In Presidential Systems, Unelected Officials Can Drive a Nation to War

John Bolton is currently Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor – a highly important foreign policy position in the US President’s Cabinet. Like the other positions in the US Cabinet, Bolton’s is an appointed rather than an elected position. And yet in spite of Bolton not achieving his position through a democratic process, his power to shape US foreign policy is far greater than that of elected officials in the US Congress. After Trump ignominiously sidelined Bolton during the first year of the Korean peace process and after the Turkish President refused to meet with Bolton after he tried to openly blackmail President Erdoğan into supporting a terror group whose aim is to destabilise Turkey, Bolton has finally eased in to his role.

John Bolton has become the strongest policy maker in Washington when it comes to shaping the US position aimed at the removal of the UN recognised Venezuelan President. Even more importantly, Bolton has made it abundantly clear that a military effort to secure this is very much on the table. While Trump himself has taken a backseat on the Venezuela issue in order to focus on matters closer to his heart, Bolton has taken centre stage when it comes to spearheading US policy towards Venezuela.

At this point, it must be said that this piece has nothing to do with one’s opinion on the virtues or vices of Venezuela’s government. It also has nothing to do with the fact that the author is opposed to nations going to war against countries for any reason other than a defensive measure as defined by the UN Charter. The issue at hand is that in presidential systems, cabinet positions that involve very serious matters are filled by men and women who never have to win approval from the electorate and cannot be removed by the electorate.

By contrast, in modern parliamentary systems, all cabinet members are also members of the elected parliamentary chamber itself. This means that Defence Ministers, Foreign Ministers and National Security Ministers are all drawn from the same pool of members of parliament and they must face and fight elections in the same way as ordinary members of parliament (aka backbenchers).

For Cabinet members in modern parliamentary systems, in addition to having knowledge about crucial issues regarding their cabinet portfolio (foreign affairs in this instance), aspiring cabinet ministers dealing with foreign policy must also put their political philosophy before their constituents during regular elections. This is deeply important because it means that those who actually have to fight the wars (soldiers rather than politicians), the parents, children, friends and extended family of those who fight the wars, those whose taxes are increased to help fight the wars and those whose cities might in some wars come under threat from either a foreign nation’s military retaliation or from state sponsored terrorism, get to have a say in who is going to represent them and on what political basis.

In this sense, cabinet members whose positions become unpopular can be scrutinised in the same way as ordinary members of parliament, whilst ordinary members who support unpopular wars can themselves be forced to fight an election on their war record. The latter happened in Britain in 2005 when pro-war Labour party backbencher Oona King was challenged by George Galloway on the basis that he was anti-war. Although King had the backing of the country’s then largest party, Galloway won the parliamentary election, owing to the fact that his anti-war position was more popular than the pro-war position of King.

Sticking with Britain, in the 1997 general election, the Defence Minister of the day, Cabinet Member Michael Portillo lost his seat in parliament on the same basis – his local constituency voted for the opposition in a clear rebuke of both his personal record and the record of the government in which he held a key position.

Yet John Bolton has never had to fight an election to gain his position. Moreover, John Bolton has never won a democratic election in his life. Although he has been deeply involved in politics since the early 1980s, all of Bolton’s many political positions were appointed. This is not actually his fault as in Presidential systems, key foreign policy positions such as those which Bolton has held are almost always appointed rather than elected, where in parliamentary systems, the opposite is true.

Interestingly, the one time that Bolton had to face democratic scrutiny of sorts, when the US Senate (an elected body) had to approve his presidential appointment as US Ambassador to the United Nations, he eventually withdrew his nomination, knowing he was about to lose.

When taken in totality, America’s de-facto ‘war monger in chief’ is someone who has never faced a direct election from the public and in respect of his only indirect experience with fighting an “election”, in his case a Senatorial confirmation process – he withdrew rather than face an inevitable defeat.

This is just a further example of how parliamentary systems allow for more direct democratic scrutiny of all major public officials whilst in presidential systems, some of the most important officials can attain and sustain their position without ever having to stand in any kind of public election. In an age where accountability is crucial in any political position, the parliamentary system has a clear advantage.

In a presidential system, intelligent but unpopular men (like Bolton) can attain a vital position which has an impact on a nation’s military policy and they can remain in such a position for many years without having to face a public that might well be highly opposed to such a person’s policies (as incidentally many of Donald Trump’s supporters are in respect of Bolton). Perhaps even more worryingly, in presidential systems incompetent individuals can be appointed to vital positions deciding on the fate of a nation’s position on war and peace, based on personal loyalty or even personal friendship with a president. Such an anti-democratic process is simply not fit for the requirements of the modern world.

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