Military intervention can be unpopular. From the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to bombing missions against the so-called Islamic State in Syria, the decision to commit the armed forces of a country can be one of the most divisive issues in politics. But is military action sometimes necessary to keep a society safe, even in the face of protests and public disapproval?
Should citizens have more say over controversial foreign policy decisions? Or is it up to elected representatives to make decisions (even unpopular ones) if it supports the greater good?
In April 2016, the Netherlands will hold a referendum on an EU Association Agreement with Ukraine. The results of the referendum are not binding on the government, but could pressure them to resubmit the deal (which is supposed to bring Ukraine further into the EU’s sphere of influence and away from Russia) to parliament. Is this move towards giving the public a greater say on individual policies via referendums a positive one?
Former NATO Secretary General (2004-2009), Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, recently wrote an analysis piece for our partner think-tank, Friends of Europe. He believes that technological advances mean a new, more collaborative model of security is needed for the 21st Century. We recently received a question from Andrej, who asked what “listening to, including, and empowering” citizens in foreign policy means in practice. Does it mean more referendums, such as the Dutch referendum on Ukraine?
We put his question to Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. How would he respond?
I would say that we definitely do not need more referendums, because it is never about the question at hand, but always a vote on the government. So I’m very much against them, and we don’t know them in the Netherlands.
What happens is that too often the traditional political parties in the middle leave the debates on any subject to the flanks, the political margins. That means that the left and the right – and the extreme from time to time – control the debate. I think it’s the responsibility of Europe’s “middle of the road parties” – the big Social-Democratic parties, the Liberals, and the Christian Democracy to be more proactive in framing and controlling the debate.
Want to learn more about citizen involvement in foreign policy decision making? Check out our infographic below (click for a bigger image):
Another way that citizens can register their discontent with government policy is through petitions. For example, a recent petition on Avaaz.org calling for an EU ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia has collected over 740,000 signatures, and declared victory after the European Parliament voted in favour of a ban. The vote, however, was non-binding on EU Member States, so arms sales will presumably continue unabated. We had a comment sent in from Petio arguing that non-binding petitions are frustrating, because politicians can simply ignore them.
To get a reaction to Petio, we spoke to Alex Wilks, Campaign Director at Avaaz. Don’t politicians just ignore petitions?
We also had a comment from Oliver, who argued that it is perfectly right for politicians to ignore public opinion. He believes that acting against popular opinion can be very much in the public interest, and that the very purpose of representative democracy is that sometimes tough decisions have to be made on our behalf (as long as those making the decisions are still ultimately accountable, because they have to seek re-election). How would Alex Wilks respond?
Should citizens be more involved in foreign policy decisions? Or is it up to elected representatives to make decisions (even unpopular ones) if it supports the greater good? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!
IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – David Martyn Hunt