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Global Apartheid, Democracy and Foreign Policy

January 2006

Democracy is a precursor for a democratic foreign policy. This was an underlying message of a keynote presentation at a recent conference that I attended on U.S. foreign policy framed around a number of interesting questions, including, “What role, if any, might there be for the democratic process in formulating U.S. foreign policy?” and “How does U.S. foreign policy impact U.S. democracy?”

The speaker’s point was that in order to have a democratic foreign policy, a country needs to have or be a functioning democracy. While there might be debate about what type of democracy is best–representative, direct, popular, participatory, deliberative, etc.–making a basic assumption about democracy being a form of government where people have a say in their own governance including being able to influence policy, and being guaranteed their human rights should be pretty uncontroversial. It might follow, then, that a democratic foreign policy would be one where, at the very least, universal human rights would be respected and that the public might be able to influence its formulation.

The latter framing question is especially germane to the ongoing debate over the National Security Agency spying on U.S. citizens without warrants outside the purview of the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) courts. Some years ago, Alan Gilbert of the Graduate School of International Studies, University of Denver raised similar questions in his book, Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, where he argued that an imperialist foreign policy that supported and engaged in repressive policies abroad would need ultimately to suppress freedoms and civil liberties at home in order to be able to achieve its goals. Does that mean, though, that an imperialist foreign policy cannot coexist with democracy at home? Certainly in the long term Gilbert’s argument would suggest as much.

Salih Booker of Africa Action (and his former colleague William Minter), in comparing the current global system to South African apartheid where the White minority enjoyed all the benefits of democracy while the Black majority was excluded, approach the issue from a different perspective situating race, place (geography) and gender front and center in their analysis. And in so doing, show us how a minority might still enjoy the benefits of democracy while the majority is disenfranchised in terms of political, economic and social rights.

In their piece published in the July 9, 2001 issue of the Nation, they argue that:

Indeed, today’s international political economy–in which undemocratic institutions systematically generate economic inequality–should be described as ‘global apartheid.’ Global apartheid, stated briefly, is an international system of minority rule whose attributes include: differential access to basic human rights; wealth and power structured by race and place; structural racism, embedded in global economic processes, political institutions and cultural assumptions; and the international practice of double standards that assume inferior rights to be appropriate for certain ‘others,’ defined by location, origin, race or gender.

Global apartheid thus defined, we believe, is more than a metaphor. The concept captures fundamental characteristics of the current world order missed by such labels as ‘neoliberalism,’ ‘globalization’ or even ‘corporate globalization.’ Most important, it clearly defines what is fundamentally unacceptable about the current system, strips it of the aura of inevitability and puts global justice and democracy on the agenda as the requirements for its transformation…

Like apartheid in South Africa, global apartheid entrenches great disparities in wealth, living conditions, life expectancy and access to government institutions with effective power. It relies on the assumption that it is ‘natural’ for different population groups to have different expectations of life. In apartheid South Africa, that was the rationale for differentiating everything according to race, from materials for housing to standards of education and healthcare. Globally it is now the rationalization used to defend the differential between Europe and Africa in funding for everything from peacekeeping to humanitarian assistance ($1.23 a day for European refugees, 11 cents a day for African refugees).

As one relief worker said, ‘You must give European refugees used to cappuccino and CNN a higher standard of living to maintain the refugees’ sense of dignity and stability.’ Gradations of privilege according to group are closely linked to the possibility of crossing barriers from the ‘homelands’ to the more privileged geographical areas. Like apartheid’s influx control, the immigration barriers of developed countries do not succeed in stopping the flow despite raising the costs of enforcement. Moreover, the global governance regime that is assigned responsibility for maintaining the current economic order–as was the case with apartheid in its heyday–allocates key decisions to institutions resistant to democratic control: a global version of ‘white minority rule.’

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