The nuclear deal with Iran never went before the American people for an up-or-down vote. Nor did it require two-thirds support of the Senate, since it wasn’t technically a treaty. The effort to roll back Iran’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for the elimination of some sanctions faced a much more modest hurdle. It had to attract just enough votes to sustain the president’s threatened veto of any congressional attempt to kill the deal. And thus, Obama’s signature foreign policy success required the support of only 34 senators (it would eventually get 42 votes).
The Iran deal would have been dead in the water if it required two-thirds or even majority support in the Senate since every Republican — and a couple Democrats —opposed the initiative. It’s hard to know what a referendum would have produced. A majority of Americans wanted the Republican-controlled Congress to oppose the settlement, according to a CNN poll in late July 2015. Another poll from Public Policy Polling at roughly the same time, however, found that 54 percent of Americans supported the deal and only 38 percent opposed it. A referendum could have gone either way.
The public, after all, is fickle, as it recently proved once again in Colombia.
This weekend, voters in that country went to the polls to decide the fate of a peace treaty to end half a century of conflict with leftist guerrillas in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos gambled his political career on the latest round of peace negotiations, which took nearly six years. In a deft political move, he decided to make sure that the Colombian public accepted this important step forward for the country. According to polls in September, voters favored the deal by a comfortably wide margin of two to one.
But on Sunday, the “no” vote received 50.21 percent, just edging out the 49.78 percent who voted “yes.”
It’s not the first time that voters have weighed in on foreign policy matters in recent months in ways that have confounded pollsters and experts alike. Back in June, British voters decided, against all expectations, to pull the country out of the European Union. Shortly before that, Dutch voters rejected an EU trade deal with Ukraine.
And this weekend, Hungarian voters overwhelmingly said no to an EU plan to resettle refugees more equitably across the continent. Although 98 percent of those who voted in fact rejected the EU initiative, the referendum failed to attract sufficient numbers to make it valid. Rather than signal their pro-EU or pro-immigrant sentiments, many people simply stayed home.
It’s both principled and pragmatic to argue that people should be allowed to vote on matters that directly affect them. In the case of the Colombian peace deal, significant opposition to a deal pushed through from above could reawaken the underlying conflicts that sustained the civil war for so long. After all, that’s what happened with earlier attempts, such as the 1985 deal to bring the guerrillas into the political system.
On the other hand, the UK, Hungary, and Colombia are representative democracies, not direct democracies. Because the tasks of government are many and varied, we elect people to represent our views as they carry out the duties of their office. The referendum, at least in the United States, serves as a check on our representatives if they shirk their responsibility.
But in the cases of Brexit, the Colombian peace deal, and Hungarian immigration, the governments sponsored the referenda. They were not checks on power, but appeals for legitimacy.
In all three cases, the negotiations that produced the deals in question were long and complicated. They required careful compromise and a full understanding of the risks of failure. Putting them up for referenda was the political equivalent of asking readers to give War and Peace a simple thumb’s up or down based on reading the blurb on the back cover or, worse, the ratings on Amazon. “Voters must make their decisions with relatively little information, forcing them to rely on political messaging — which puts power in the hands of political elites rather than those of voters,” write Amanda Taub and Max Fisher in The New York Times.
Given the outcome of these three referenda, should we rethink the way voters weigh in directly on matters of national security and international relations?
Peace v. Justice
The deal worked out between the Colombian government and the FARC was so detailed that it even spelled out what would happen to all the guns that the guerrillas were slated to hand in within 180 days of the accord’s signing. According to the plan, they would be melted down and turned into three monuments to be placed in Colombia, in New York at the UN headquarters, and in Cuba where the negotiations took place.
These monuments of metal were the least controversial element of a document that has generated fierce partisan debate in Colombia. Opposition to the agreement, led by former president Alvaro Uribe, focused on three major components: transitional justice, political representation, and rural development. In the demobilization process, the vast majority of guerrillas would be amnestied and eligible for payments to help them transition to civilian life. The FARC would become a political party with a guaranteed bloc of five seats in both the Senate and House of Representatives in the next two elections in 2018 and 2022. Investment would flow to farmers to persuade them to stop growing lucrative narcotics. Compensation would also be available for those forced from their land by the insurgents.
The deal is not just about moving on. It’s about reintegrating a country that has long been divided between an urban elite and the rural poor. According to an astute piece in The New York Times:
Rodrigo Uprimny, a professor at the National University and member of Dejusticia, a legal research institute, said Colombia lacked a national identity because of geography, strong regional identities and the absence of a modern foundational myth.
“We need a myth that is not aggressive but democratic,” he said. “And nothing is better than a peace agreement reached not through military triumph but as a result of dialogue and negotiation.”
Of course, a national myth can only function in this way if the population subscribes to it. The results of the recent referendum reveal that the country remains too divided even to agree to disagree.
For a fighting force that didn’t suffer a clear-cut defeat on the battlefield, the terms of the deal were hard for the FARC to swallow. It was getting nothing out of the peace agreement that could constitute a clear win on any of the issues that propelled the struggle in the first place. There would be no power-sharing arrangement, much less a revolutionary transformation of system. The FARC would not control any territory or head up any institutions. Nor would there be any radical land reform to redistribute the holdings of large landowners to the poor and landless. True, the agreement would create a land fund, which the landless could access. But the fund would only contain unclaimed properties and those acquired illegally.
On the issue of transitional justice, however, FARC fighters could at least avoid imprisonment. Commentaries have zeroed in on this issue as the sticking point in the agreement. A slender majority of Colombian voters simply did not want to forgive a guerrilla force responsible for so much murder and mayhem over the years.
Yet most analyses of the agreement fail to point out that the same lenient terms would apply to both the guerrillas and the right-wing paramilitaries and the government who were responsible for a fair share of atrocities. As Human Rights Watch points out:
The agreement states categorically that perpetrators who confess to atrocities will be exempt not only from prison or jail, but also from any “equivalent” form of detention. They will instead be subject to “sanctions” that have a “restorative and reparative function” — as opposed to a punitive one — and entail carrying out “projects” to assist victims of the conflict.
There is no “war crimes” exemption in the agreement (though perpetrators who don’t confess and are found guilty could face significant jail time). For the many victims on both sides of the conflict, the price of peace was a high one. But the representatives of victims’ groups in the negotiations were willing to pay that price. Notes the Christian Science Monitor:
During the talks, victims’ groups were at the table and were key to setting a tone of contrition on both sides, and then advocating for a method of justice. To the surprise of the government, the victims were more interested in ending the war, learning the truth about their lost family members, and obtaining reparations than in imposing harsh penalties on those involved in violence.
Uribe, whose father had died at the hands of the FARC, was having none of this. He used the issue of criminal justice to rally the public against the agreement, but ultimately he was more interested in defending entrenched interests. The oligarchs whose interests Uribe so passionately represented while in office don’t want to see even modest land reform. Nor do they want to see the ranks of the parliamentary left swelled by an influx of ex-guerrilla voters. The oligarchs don’t want integration. They want elimination.
“The personification of the ‘hard line approach’ to guerrillas, Uribe’s ideal tableau would be the total elimination of the leftist guerrillas, without being heard or considered in the fabrication of a new country” writes Juan Sebastian Chavarro of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “A true ally of Washington, and a representative of wealthy landowners, his radical approach and obvious discomfort with inclusive social reforms should not be surprising.”
No one is quite clear what happens next in Colombia. Both President Santos and the leader of the FARC, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, have pledged to keep the ceasefire and continue working toward a peaceful resolution. The guerrillas have already embarked on the gradual process of reintegration, holding family reunions and scheduling unprecedented interviews with the press. Santos has a parliamentary majority, and there is still much good will associated with the negotiations process. Perhaps all that is needed to save the agreement are a much better get-out-the-vote campaign and a few tweaks of the accord to gain the support of the more reasonable elements of the opposition.
The Hungarians, with their referendum process, had the good sense to require a 50 percent turnout to make the decision valid (though the government has decided to change the constitution to buck the EU). In Colombia, the turnout was about 38 percent, and yet that was enough to unravel the carefully constructed set of compromises. No doubt there are tens of thousands of pro-deal Colombians who are deeply upset with themselves for not bothering to go to the polls.
The Failures of Democracy
In general, I’m not thrilled with the idea that “experts” determine all matters of national security simply because the average person is ignorant of the details, the stakes, and the consequences of the pertinent policies. Look at the war in Iraq. The political elite, with a few exceptions, backed the U.S. intervention. They were obviously wrong.
But so were the majority of Americans, over 60 percent of whom supported the war just prior to the intervention in 2003. Wisdom is a rare commodity among both leaders and led.
Democracy is a political system. It is not a fail-safe method to produce the best results in terms of international peace and security, optimal economic performance, or ethical conduct. The decisions made in plebiscites are only as informed as the voters themselves. The same holds true for representative democracy. We truly get the politicians we deserve.
Some matters, however, are simply too important for full transparency or full democracy. In the case of peace negotiations, secrecy can be an indispensible method of building trust among the negotiating parties and making incremental progress without journalists undermining the process by leaking the details. The same holds true of democracy. The Iran deal prevented what would have been a devastating war. It was simply too important an issue to put to a plebiscite (or even to a full Senate vote on a treaty).
In Colombia, the peace deal was designed to heal a divided country. So far, it has only further entrenched that division. The best part of democracy, however, is its capacity for change. The proponents of progress simply have to make a more persuasive case — and fast. It’s a lesson that Americans would be wise to heed as we ourselves prepare to go to the polls next month.