UK, Ecuador and Mr. Assange: With or Without You

The World



As the UK government threatens to storm the Ecuadorian embassy in London to arrest and extradite Mr. Assange to Sweden; we are reminded of WikiLeaks and the extent to which they have succeeded in making the world a more transparent place. Has democratic accountability or global governance improved? Bearing in mind that hundreds’ of thousands of confidential documents have been published online. However, WikilLeaks and in particular the mysterious Mr. Assange have managed to increase the media saliency of the subject and put large Western democracies in a controversial position.

One of the main discussions across public, elite and academic circles is the extent to which a democratic deficit today exists or not in most Western democracies.  Proponents raise two main points.  First, decisions on policy are made by representatives often unelected without the direct involvement of the public in the process.  Second, many of these decisions take place either informally over coffee and semi-lit lobbies.  Or through documents, formally, but essentially are non-extent since the public has no access to them.  This not only reduces the extent to which policy is being produced actually for the people but also by and with the people.

The main responses to these arguments are also dual. First, democracy by the people should have its limits.  Though it is possible to create policy with the direct involvement of the public, many point often to Switzerland.  Many forget about California where voting on everything has created paradoxes with voters choosing less tax but more government.  The State is running a dangerously high debt/ deficit.  That is exactly why some government actors need to be unelected.  It would make less sense to vote for tax collectors or energy regulators.  This is not to say that they always do a great job, but at least they have the right incentives.

WikiLeaks decided that it was time to level the playing field.  If governments did not hand over documents and open up the process, it made sure the broader public would get access one way or another.  Among the documents were tens of thousands of US soldiers’ details and diplomatic cables.  Some facts were juicy: these diplomats did not trust those; those did like these and so on.  But if anything these documents created a big discussion over whether this type of material should be made public or not; when does the public stop participating in the policy process; how democratic are we?  As the US government (and others) actively pursued to criminal extent “leaks” as well as trying to shut down the website’s servers, attention naturally grew.

Some time has passed however and neither world is particularly more democratic, nor governments are more accountable; not even in the relevant policy domains.  Why? For one, the published documents are irrelevant to everyday policy.  There is little to gain in democratic practice by knowing what diplomats think of each other, where soldiers live or their rank or mission, or what the CIA plans to do in Venezuela.  Moreover, these documents do not advance the involvement of the public within the policy process. 

If the camp in favour of more direct democracy is going to win this debate it will probably have to accept that more need to be done to increase public involvement than access to classified documents.  Another point that needs to be raised is that though often we talk about a democratic deficit (including global governance) we neglect that different people have different definitions of what democratic deficit means. This naturally affects how exactly should we deal with it.

WikiLeaks and Mr. Assange have managed mostly to re-boot political discussions however without (in-) directly assisting in the solution of the problem.  Unfortunately the bad management of this case by governments raises the wrong issues and draws people away from the real questions.  The US and the UK are spending openly considerable resources and diplomatic credibility by pursuing Mr. Assange to this extent.  Hopefully civil society groups and the broader public will try to remain focused.


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