Why participatory foreign policy is vital for liberal democracy’s survival

Haro Karkour

A Donald Trump supporter sits in protest outside the Missouri State Capitol building on January 20, 2021 in Jefferson City, Missouri. Photo by Photo by Michael B. Thomas via Getty Images.

Empowering individuals to engage in foreign policy is key to salvaging the liberal international order from its present crisis. It has the potential to create a key bulwark against the extreme nationalism and violence that increasingly threaten the domestic foundations of the liberal international order.

How to engage the individual in foreign policy?

To engage individuals in foreign policy means to engage them in the great issues that define the nation’s values and interests. It does not mean letting citizens formulate foreign policy. Rather, it means that the government ought to present the issues and policies and the trade-offs each entail in practice and let citizens deliberate over them. What constitutes the ‘national interest’ at any given time should be the result of such deliberations. In other words, the government ought to lead the debate and let citizens respond to its policy proposals in a way that has meaningful impact.

To do this on a significant scale requires expanding the scope for citizen participation in foreign policy. To enable such participation, the government should be clear about the hard decisions foreign policy choices entail. It ought to open avenues, such as public hearings, beyond the big cities to deliberate these choices.

Nor should government be alone in leading wider public engagement in foreign policy. Civil society, NGOs and, importantly, think tanks can also play a role. Think tanks, such as Chatham House, can help expand the avenues for citizen engagement in foreign policy by, for example, opening local branches beyond major cities where foreign policy can be deliberated. Such moves are vital, especially when such organizations remain heavily concentrated around existing centres of political power.

Offered a wider opportunity to engage, the public has both the responsibility and a genuine chance to meaningfully address today’s key political questions. The concept of ‘happiness’, which is fundamental to American democracy along with ‘life’ and ‘liberty’, should not be limited to ‘private happiness’, namely hedonistic pursuits. Rather, it should also include concerns with ‘public happiness’, which is the ability of citizens to participate in political life and respond to key challenges facing society such as climate change and the prospect of nuclear war. Such matters, while they present existential threats to individuals, also provide avenues for individuals to regain a sense of purpose, for they cannot be addressed without reference to first principles. What kind of society do we need to be to tackle climate change? What does it take to avoid a nuclear catastrophe in the twenty-first century?

Why individual empowerment in foreign policy?

Giving citizens a way of meaningfully responding to key foreign policy challenges is vital for effectively addressing the sense of insecurity that is capitalized on by extreme nationalists.

The process of secularization from the eighteenth century onwards led to the breakdown of traditional religious values in modern society. This left a vacuum in meaning that heightened individuals’ sense of existential insecurity and powerlessness. Put differently, the moral vacuum left by the breakdown of traditional religion over the last two centuries has meant that individuals increasingly no longer feel a sense of security and power in God. The rise of nationalism in the period from the nineteenth century onwards was thus far from incidental. Nationalists frame the nation as a substitute for God that offers the individual a higher sense of self; an illusion of infinity in a reality of finitude.

The current resurgence of nationalism as a threat to the liberal international order thus has long-term psycho-social roots. Extreme nationalism, in the form of Trumpism for example, comes to fill a spiritual void left by late-modernity. Disempowered and alienated, Trump supporters come to see in Trumpism an opportunity to feel a sense of existential security. The answer Trumpism provides is not primarily cultural or economic, despite the grievances of Trump supporters manifesting in such terms, but rather psycho-social. Trumpism, to put it in Brexit terms, gives ‘back control’ to Trump supporters.

In an age of extreme nationalism, policy-makers have two choices. The first is to cater to public thirst for security and power. Consequently, a counter-elite comes to define the foreign policy debate. This counter-elite, as seen with the neo-conservatives in Iraq, inflames the nation’s false sense of security and power by engaging in violent foreign policy endeavours. The continuous long-term failure of such endeavours however, as Morgenthau aptly predicted in 1960, ultimately leads to further alienation and mistrust of elites. Demagogues, such as Trump, then capitalize on this mistrust to further advance the illusion of security and power for their own private ends. A process begins by which constant disillusionment with government further heightens the sense of mistrust and alienation, with the end of liberal democracy and the liberal international order being the ultimate consequence.

What alternative is there to give individuals a sense of meaning and power in late-modernity? The second choice for policy-makers is to empower individuals by engaging them in foreign policy.

By providing citizens with the chance to participate directly in policy deliberations governments can empower them and thus respond more effectively to the false certainty offered by extreme nationalism. A failure to do so will further the alienation the public experiences and continue to put liberal democracy at risk.

Haro L. Karkour is a Lecturer in International Relations at Cardiff University, UK.

His article ‘Liberal modernity and the classical realist critique of the (present) international order’ was published in the March 2022 issue of International Affairs.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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