One of the most important characteristics of a democracy, one of its defining features, is that it reflects the views and understanding, aspirations and expectations, of its people on the most important issues. This is sought to be ensured, among other ways, by periodic elections in which it is expected that if the government has acted contrary to the views and expectations of people it will be voted out. Hence there is significant pressure on the government to act according to the views of the people, and whenever it falters in this, there is a significant opportunity for the opposition to focus attention to this failing of the government and to seek to win the next election on this basis. The opposition parties are supposed to play an important course-correction role. The academia and the media are also expected to have an important role in this. Hence there is an in-built system for corrective actions to be taken at an early stage before too much harm is done. This ability to take corrective action at an early stage is a very, very important asset of any democracy.
The USA (together with some of its most important allies like Britain, France and Germany) is supposed to be one of the most mature democracies of the world. The USA government likes to describe itself as the most important and deserving representative of the democratic world, and when it has hostility with other governments, it likes to represent this as a contest between democracy and authoritarian regimes.
Therefore one would expect the USA democracy to be particularly good at ensuring that corrective actions are taken well in time and harmful policies are checked before these can do much harm. However the problem is that in actual practice this important strength of a democracy for timely corrective actions does not appear to be very visible here in important contexts.
One such important context is that of the USA’s ‘War on Terror’ which is now increasingly believed to have caused immense distress without having achieved anything truly gainful. According to the Brown University’s Costs of War project it has caused nearly 4.5 million deaths directly and indirectly, a vast number.
People are widely believed to be against costly forever wars and in favor of peace and more spending on urgent civilian needs such as health, housing and education rather than on wars.
More recently in the context of the Ukraine proxy war the danger to world peace has been increasing, including the chances of a direct conflict between Russia and the USA, which the people of the USA certainly do not want.
Although there is good evidence that people during the last 25 years or so did not want forever wars and would have been much happier with the money spent on these being used instead for ensuring health, education, housing and essential utilities for all, unfortunately this was not reflected in the government decisions and policy on this issue, or the government taking corrective action in time, or the opposition parties and the media pushing the government towards corrective action. In fact time and again the two main political parties and big media together appeared to be creating an overall consensus on policies which were actually proving very costly in terms of loss of human life and in terms of denying essential needs to most people.
Estimates made by this writer on the basis of the available information conclude that if the various misguided military interventions of the last quarter of a century (1998-2023) had been avoided and the money squandered on this (about 11 trillion dollars over 25 years or about 440 billion dollars a year) had been spent on helping the weaker sections at home and abroad on the basis of ratio of 8:2, then about 12 million lives would have been saved in almost equal numbers in the USA (6 million) and abroad (6 million).
A powerful case could have been built by the opposition as well as the academia and big media (known to be very powerful in the USA) against all these military interventions but this was not done.
The incidents of 9/11 in which many innocent people lost their life were extremely tragic. However many questions were raised about them. If only to satisfy all doubts, should not a real democracy have agreed to a re-investigation by a team of non-government independent experts whose integrity is beyond doubt? If less than one per cent of what was eventually spent on the war on terror was initially spent on investigating the 9/11 attacks, there may have been no need or justification for the dollar 8000 billion spent on war on terror.
The inability of (what has been frequently but wrongly described as) the most ‘mature’ democracy to properly reflect the aspirations of its people, particularly those in the bottom half of the society with several unmet essential needs, would point to the need for corrective steps to improve the structure and functioning of the democracy itself. The USA has also not been able to take corrective actions with respect to correcting several serious internal problems as well, including increasing inequalities and a mental health crisis, particularly among children, amidst demands by mental health professionals for declaring an emergency situation in the context of aggravating mental health problems of children and adolescents.
In fact the same forces of aggression and injustice pushing for wars abroad also push for policies of injustice and inequality within the country, but the link between internal and external problems is often not established. Those who push for wars present themselves as great patriots and thereby manage to hide their agenda of increasing internal inequalities and injustice. A highly corrupt system dominated by the military industrial complex continues to distort the structure and functioning of democracy badly by buying over the loyalty of important persons in the government and the opposition, in the big media and the academia, thereby weakening all avenues of timely corrective actions. Hence one of the biggest strengths of being a democracy is lost due to these corrupting influences, in turn leading to timely corrective actions not being taken.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, A Day in 2071, Protecting Earth for Children and Man over Machine.