Five Minutes with Robert O. Keohane

Image: Michael Doherty/Flickr

This interview was originally published on 8 November 2014, by EUROPP, a blog hosted by the London School of Economics and Political Science.

You’ve written on the problems associated with implementing democratic principles in global governance. What specifically prevents us from creating proper democratic structures at the global level?

It’s important to distinguish between liberal constitutionalism and democracy. There has in fact been a lot of progress made in global governance on the legal side. There are more regular adjudication arrangements – most notably in the World Trade Organization, but also in a number of other areas such as human rights – than there were 30 or 40 years ago, providing better ways to settle disputes. Strengthening the rule of law in this way is the liberal side of global governance and there has been remarkable progress in this respect over recent decades. » More

Europe and China: A New Tack?

Photo: flickr/Friends of Europe

At a recent state dinner in London for visiting People’s Republic of China (PRC) Premier Li Keqiang, British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg made a number of undiplomatic comments, saying that the people of China were “politically shackled” to a communist one-party state guilty of human rights abuses. Unsurprisingly, given this government’s economic drive, Downing Street distanced itself from the statement, with Michael Fallon, the business minister, saying that human rights should not “get in the way” of trade links. Instead, UK Inc. reported that BP and Shell were due to announce multi-billion dollar deals with PRC oil companies. Indeed, investment from the entire visit by the PRC delegation was said to be worth more than 18 billion pounds.  That, it seemed, was that.

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Thailand’s Democratic Disorder

Democracy monument in Bangkok, Thailand

Democracy monument in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: David Villa/flickr.

BANGKOK – From Thailand to Turkey to Ukraine, the relationship between ruling majorities and electoral minorities has become combustible – and is threatening to erode the legitimacy of democracy itself. The unfolding crisis in Bangkok – where a political minority has taken to the streets to bring down Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s democratically elected government – is a case in point.

Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party (PTP) won an outright majority in Thailand’s 2011 general election, gaining 265 MPs in the 500-member lower house. But the opposition Democratic Party – which returned 159 MPs, mainly from Bangkok and southern Thailand – has lately been staging protests in the capital. The so-called “People’s Committee for Democratic Reform” – led by former Democratic Party MP Suthep Thaugsuban and supported by the Bangkok-based establishment – has effectively attempted to stage a coup.

The protests began when the government tried to enact amnesty legislation that would have overturned the conviction of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – Yingluck’s brother and the PTP’s founder, who was overthrown by the military in 2006 – on charges of corruption and abuse of power. (It also would have superseded the murder charges brought against the Democratic Party’s leader, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.) But Yingluck’s subsequent attempt to backtrack on the amnesty measure failed to mollify the opposition. » More

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Disgruntled Democracies

Yo Soy 132, courtesy of Micheal Fleshman /flickr

MEXICO CITY – In 2011 and 2012, tens of thousands of students demonstrated in Santiago, Chile, demanding greater access to higher education. Earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians marched in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Belo Horizonte, calling for improved public-health services, better schools, and cheaper, more efficient public transport. And Colombians and Peruvians from all walks of life (especially peasants, farm owners, and mineworkers), as well as Mexican school teachers, now occupy the centers of Bogotá, Lima, and Mexico City, disrupting inhabitants’ daily lives and creating serious problems for the authorities.

These countries, once models of economic hope and democratic promise in Latin America, have become examples of democracies without legitimacy or credibility. Although they have made significant social progress in recent years, they have become centers of popular unrest. And their presidents, despite their undeniable competence, are watching their approval ratings plummet. » More

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Muzzling the Dogs of War

Secretaries Kerry and Hagel Meet With Russian Ministers Lavrov and Shoygu. Photo: U.S. Department of State/Wikimedia Commons.

WASHINGTON, DC – Sitting in Paris as the United States’s first ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson reflected on how the new US government could avoid the errors of European “despots” who kept their people subjugated through war and debt. Writing to James Madison, he observed that the US Constitution had at least checked “the Dog of war,” by transferring “the power of letting him loose from the Executive to the Legislative body, from those who are to spend to those who are to pay.”

At the same time, however, the Constitution designates the executive as the “Commander in Chief,” a power that American presidents have invoked to use military force without Congressional authorization on more than 200 occasions. President Barack Obama relied on that power when he told both Congress and the American people that he had the authority to order limited strikes on Syria without going to Congress.

By simultaneously claiming that authority and seeking Congressional authorization to use it, Obama enters a small class of leaders who actively seek to constrain their own power. That is because he sees his historical legacy as that of a president who ended wars and made them harder to start, instead reinvesting America’s resources in its own people. He opposed the Iraq war in 2003 and promised in 2008 that he would end the unlimited “war on terror,” which had become a potential blank check for US presidents to use force anywhere in the world.

But, beyond the system of political “checks and balances” created by the US Constitution, does it make sense for leaders to take decisions regarding the use of force to the people? It certainly makes the leaders’ lives harder. British Prime Minister David Cameron came up short when he turned to Parliament to authorize British participation in US strikes against Syria. French President François Hollande faced intense criticism from right-wing parties in the National Assembly for his agreement to participate in the strikes. And Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who volunteered to participate in a military coalition, is facing strong domestic opposition to his Syria policy.

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