The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

My Final Two Cents for the Summer

June 24, 2009

So starting this week I’m going on a six-week blogging hiatus to make an epic road trip west with my kids, visiting friends and family. Prepping for this trip while getting my book to the publisher and doing committee work hasn’t left me much time lately to weigh in on Iran, but by way of a temporary farewell, I decided to leave you with this final thought for the summer:

Is it not high time that the international community established an international regime for governing and adjudicating democratic elections in all countries?

Various international organizations already monitor elections in many transitional contexts on an ad hoc basis, with a fair measure of success; indeed for transitional countries, Judith Kelley argues that international election monitoring has become a norm. But this norm extends only to democratizing countries: current international understandings suggest that the mark of a genuine democracy includes an ability to monitor one’s own elections, so established democracies generally do not consider allowing international monitors to involve themselves in the democratic process, nor do they experience pressure to do so.

Yet this intersubjective understanding among countries seems completely counterintuitive and counterproductive given widespread perceptions among electorates – even in the most established liberal democracies – that the democratic process in their own country is at least somewhat suspect. Increasingly, it seems to me, the expectation of a democratic process, coupled with the perception that elections are rigged or unfair, and coupled with lack of credible evidence one way or the other, leads to the very domestic instability that democracy is expected to pre-empt. Iran is only the latest example.

In a global society that is or proclaims to be inching toward ever greater lip-service to democracy as a constitutive norm of responsible statehood, and in a global system whereby the outcome of elections in one country now have ripple effects around the world, it is quite easy to imagine treating genuine “free and fair domestic elections” as a global public good. This public good – “free and fair elections” is as plausibly and feasibly overseen through an international organization’s collective legitimation function as are various other global social processes, from the adjudication of trade disputes to the development of scientific consensus regarding climate change to the verification of compliance with weapons treaties to the prosecution of war criminals and genocidaries.

Why not elections as well? What if an independent international organization – separate from the United Nations – were created whose mandate it is to monitor national elections in every democracy? What if signing onto such a regime and abiding by its rules (that is, subjecting one’s national elections to international oversight) became understood as a constitutive element of a claim to be a democracy, a way of distinguishing sham democracies from the real McCoy? What if such a bureaucracy adjudicated electoral outcomes, rather than leaving it up to the internal machinations of the governments whose very interests are at stake? What if citizens of every genuine democracy came to expect no less, and came to trust in a disinterested third party to ensure a fair outcome?

I pose this question to readers not so much to invite a discussion about whether such an idea is realistic (the “how do we get there from here?” is another interesting question – but then again, all international regimes existing today would once have seemed infeasible). Rather, I invite a discussion about whether, if implemented, such a regime would not be a positive step for democracy and for global civil society. I think it would: am I wrong, and if so why?

I look forward to reading over the summer, participating in comments from time to time, and picking up the pen once again in the Fall. Ciao for now.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.