including in the arts, education and tourism. They can influence people in the US to act through their own political processes on their own government. But these too depend on diplomatic arrangements favourable to such dialogue and exchange.
3) When (1) and (2) fail, warfare, or more dangerously, the dramatic gestures of terrorism. As the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan indicate, the common people are the ones who are the first victims of any retaliation for this terrorism.
Actually, this raises an even more urgent question: how far are people within the US, namely its citizens, able to have an impact on the US government?
The case of the US, UK, Spain, Italy and other countries show how even where democratic institutions and practices are relatively strong, the government can act contrary to the popular will for long enough for the people to be presented with a fait accompli. By the time the people exercise their democratic right to replace those who act in their name, the damage has already been done. Certainly the media and press in the US and UK – bastions of media freedom, relatively speaking – have shown what can happen when they become the loudspeakers for the government. The parliaments in these countries have shown what can happen when the elected representatives fall asleep at the post, and stop acting as the guardians of democratic accountability.
Furthermore, one factor that surely has an impact on the ability of non-US people to influence US politics is the degree of ignorance or awareness that people in the US have of the rest of the world. The case of the US must be a unique example – both in scope and degree - of a relatively open society’s collective ignorance of its place in the world, and of the ways in which others view it. It’s more than the structural provincialism of the education system, the relative comfort and ease with which resources are available, the entitlements that are taken for granted, and the apparent popularity of American culture all over the world. It’s more than just an ignorance of the relevant facts. It’s an inability to conceive that certain facts are relevant. Many Americans – even educated ones - appear to suffer from deep cognitive dissonance regarding the relations between their country and the rest of the world.. This was illustrated by Rumsfeld’s defence of American goodness when testifying at the Senate Hearings on the Abu Ghraib tortures. But I am beginning to suspect that the dissonance is mutual, in the sense that outsiders, too, (myself included) are unable to fathom the ways in which such a relatively well-educated people can be so delusional on such a large scale. I wish a group of social scientists – including anthropologists, social psychologists, political analysts, cultural historians – could collaborate to study this unusual phenomenon, if they haven’t already. Perhaps some American Studies department in some Arab, Asian or African country could consider this suggestion? The irony is that they would probably have to be financed by some American philanthropic foundation!
To return to the original question: it seems that short of the absurdity of all countries signing up to becoming one of the United States, the only viable prospect of non-US people having an effect on US politics is to patiently create alternative non-state institutions of international relations, and to strengthen the structures and ART of democratic governance – Accountability, Responsiveness and Transparency - within all countries.
Pie in the sky again? Perhaps - but a damned sight better than the rapid dismantling of the existing infrastructure for settling international disputes that has been happening with no little help from the last few US administrations. Moreover, there seems no alternative to taking up the difficult task of institution-building. The dismantling of institutions is easy, but even the dismantlers need their protection, as has been apparent over the last few months in Iraq and earlier in Afghanistan. Why non-state institutions? Because the state in most countries is too heavily invested in the instigation or perpetuation of conflict, as I tried to indicate in an earlier post.