Enemies of Legitimacy: Voter Apathy and External Interference

Russian President Vladimir Putin: Asserting Himself

The Syrian Crisis continues to dominate international news this week, as poorly executed Washington diplomacy prolongs the affair, and Assad and Putin teach them a lesson in media management.  The breathtaking hypocrisy in Putin’s defense of International Law (hopefully the New York Times doesn’t syndicate to Georgia) is matched only by Obama and Kerry in their grand pronouncements on human rights violations in the Middle East. If the weariness of the double standards in International Politics was insufficient to shake one’s faith in the State system, then perhaps we might take some time to think about the sustainability of institutions whose legitimacy is being persistently assaulted from within and without.

Zerohedge brings our attention to some recent OECD data indicating significant falloffs in voter turnout in modern democracies since 1980.  That Portugal should be so high is perhaps surprising, given its relatively recent accession to democracy; but the American number is truly shocking.  Of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council , France, America and Britain feature prominently.  To a limited extent one could argue that their states are as illegitimate as their counterparts in China and Russia; while democratic accountability in those formerly Communist countries (Is China still Communist? Maybe!) remains weak perhaps the absence of any sense of hypocrisy in government gives it a strength that America lacks.  When people are asked why they don’t vote, then tend to cite irrelevance to their lives, a belief that their vote means nothing, and that ‘they’re all the same’.  This is true in India, Ireland, America – all over the world.  Voter turnout isn’t the only indicator of state legitimacy, of course, there are other things such as legal and tax compliance; but it’s a big one.

Mr Putin’s intervention in the American democratic process is a most brazen act.  Apart from his hubris and self-contradiction, the macho posturing is either that of a pre-feminist dinosaur, or a post-feminist reassertion of the patriarchy.  It is as much a statement aimed at his own people (albeit in a foreign language in a foreign newspaper) as it is aimed at America.  It is playing to the Gallery, gloating in the face of America’s diplomatic failure, rubbing her nose in it.  It is undignified and boorish, and entirely unnecessary.  That said, calling America out on her exceptionalism is no bad thing.  America’s yearning not to be the “world’s policeman” is one borne of a reticence to pay for it rather than some ideological issue.  That said, America may be exceptional because it controls the preponderance of the world’s conventional military capability.  Nevertheless, she has no right to lecture any State on what is appropriate behaviour, her authority having been sapped by years of undignified manipulation of International Law.  Neither, of course, does Russia.

The US exercise of its influence in dictating to other States how they should behave undermines the legitimacy of those States.  It fundamentally narrows their freedom to act in the International System, and in the absence of appropriate processes under International Law, undermines the International System in itself.  The Russian attempt to influence US domestic opinion – if that’s what it was – is a similarly improper act.  One suspects, however, that if Putin was genuinely seeking to influence Americans rather than stoking his own ego, he would have chosen a Republican platform – one can hardly call the The York Times that.

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