The western way of war and the crisis of democracy: a reply to David Held and Kyle McNally

War shows the limits of parliamentary democracy and the crisis of democracy is far too deepseated to be compensated for by parliamentary deliberation on military intervention in Syria.

Elisa Fiaccadori
18 October 2013

Last month, in their article, "Democracy, Syria and the western way of war", Held and McNally argued that the way in which the Syrian crisis has been handled by western polities represents "a new deliberative moment" in the history of western democracies. They suggested that the vote represents a shift "in how acts of war are deliberated by those governments considering military intervention", which in turn shows how democracy and the role of law function to balance and limit the power of the executive.

Their argument, which finds its basis in the division of power thesis and is shared to different degrees by diverse authors and journalists such as Gilbert Achcar and Jon Snow, is primarily based on the 2013 vote by the British Parliament against military action against Syria and on President Obama’s decision to defer military action to a congressional vote, which, according to these authors, should be welcomed unreservedly. But how persuasive is this argument? 

Of course, for those who are against the intervention in Syria, David Cameron’s decision to consult parliament and the subsequent vote cannot but be looked at with a degree of satisfaction. But does this vote truly represent such an important moment for democracy? Let’s for a moment, imagine a different, not impossible, outcome considering previous votes (e.g., Iraq; Libya): the authorisation of military intervention by the British Parliament. Would that still have been regarded as a significant moment in the history of western democracies? It probably would have not. And yet, if the logic beyond the positive assessment of the 2013 vote on Syria is followed through, it is unclear why previous votes have not been given the same emphasis. Previous votes confirmed rather than offset the decisions taken by the executive. But they were nevertheless the expression of Parliament, thus, in principle - although, of course in actual fact they were not - representative of the people’s will. So, a question remains open as to why these were not considered as important.

War and the limits of democracy

Although UK armed forces are accountable to the British Parliament, Parliament has no formal role in decisions about the deployment of Armed Forces and the Government is under no legal obligation with respect to its conduct.

The decision to go to war rests on the executive or the Government and so does the decision to consult Parliament. Although Cameron did not, under royal prerogative his Government has the power to ignore the outcome of the vote. Now, the fact that Prime Minister David Cameron did in fact decide to recall parliament on this occasion and that consultation of Parliament in cases of military interventions is becoming increasingly common is of relevance. But without the formalisation of prior parliamentary approval for decisions relating to the use of force and the possibility to investigate the use of force, these recalls remain exceptional and, therefore, cannot be really said to constitute a balance to the power of the executive.

It is also important to point out that, if attained, this formalisation of parliamentary war powers might not in fact correspond to a real "democratisation" of decisions about war. Not only, as previous parliamentary votes have demonstrated, can the vote become a mere facade that reaffirms the power of the executive and in no way takes into account the will of the people. One has only to think at the 2003 vote on Iraq (although Iraq did see a record-breaking rebellion in the House of Commons, with 139 Labour MPs voting against their own government’s motion to support UN’s efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein). But, other European countries already have strong parliamentary war powers, which in many cases did not prevent them from committing themselves to wars; even when, as in the case of Italy, their own constitutions explicitly repudiate war as a mean to resolve international disputes.

Rather, war shows the limits of parliament as a key liberal mechanism for ensuring equilibrium between the state and civil society: because when states' interests and/or their survival are in question, decisions tend to be predetermined and parties, as Achcar acknowledges, rarely follow principles and ideals in these cases. This is not because, as Schmitt and Hobbes before him have argued, the protection from enemies requires the unconditional obedience of citizens. But because the production of an obedient body, together with the construction of enemies, is functional to sovereign power and in particular to its survival.

With regard to Syria, the decision not to engage in an open armed conflict for now had more to do with geopolitical and party-political considerations than any other concerns. In the present economic climate, the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq but also and especially the opposition by nations that increasingly count, such as Russia and China in primis but also Brazil and South Africa (the so-called BRICS block) has made it more difficult for "Western" states to commit openly to wars.

The crisis of democracy

The main problem with accounts such as the one by Held and McNally is that they do not consider how deeply rooted the crisis of democracy is. Democracy is continuously being undermined and often by the same people who say they believe in it. This is evident, for instance, in the increased use of emergency measures in practices of surveillance and in austerity measures, which, far from favouring the majority, further the interests of the privileged view.

However, to return more directly to our discussion, this failure is also evident in the (ab)uses of democracy deployed to justify wars, ‘humanitarian’ and non, and not just at the national level. Recent cases of intervention by western democracies sanctioned by the UN, including those carried out as a response to 9/11 in the context of the war on terror, were all justified not exclusively but to a great degree as the defence of democratic principles, such as the protection of human rights or the promotion of human dignity, and aimed at the democratisation of the target-country.

In this context, it is difficult to see how one vote, no matter how important, can elicit such a positive assessment about the condition of western democracy. Instead, it might lead us to conclude that, although at the moment it appears not to be, if the war in Syria became feasible, then the banner of democracy will probably be invoked again for purposes that will have nothing to do with democracy’s true potential.


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData