Democracy and Its Discontents

Ninety years ago, Sir Eyre Crowe was permanent under-secretary of the British Foreign Office. That’s to say he was an unelected official who answered to a political head, in his case the foreign secretary.

Doubtless Sir Eyre was speaking for all his colleagues at “the Office,” and perhaps all diplomats, when he said that he always “deplored all public speeches on foreign affairs.” That was the voice of the true professional, who thought diplomacy too important to be left to the politicians, let alone their electorates.

What’s more, he might have had a point. We are engulfed today in a concatenation of crises of the utmost gravity, as most people recognize even if they have no idea what to do. Less noticed is that these are all problems of democracy.

The simplest example is the euro. Leave aside all the technical problems of a single currency. The euro took off on a wing and a prayer, its Eurocratic begetters insisting with their characteristic optimism — or hubris — that if they said something would work, it would work.

As usual with the European Union, while that latest step toward federal integration was taken, little thought was given to the mere populaces of the E.U. member states. Alas, whenever treaties have been submitted to popular will they have been habitually rejected — Maastricht by the Danes, Nice by the Irish, the constitution by both the French and the Dutch. As for the introduction of the euro, replacing the other currencies, notably the Deutschmark, it is quite certain that the Germans would have voted to keep the mark if they had been allowed to.

And today? It’s at least possible that if Germany and Greece, Finland and Portugal were all ruled by absolute monarchs of the ancien régime then those princes might still cut a deal that preserved the appearance of the single currency, at whatever cost to their nameless toiling subjects.

But as it is, the whole thing is snarled up by those pesky people, the voters. On the one hand, in Greece, the people — or demos, in the land that gave us the name “democracy” — don’t wish to be permanently impoverished to gratify fiscally puritanical northerners. But the German people, on the other hand, have no wish to go on subsidizing the feckless Greeks.

Although Angela Merkel has been widely condemned for failing to show leadership, she is, after all, the head of a democratically elected government. On Thursday she did win her vote in the Bundestag to expand the bailout fund. But that came with a clear message that this was the last time, and most politicians and observers in Berlin recognize that the public is strongly opposed to any further bailout. How far should she ignore the views and wishes of those who elected her?

Maybe that’s what José Manuel Barroso would like. “We need a truly community approach,” the president of the European Commission said on Wednesday. “We need to complete the monetary union with a real economic union,” whether the peoples of Europe want it or not.

There speaks a true Eurocrat. In another choice example, in 1997 the French finance minister of the day denounced the British for staying out of the single currency, in bullying and unhappily chosen words. “Monetary union is like a marriage,” he said. “People who are married do not want other people in the bedroom.”

This speaker was none other than Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Even he might be aware that the British are now unanimously grateful that they never got into that particular bed, but kept their own currency. How the Germans wish they could have done the same.

Then turn to the other grave crisis, in the Middle East, also haunted by the specter of democracy. Maybe a “peace process” could have been concluded between despotic Arab states and an Israeli dictator. Instead, the rulers of all countries concerned are the prisoners of popular sentiment.

Even if Benjamin Netanyahu were himself less intransigent, and even if he were acting in complete good faith (something of which not everyone is convinced), he is hemmed in politically when it comes to make any concessions, even a halt to settlement building, without which any further progress is impossible. The challenge doesn’t come so much from the opposition parties in the Knesset as from Netanyahu’s coalition partners. His foreign minister is Avigdor Lieberman, a Russian immigrant, and a man reminiscent of that tsarist interior minister of whom it was said that the only thing further to the right of him was the wall. Lieberman will fight against the smallest compromises with the Palestinians — and he is, after all, a democratically elected member of the Knesset.

So is the U.S. Congress, which repetitiously affirms its unswerving support for any and every Israeli action. The Republicans now vying for next year’s nomination are trying to win the highest office of all by frantically competing as to which can offer the most ardent support for Israel.

By way of this, they all make the ludicrous claim that Obama has thrown Netanyahu under the bus. This is absurd several times over. Barack Obama’s whole tragedy is that this graceful, cerebral, ethereal man, who gives the impression that he acquired the presidency by accident and now doesn’t know what to do with it, hasn’t thrown anyone anywhere but has regularly been thrown, not least by the Israeli prime minister.

If anyone is pushing Netanyahu under the bus, it’s not the White House but the forces of history — and democracy. For some reason, dewy-eyed Americans have welcomed what is optimistically called the Arab Spring. It terrifies the Israelis. They have long known that their best hope is for the Arab countries to be ruled by ruthless but corrupt autocrats like Hosni Mubarak who can be bargained with and bought.

In their hearts, many Israelis believe that democratizing the Middle East is the surest way to destroy their country. Unlike so many Americans, they have grasped the simple point that if you have elections in Arab countries, then they are likely to produce politicians, parties and governments that are fiercely hostile to both Israel and the United States, since that is the sentiment of the people.

Everyone quotes Winston Churchill’s droll saying that democracy is the worst possible system, except for all the others. But it was also Churchill who said with great prescience a hundred years ago (using the word “cabinet” to mean oligarchy), “Democracy is more vindictive than Cabinets. The wars of peoples will be more terrible than the wars of kings.”

So those wars proved, and democracy can indeed be vindictive. At the very least, American politicians who have any concern for their country’s interests might take Sir Eyre Crowe to heart, and think twice before speaking in public on foreign affairs.

By Geoffrey Wheatcroft, a journalist, writer and the author of The Controversy of Zion, The Strange Death of Tory England and Yo, Blair!

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