Information and democracy

Yesterday evening at my blog, I posted a link to an essay hosted at NewsAPPSblog, originally from Germany’s Die Zeit and written by one Julian Nida-Rümelin, which defended WikiLeaks as a guarantor of the continued existence of the democratic peace theory first enuniciated by Kant, who held that democracies would not go to war. The salient passages are quoted below. Interestingly, Nida-Rümelin’s argument hinges upon the idea that democratic governments should be transparent information-sharing entities.

About 200 years after the emergence of Kant’s theory, it turns out that political scientists who work in international relations have come to the conclusion that this theory is correct, according to the data they have thus far. This is surprising: the dominant theory in international relations—so-called “realism”—has no explanation for this data. Realism posits that states, in foreign policy, act exclusively according to their own national interests, so that, without any supra-national body, there is a sort of Hobbesian state of nature, in which conflicts, according to the interests of the states involved, can escalate into wars, regardless of the sort of constitutions these states have.

Against this view, Kant maintained that democracies (“Republics”) would not go to war against one another, because the interests of the ruling bodies within these democracies are generally identical with the interests of those who are governed by them, because the worth of the individual has become a part of the understanding of the state, and because—and here is the crucial point for us—the international relationships in democracies are public: there aren’t any secret subsidiary agreements to international treaties; for every citizen, everything is transparent and can be checked on, and those who rule in democracies tend to avoid all duplicity and secret policies. This condition of publicity constitutes the centerpiece of Kant’s democratic peace: The democratic form of government will ensure peace between republics, independent of their particular interests, only when the goals and praxis of regimes in international politics are transparent and public.

[. . . A] condition for the survival of democratic peace is that the praxis of foreign policy in democracies should distinguish itself from the praxis in dictatorships. The Wikileaks documents show, however, that Kant’s criterion of publicity has been abused not only by dictatorial regimes but also by U.S. diplomacy and, it is likely, by all Western states. The outrageous reasons given for the war in Iraq are only the most obvious and most scandalous example until now. The public was intentionally misled. Had they been adequately informed, they would presumably not have approved of the second Iraq war.

[. . .]

This fundamental difference is called into question by the Wikileaks documents. It is about time that we orient the foreign policy of democratic states according to the principles of clarity and truth. The citizens of a democratic state have a right to know the strategies of their government and its motives.

If the U.S. endorses the admission of Turkey into the E.U. and sings the praises the Erdogan government for its willingness to reform, while the American ambassador in Turkey at the same time implies that this same regime is pursuing a program of Islamization in Turkey and, moreover, is corrupt to the core, this is a glaring breach of Kant’s condition of publicity, and capable of eroding the fundamental conditions of democratic government action: transparency, coherence, and oversight.

One of the commenters at my blog suggested that the democratic peace theory only works when the democratic country in question hasn’t experienced foreign invasion within historical memory–the United States and Canada come quickly to mind. Fellow soc.history-what-if alumnus James Nicoll picked the article up and sparked a discussion over at his blog, many of the commenters answering “yes” to James’ question as to whether WikiLeaks’ mission is too important not to be mirrored by multiple other like agencies, some others noting that for WikiLeaks to work at all it has to be accepted as sufficiently truthful and credible to be worth the investment.

If I’m commenting about WikiLeaks a lot here, it’s because I find the intersection of information sharing practices and political pluralism to be, well, an interesting intersection indeed. I’m not inclined to say that current levels of government secrecy are necessarily out of step with past practices, and was inclined to say that, actually, by historical standards most of the nominally human rights-conscious democracies of the early 21st century have made huge progress in regards to the sharing of once-confidential information at least attitudinally. I wonder, idly: does ever-closer and ever-broader union require more transparency?

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