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Wikileaks prompts questions on democracy

By Antoun Issa - posted Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Woodrow Wilson exclaimed at the end of World War I that diplomacy shall be open to public view, and secrecy in international relations confined to history.

Wilson echoed the calls of Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher who defined the liberal democratic principles now enshrined in the West.

Both influential men of history cited the need for greater government transparency as a prerequisite for an open democracy. Sovereignty must be bestowed on the citizens of a nation, not left in the hands of a ruling elite. Decisions for the nation must be taken by a government that is held to account by its people, so as to consider the interests of all when defining the national interest.


The introduction of a parliamentary voting system, and the separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers are the practical components of implementing a democratic system, but do not define democracy itself.

Democracy is the philosophical concept that restructured the social and political order of nation-states, shifting sovereignty from ruling, despotic monarchs to the commoner, and redefining the national interest. Democracy was seen as the best means to end, or at least restrict, warfare. Civilians - as Kant argued - would not enter wars willingly as they would bear the brunt of it, and thus if a democratic nation respected the will of its people, wars would seldom be fought.

To curb the selfish interests of ruling elites - as so flamboyantly demonstrated by Louis XVI - democracy would render governments accountable to all citizens within the state. That we now vote in elections today is but a means to fulfil that original concept. But it is not the only means in which we hold our leaders to account.

Transparency in government actions, both in domestic and foreign forums, is another crucial tenet of democracy. This is why we insist on freedom of speech, civil liberties, and the need for a free media, so that the public be kept informed on government behaviour and be given the liberty to critique it at will. Voting alone does not make for a true democratic system. Should government actions become hidden from the public sphere, or civil liberties constrained, democracy in its original form begins to fade.

The post 9/11 global environment challenged core democratic principles as Western governments began eroding civil liberties and reverted to diplomatic secrecy in the name of a “war on terror”. The deliberate misleading of the public by American, British and Australian leaders to justify a poorly planned war in Iraq is a direct consequence of a lack of transparency in government behaviour.

Secret planning between the US, British and Australian governments for an invasion of Iraq kept citizens in the dark, and thus, reduced our capacity to effectively scrutinise their justification for war as per our democratic right.


Conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and reports of abuse by US and NATO forces have been largely hidden from the public eye, yet taxpayers continue to fund wars they know little about.

The emergence of Wikileaks has reinforced the original concept of democracy as a system whereby governments would be wholly accountable to their citizens. Julian Assange has sent a timely reminder to Western societies that transparency in government behaviour, and the insistence on truth, is just as fundamental to our core democratic principles as elections and parliaments.

There is simply no point in blind voting in a leadership when its true intentions and policies are hidden from public view. Without transparency, we are unable to truly assess the credibility of political candidates, and we begin to lose control of the decisions made on our behalf.

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About the Author

Antoun Issa is an Australian-based freelance political writer, Global Voices Online author, and commentator on international affairs, with a specific interest in Middle Eastern issues.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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