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    Entries in Democracy (2)


    Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles Podcast - US Democracy, the flawed gift


    Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Former Uk Ambassador to Afghanistan: The flawed democracy of a benevolent US Empire.


    Sir Sherard was speaking at a ToMax talk, alongside Andrew Alexander and US apologist Timothy Stafford. To get a sense of the evening, read the following blog post. Much better, listen to the podcast here. If you enjoyed this post, please 'Share Article' below with friends. 


    Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles - US Democracy, the flawed gift




    The former ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, spoke with hardly a word out of place: slowly, purposefully and most impressively. Like a friend put it, 'It was great to hear a man whose job it is to persuade doing it formidably in an intimate setting.' Sir Sherard made us laugh while addressing this topic of epic importance, and in general displayed all of the oratorial arsenal of a Greek politician in the forum. Like a true classicist – and unlike the stereotypical diplomat – he gave a concise answer to the question:

    'America has been an amazing force for good in its two hundred and fifty year life, more or less, but I don't think the American model of democracy is the right model for everyone around the world,' he began.

    Inefficiencies of US Democracy

    Former Ambassador boyishly pleased to be at ToMax (and clad in Valerie Goad)On the one hand, Sir Sherard held the American political system up to the light, divorcing it from the liberty and efficacy with which it is popularly associated. American democracy, he pointed out, 'is an 18th Century system of government created by Eighteenth Century English gentlemen worried about an over-mighty king. They created a deliberately inefficient constitution, designed to shackle the chief executive and distribute power between the executive and the judiciary. They designed a barmy system, with elections every two years, so that everyone is continually running for office. They designed a constitution with an 18th C system of political patronage, so that posts don't go to good people, like Tom and Max, appointed on merit, but to political loyalists – to people who, ideologically or financially, are committed to the present.'

    Sir Sherard pointed out that in such a system policy decisions fall victim to the architecture of the political system itself, citing an amusing instance from his time in Washington:

    “Using lobbyists, we persuaded congress to force the American Airforce to buy an aircraft they did not want. But it was made in Northern Ireland and it was the perfect congressional aircraft because the engines were made in Forth Worth, Texas, the home district of the speaker of the house of representatives, Jim Wright, and the aircraft would be serviced in West Virginia, the home state of the Senate Majority leader, Robert Bird.

    Never a ToMax without a bar“This appalling aircraft, which nobody wanted, was sold to the Americans in great numbers, because, essentially, it was congressional pork. Pork for Texas, pork for West Virginia (...) We, on your behalf, in order to create jobs in Northern Ireland, exploited the American Democracy in this small and modest way. And if we did it, imagine what the Israelis were doing, what the Taiwanese were doing and what the National Rifle Association were doing."

    "Inefficient" = "aggressive"?

    For our first speaker, Andrew Alexander, mention of the NRA perhaps brought to mind what Eisenhower termed 'the military-industrial complex' as he left office. Simply put, manufacturing weapons creates jobs. Therefore it is in politicians' interests to secure defence spending and military contracts for their home states, thereby creating the employment which should get them re-elected. So defence spending goes up, and, the argument goes, America becomes ever more predisposed to military intervention. Such a line of argument was actually taken up by Andrew Alexander, who painted America as an essentially aggressive empire. (Sir Sherard did not share such a view, read on).

    18th C US Democracy Imposed Abroad – Worse than Inefficient

    Same facts, different views: Journalist Andrew Alexander with Sherard CCBut while Sir Sherard was able to joke about the weaknesses of America's 18th Century Democracy at home, he was more sober about the particulars of its imposition in Afghanistan:

    'All of this is not to rubbish democracy itself. For even tonight our soldiers - your friends - are fighting and doing extremely brave, good things for democracy. But they are fighting to impose a constitution that is completely unworkable. When I arrived in Afghanistan, I discovered that the Taliban had not been defeated in 2001-2, they had just been pushed South and East....I discovered that they had not been invited to the 2001 Patersberg peace conference on the Rhine outside Bonn. And, even worse - and the point of these comments - I discovered that we had forced upon the country a constitution designed by a Frenchman (…) and imposed by an American, which was totally out of keeping with the grain of Afghan political history and geography. A constitution that specifies elections in fourteen of the next twenty years, a constitution that establishes district councils, and municipal councils, and Borises and Kens...and everything but the systems of Jirga and Shura.'  

    The Answer?

    Cowper-Coles' answer was concise: empires should seek to establish representative and accountable government; people want and deserve political leaders that are on their side. The devil is in the detail though: good diplomacy is required.

    After the talks I looked up Jirga: 'Commitment shared by a community, made on all levels of society' I read.

    Benevolent Empire leaving Early

    Valerie Goad shirts on sale (even the speakers were tempted)While seeing the American system as such, Sir Sherard still expressed admiration for America in general, “the greatest republic and democracy in human history” and “a benevolent empire”. The best speakers at ToMax Talks have always been able to maintain apparent contradictions in their intuitions, sometimes paradoxically, sometimes not so.

    “I use the term empire not in the sense of acquisitive, malevolent empire, but in the sense of a benevolent global power wanting to spread its goodies around the world for the benefit of all people. And that is the America I know, and the America I love, and the America I despair of.”

    With the descent of America, he joked 'the outlook for you is extremely bleak':

    “We should worry that America is losing the will to intervene, we should worry that America is borrowing money from China, we should worry that America is quitting Afghanistan early. You will remember that another empire left India early, leaving behind the problem of Kashmir, left Palestine early, left South Arabia early, leaving behind a problem that is still with us. It is not good when benevolent empires leave early, without brokering a political solution.'' 

    I wonder how Sir Sherard would take recent news that US troops are to stay on in Helmand until 2024.


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