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Can democracy solve our wicked problems?

Posted By Administration, Thursday, April 18, 2019

Robin Jourdan checks the possibility of solving wicked problems by democracy in her fourth blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

We are living in an age of wicked problems. These are problems that generally have a social or cultural component that makes it difficult to solve. They’re more often complex, connected to other grand-scale issues, a substantial economic burden, and often incomplete knowledge. Wicked problems as a marketing concept didn’t come into being until the early 1970s.

 

Historic wicked problems would include polio, cholera, typhoid, cancer, poverty, and more. Often these problems created a sense of fear, vulnerability, uncertainty, chaos, and ambiguity. Out of control societies witnessed break-downs in politics, economics, and culture. What these problems had in common included a lack of knowledge over things like hygiene, sanitation, microbes. In other instances, what was lacking often was the political willpower to create the needed changes.

 

Democracies haven’t yet solved these problems due to many factors, some technical, some social, some political. For example, approached with caution and skepticism, often analysts tackle the wrong question in such a complex challenge set. In the West, think tanks and research laboratories are most often charged with finding an answer. Problems and solutions can be overly politicized and at the mercy of wrong motivations. Science and education can be discounted as elitism and fakery. This adds to the challenge.  The same people who would doubt climate change science will stop eating broccoli when science says it’s contaminated.

 

Technocratic and autocratic strengths and weakness are the reliance on technological solutions. If based on short-term incentives, these technologies allow us to continue in our ignorant ways. Then we blame the technology when they fail. Thus, devices alone are incomplete solutions for global woes. Overreliance on this path alone may also widen the gap between solutions and willingness to implement them. Incremental thinking relying on today’s think tank structure will continue to face skepticism from the general public.

 

Short-term thinking spurred by economic priorities will compete for resources in these systems as well. Governance systems that can marshal enormous amounts of resources are likely to be positioned well for moving the needle on solutions as is seen by China's checkbook diplomacy and internal focus on climate change solutions. This assembling vast amounts of resources itself isn’t the lone tool, as squandering resources will increasingly be frowned upon.

 

A key lesson from success over these past wicked problems is the need to get to a long-term, root cause understanding. Systems thinking is a tool that can support and enable transitioning to that longer-term thinking.  Root cause understanding and multi-nation cooperation often result in action.  Such will no doubt be aided by technologies, perhaps yet to be discovered. This complements a most significant ingredient to past victory over specific wicked problems: diligence and resilience during the sometimes-long journey.

 

As the future is further transformed, the longevity economy will likely have specific influences as well. When people live longer, the higher the chance they will face the outcomes of decisions guided by short-term thinking. Having the ability to simulate results by way of systems thinking and problem-solving, but not acting logically regarding them would reveal illogical mindsets.

       

Democracies as a social construct rather than a governance system support the conditions to share what is learned on the march. This is not to suggest that the steps nor the efforts are easy or linear. Adequate investment and emotional diligence are needed are not traits ascribed to a single governance system. However, in a democracy, people can create a groundswell of interest, urgency, and memory to challenge political priorities accordingly.

 

© Robin Jourdan 2019

Tags:  democracy  governance  wicked problems 

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Is faith in democracy in crisis?

Posted By Administration, Friday, March 15, 2019

Robin Jourdan examines trust in democracy in her third blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

 Is trust in democracy in crisis today? No, and yes. The Pew Research Center (2017) reported that nearly 60 percent of countries worldwide are operating democracies; an all-time high. But, fewer than 20 are in practice “fully democratic” governments.

 

Conversely, economic-governance policies like the democracy-connected Washington Consensus are in decline today, some wonder if “faith” in democracy is endangered. Of course, what is meant is “trust”. Democracy can creep into despotism and dictatorship in response to distrust of leaders and growing inequality, both seemingly abundant today. News sources tell us that young people worldwide are increasingly disillusioned with democracy. This disillusion grows out of feelings of betrayal from political gridlock and ineffective governance. Globally, they are less partisan rather than less democratic in their leanings.

 

Social intelligence signals that when party affiliation becomes a religious, tribal-like identity, the odds stack against compromise as is evidenced today. Some put the blame on information glut, wars, and lack of credibility. How might this impact a world leaning more on technologies that are increasingly connected and autonomously sensing for a command-triggering fact?

 

Facts aren’t the problem. They are uncomfortable, sometimes inconvenient, and a free society must allow for them. The phrase “post-fact” is a coping mechanism for those reacting to facts that cause them to question their belief systems. Politics and politicians spin and lie. Always it has been the case. When prominent voices in the room change the facts to fit their view of the world, it’s concerning.  Note that people over age 50 are worse than younger people at distinguishing falsified facts.

 

The public has faced railroading before. Minstrels and magicians did this as a show. Playing this out to the later-half of this century means an intensification of today’s overwhelming news flow; to game the system and grow distraction. Without efforts to also raise our collective social intelligence, the most vulnerable will live in a dystopia. Incremental improvements do little if polarization grows. Fact-checking costs to businesses may become financially unsustainable. Mountains of data and a further breakdown in public trust poses a potent risk.

 

If technology isn’t the provider of trust in the second half of this century, it must rest with us. For example, if 100% of birth certificates are issued; this has the potential to shift society in a transformative manner. Birth certificates document the birth of a person. Once supplied, the contractual obligations with the government begins; i.e., access to the rights, privileges, and consumption of citizenship. Shockingly, millions today don’t have this vital record.

 

When a consumer doesn’t trust a brand to deliver on its promises; if afforded choices, they vote with their wallets. Every brand has to build trust, i.e., faith, even if that brand is governance.

 

When we feel the system is rigged against us, disillusionment grows. Intelligence must evolve to stay ahead of the magicians. Not to learn how the trick is done, but know that it is a trick. Democracy isn’t a given: it is messy. Democracy isn’t an economic system. Consumers of democracy win so long as they have trusted options available. This is not true in systems that limit choices and access to them. Faith in a democracy means to believe in the people to decide; and if flawed, trust to choose again. 

 

© Robin Jourdan 2019

Tags:  democracy  politics  trust 

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Can the world be made safe through democracy?

Posted By Administration, Monday, October 15, 2018
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Craig Perry, a member of our Emerging Fellows program examines the possibility of making a safer world by means of democracy. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

From a realist perspective, international relations amounts to little more than a power struggle among states, each of which acts essentially the same, regardless of its particular nature. Like billiard balls ricocheting off one another in an anarchic game of realpolitik, states amount to “black boxes” whose external behavior reveals nothing about their internal workings—or so the theory goes. But a growing body of empirical evidence suggests democracies can behave quite differently than other states, with profound implications for the future of warfare.

The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant was first to recognize that a world of constitutional republics might someday bring perpetual peace, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that liberal democracy became widespread enough to put his hypothesis to the test. Since then, study after study has found that wars between mature democracies are indeed less common than conflicts involving other kinds of states. Kant anticipated this phenomenon would come about because citizens who bear the human and financial costs of war would naturally be cautious if empowered to authorize hostilities. Furthermore, democratic political norms favoring compromise and respect for human rights tend to make republics a bit less bellicose—at least when dealing with states similarly governed.

This democratic peace theory comes with a caveat, however: When confronted by autocracies, democracies are just as likely to wage war as any other state. Aggressive imperialist, fascist, and communist regimes repeatedly learned this lesson during the 20th century, often finding that their democratic rivals could mobilize superior political and economic resources when provoked. On the other hand, autocratic regimes that transitioned to democracy—such as Germany and Japan following World War II— became much less threatening to their neighbors, as Kant’s hypothesis predicted.  

Given these developments, it’s not surprising that the United States and its democratic allies came to view the promotion of democracy around the world as a matter of self-interest. Whether inspired by liberal ideals or neoconservative concerns, “making the world safe for democracy” became synonymous in many Western circles with making the world safe through democracy—that is, pressuring autocratic regimes to adopt democratic reforms, by force if necessary, for the sake of both national security and human rights. Sadly, American diplomatic and military efforts since 9/11 to spread democracy at gunpoint ended in disaster, arguably making the world less safe.

Compounding this trend is the troubling decline, after decades of almost uninterrupted progress, in the number of fully functioning democracies around the world. Illiberal regimes have come to power in Venezuela, Turkey, Hungary, and elsewhere around the world, and the erosion of democratic norms in the United States has undermined America’s soft-power appeal and claims to leadership of the so-called “free world.” Nevertheless, reports of democracy’s death are greatly exaggerated; for all its flaws, the social, economic, and, yes, security benefits of this form of government still greatly outweigh any alternatives, and it is likely to further spread in the future.

Although democracy has undoubtedly reduced warfare among its practitioners, it is unlikely to diminish the potential for great-power conflict anytime soon. On the contrary, Western democracy-promotion efforts have exacerbated tensions with Moscow, which blames Washington for the “color revolutions” that overthrew friendly regimes in Ukraine, Georgia, and across the Arab world, while Beijing is wary of any political liberalization that might undermine the Community Party’s hold on power. Consequently, Russia and China have emerged as exemplars of authoritarian governance, undemocratic alternatives to the United States in a multipolar world. Meanwhile, America’s emergence as a great power actually led to its war-making deliberations becoming less democratic. Congress has gradually ceded its constitutional authority over national security issues to the president, while the voting public has largely lost interest in military matters since the end of mass conscription and the advent of an all-volunteer force. Under such circumstances, great-power behavior can often bear a striking resemblance to billiard balls after all.


© Craig Perry 2018

Tags:  democracy  liberal democracy  soft-power 

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