The United States Ambivalent Power Ambivalent Democracy Essay
The United States of America was the first modem democracy and the first state erected on the premise that its reason for being was to secure the God-given rights of its citizens. Two hundred and twenty years after the founding of the republic, freedom in America is so firmly rooted as to make one wonder whether an annual review of freedom in America is a meaningful exercise. And yet, the American destiny is a permanent test of freedom as the founding and guiding principle of a regime. It therefore requires examination. Lately, however, the question has been whether America is too free. This question has been put pointedly by representatives of various Asian regimes whose caucus within the United Nations has challenged the prevailing international standards of human rights on the grounds that these are distinctly “western”. The claim that such norms are inapplicable to Asian societies rings hollow, because most Asian governments freely signed various international human lights treaties, and at least some Asian states, like post-War Japan, have good human rights records and much to show for it. But when these Asian spokesmen focus on the high level of crime and decadence in America and other western societies their argument gains more bite.
Indeed, many Americans are” concerned about the same things. In 1996, Robert Bork’s Slouching Toward Gomorrah, decrying “moral anarchy” in America, leapt to the top of bestseller lists. Bork rejects the “popular notion that expanding the sphere of liberty is always a net gain”. “Extremes of liberty and the pursuit of happiness court personal license and social disorder”, “he says. This erosion of moral standards is exemplified by” wanton displays of sex and violence an public entertainment. Bork challenges the body of contemporary American legal doctrine that protects all of. this as free expression, but among American legal scholars his voice is clearly in the minority.
PROTECTION FOR CHILDREN
The issue changes, however, when it comes to children. The law holds that children require special protection. And it recognizes that while children have rights, these are not identical to those of adults. Several issues in the news in 1996 revolved around proposed restrictions on the activities of children or on those of adults in their interactions with children. Legislation was passed providing for the use of “V” chips in home televisions by which parents might restrict what their children can view. Some localities adopted curfews restricting the hours during which teenagers could be out unaccompanied by adult (measures intended both for the protection of the youth and of others from the youth). These statutes continue to be challenged in the courts, and their legality remains at issue. In addition, President Clinton spoke out in favor of strict prohibitions on the sale and advertising of cigarettes to minors and for requiring schoolchildren to wear uniforms. A particularly heated controversy has developed’ over efforts to restrict dissemination of offensive materials to minors over the internet. Civil libertarians argue that individual expression is protected, regardless of whether or not it is offensive, and that those who post messages electronically can not be held accountable if minors read them. But others point out that the protection of children has long been recognized as a legitimate constraint on free expression.
Another subject of high controversy is abortion. This issue “illustrates the truth that perfect respect for rights is impossible. Even if a society reaches that happy state in which it is free from any arbitrary authority, there still remain circumstances in which rights conflict with one another. The abortion wars in America are waged ‘between two “right” campaigns:”right to life” and “right to choose”. Only zealots on either side would be unable to see a degree of validity in the claims of the other. Who would deny, in principle, that women should govern their own reproductive functions or that the unborn should be protected? But these rights cannot both be fully guaranteed. Probably the most politically salient issue on which the question arises of whether America suffers from an overabundance of freedoms is criminal law enforcement. Crime repeatedly appears at or near the top of the list of issues that American say most concern them, and there can be no doubt that the experience of fear of crime has diminished the quality of life for many Americans. For many decades, civil libertarians fought for ever more perfect protections of the rights of those accused of lawbreaking. The impetus for this was easy to understand. The persecutions of tyrants often masquerade as justice. Historically, the growth of freedom unfolded in large part in the form of protections of the rights of the accused; trial by jury, habeus corpus, due process, proscription of cruel or unusual punishment.
But no system can prevent all error. A system that goes to extremes to assure that no innocent individual is ever punished will necessarily let many guilty individuals go free. Anglo American legal tradition strongly prefers the escape of the guilty to the punishment of the innocent, hence the presumption of innocence and the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This results from the belief that a greater menace to the liberties of the citizen inheres in the awesome power of the state than in the depredations of other citizens. Nonetheless, liberties may be infringed upon by private individuals. When the Declaration of Independence says that just government is created in order to secure the rights of the citizenry, it cannot mean only that government must protect the people from itself, but that it must protect them from each other and from outsiders. In practice, many Americans, who fear going out at night have come to feel that their freedoms are infringed by criminals. A substantial consensus has gathered for firmer law enforcement and surer punishment. The crystallization of this consensus was evident in the 1996 U.S. election campaign. For many years, the Republicans have presented themselves as the party of law and order, while the Democrats, comprising among their supporters civil liberties activists and poor people most likely to run afoul of the police. have been more protective of defendants. But in 1996, Democrat Clinton aggressively and successfully competed with the Republicans as the champion of law and order, taking credit for Federal funding of local police forces.
MONEY AND POLITICS
Issues of this kind arise in a society in which fundamental freedoms are very safe from challenge. However, the experiences of 1996. also brought home one glaring weakness in the political liberties enjoyed by Americans; the role of money in the U.S. electoral process. The year ended with clouds hanging over both House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton. Both cases involved the solicitation or handling of political funds. These episodes illustrated the potential for corruption inherent in a system that compels politicians to solicit large sums in order to campaign for office. Even in the absence of what we might call formal corruption an explicit barter of cash for political favors this situation is troubling. Wealthy businessmen who made large contributions to Democratic coffers were rewarded with private audiences with the president. Clinton’s spokesmen eventually acknowledged that various of these businessmen pressed policy matters with Clinton (such as turning a blind eye to China’s human’ rights violations), but they insist that Clinton remained uninfluenced by the meetings. Perhaps this is so, but influence is a nebulous thing. Who among us can be sure about which of ,our encounters influence us and which do not? The inescapable fact is that those with six figure sums to spend can tell their thoughts directly to the president; the rest of us cannot. This cannot but derogate the quality of our democratic processes, which are predicated on a principle of civil equality. (Adding insult to injury, some of those who purchased privileged relationships with the president were not even citizens.)
An additional aspect of the distorting effect of money on America’s democratic process was illustrated by the presidential campaigns of Steve Forbes and Ross Perot. These are both accomplished men, but their role in the presidential race was secured not by their talents but by their ability to spend tens of millions of dollars out of personal fortunes. Their electoral presence illustrated a perverse anomaly in current electoral law. The Congress aimed to reduce the political impact of private money when it passed, the campaign finance reform that placed a $ 1,000 ceiling on individual contributions to federal campaigns. The effect of this was distorted when the Supreme Court ruled that a citizen’s right to spend money on his own behalf was a form of speech protected by the Constitution, but did not extend this principle to expenditure on behalf of others. As a result, those few Americans with fortunes big enough to spend scores of million of dollars on a whim, and with a yen for office, can buy themselves a very considerable advantage in a presidential race. Other aspirants cannot counterbalance this through the generosity of a small number of wealthy backers. They can only compete by securing thousands of modest sized donations. Few potential competitors have any hope of doing that. Even among the few who might accomplish the feat, some have no stomach for it. This may have been what led such putative presidential candidates as Dick Cheney, Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett to remove themselves early from the 1996 race. All in all, a large part of the energies of an election campaign revolve around the exigencies of raising money, except for those few candidates in the position of a Forbes or a Perot.
POWER AND INFLUENCE
However, the largest questions about America are not about the health of freedom in America but about America’s willingness to extend itself on behalf of freedom elsewhere. The spread of freedom .over the past 220 years owes much to the American example and to America power. The America Can revolution inspired the French and also those of Latin America. American influence after the two world wars rang down the curtain on the colonial era. American occupations democratized Germany and Japan. American power was essential to the defeat of the mighty totalitarian despotisms of the twentieth century.
When the last of them succumbed, America breathed a sight of relief and experienced a yearning to be free of the heavy burdens of international leadership. ” It time to be nicer to ourselves”, said Congressman.Barney Fr , capturing the spirit of the moment. Since then, there has not been a resurgence of 1920s style isolationism, but there has been a palpable sentiment for America to play a more modest role abroad. A time Mirror poll found that only 7 percent of Americans wanted the country to play no leadership role”, but not many more 10 percent wanted it to be the single world leader”. The vast majority 78 percent opted for the comfortable middle position in favor of a “shared leadership role”. When this group was pressed further, only one third said America should be the “most active of the leading nations,” while two thirds preferred it to be “no more or less active than other leading nations. But America is not just another “leading nation”, it is far and away the most powerful and influential. If it is only as active as other leading nations,then it will fail to shoulder the responsibilities that fall inevitably to the” sole superpower”.
This lesson was driven home by the example of Bosnia, which was a kind of test for the notion that America should play no more than a shared leadership role. If any other nations are capable of sharing leadership with America, it would be the wealthy and powerful democracies of Western Europe. And if there is any locus where they could demonstrate this capacity, it is. in Europe itself. When Yugoslavia began to come unstuck in 1991, America was feeling stretched from its effort to drive Iraq from Kuwait. Hence, a trans Atlantic agreement was reached that the European Union, rather than America, would take the lead in confronting the Yugoslav crisis. This is the hour of Europe, not of the American,” declared Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jacques Poos, chairman of an EU delegation to Belgrade.
Over the next four years, Europe’s futility in Croatia and Bosnia demonstrated that it was helpless without America. Only when America finally stepped to the fore was some semblance of peace achieved through the Dayton Accords. The military provision of those were largely fulfilled in 1996, thanks to the emplacement of American and European forces. However, the political and humanitarian provisions remained largely dead letters due to the reluctance of the international force to take on police functions. America’s own continued ambivalence about its role was exemplified both by President Clinton’s decision to extend the duration of the American military mission in Bosnia and by his delay in announcing this manifestly necessary step until after the November election. Clinton, moreover, cut the size of the US contingent roughly in half, apparently in order to demonstrate that he was in the process of bringing the boys home,” even though newspaper interviews with soldiers and officers on the scene revealed their profound misgivings about a reduction in numbers. American ambivalence was also on display during the crisis over refugee camps in Zaire. While France and other European states clamored for international action to avert another humanitarian disaster in Central Africa, America held back until Canada proclaimed its willingness to lead an international force. Some US officials claimed that our government had actually planted that though with the Canadians, but whether or not this is so, America announced its willingness to participate in a Canadian led force, although changing circumstances on the ground in Zaire obviated the mission.
In many other part of the world, America demonstrated in 1996 that although it is ambivalent about its leadership role, it is far from turning its back on the world. America sent two air craft carrier battle groups to the Taiwan Straits in response to mainland China’ attempt to intimidate Taiwan by conducting “missile tests” in its direction. President Clinton declared his intention to see NATO begin to admit new members from central or- eastern Europe in 1999, and he was challenged on this by his Republican opponent only for not choosing an earlier deadline. The US State Department continued to play a pivotal role in the Middle East peace negotiations. And America took military action, albeit small scale, in response to Saddam Hussein’s dispatch of forces to Iraqi Kurdistan.
THE BUDGET CRISIS
However, the questions surrounding America’s leadership role arose not only from the ambivalence of public opinion but also from the federal budget crisis. The mushrooming costs of entitlement programs placed mounting pressure on all domestic accounts, and foreign affairs proved to be the most vulnerable. Huge defense cuts (amounting to roughly a 40 percent drop from the height of the Reagan buildup) were feasible because of the disappearance of the Soviet threat. But deep cuts in other foreign policy programs may jeopardize America’s effectiveness in coping with a range of post Cold War challenges. For example, budget cuts have forced the State Department to close dozens of overseas posts. These included posts in Indonesia, Egypt and Turkey, arguably America’s three most important allies in the Islamic world. What sense does this make at a time when moderates in the Islamic world are beset by fanatics who see America as “the great Satan”?
The degree of leadership that America is willing to offer will inevitably have a profound impact on the progress of freedom in the world. But it is not just a matter of how much leadership America exerts. There is also a question of the degree to which America devotes its energies to the cause of global freedom as opposed to more narrow national goals. In this realm, too, America continued to demonstrate ambivalence in 1996. While enforcing the peace in Bosnia, America hung back from trying to enforce human rights by protecting Bosnian’Civilians seeking to return to homes from which they had been driven or by arresting those indicted for war crimes. America insisted on pushing forward with national elections in Bosnia, nominally t step of democratization. But the real purpose of the elections seemed to have been to create a framework to facilitate a US with drawal, and Bosnia’s most credible democrats urged that the elections be delayed until conditions were in place that would make them a meaningful democratic exercise.
Likewise, in respect to China 1996 saw the long delayed launching of Radio Free Asia. But the main thrust of US policy toward China in 1996 was to try to secure friendlier relations between the two governments, even at the cost of downplaying Beijing’s increasingly brazen abuse of political dissidents and its ham – fist measures to crush the seedlings of democracy in Hong Kong as a prelude to the reassertion of Chinese sovereignty there. In the nations of the former Soviet empire, US policy seemed to be guided for the most past by a strong appreciation for the importance of democratization. The centerpiece of this approach was the not very subtle effort to facilitate the triumph of Boris Yeltsin in Russia’s presidential election. The glaring exception to this policy in Washington’s relations with Eastern Europe was Serbia. There, because US policy makers viewed President Milosevic as a guarantor of the Dayton accords, little protest was made over his depredations against democracy until massive popular demonstrations against Milosevic persuaded Washington to stiffen its line towards him.
The greatest impediment to America’s activities on behalf of freedom is the same as that which impeded all aspects of its foreign policy; budgetary stringency. The accounts that fund those American activities most directly aimed at nurturing freedom have been particularly hard hit by budget cuts. Overseas broadcasting has been curtailed, the US. Information Agency has had to lay off hundreds of employees, foreign aid has been reduced or eliminated to scores of countries and, once again, the National Endowment for Democracy faced legislative threats to its very existence despite its outstanding record. The sums involved are paltry when measured against the budget deficit, but they account for a significant share of America’s international activities. Worse still, with the president and the Republican leaders of Congress agreed on a target year of 2002 for achieving a blanched budget, the foreign affairs accounts are penciled in for additional cuts of 30 percent. This would strike a body blow against the conduct of US foreign policy, and it would amount to a substantial abdication of America’s role nurturing freedom around the world.