The year of referendums

By Emily Gams and Rachel Parkey


Last week, the headlines were filled once more with the results of a referendum on foreign policy when the Colombian peace treaty with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was rejected by a very narrow margin.

This referendum is just one of many recent referendums which have turned policy into a more democratic process globally. In this “year of referendums,” the tensions between coherent foreign policy and the democratic process have come to the forefront.

The goal of self-government is admirable, but crafting foreign policy that meets popular approval is easier said than done.

After a ceasefire was negotiated between the FARC and the Colombian government earlier this fall, many people believed that there was a real chance to establish peace in Colombia. A peace settlement was negotiated by major players from both sides and put forward as a referendum to the Colombian people to either approve or deny.

To the surprise of all involved, it was defeated 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent. FARC militants had already begun scaling down their arms stores, and the government was prepared to accept the FARC as an official political party — a key, but controversial, element of the peace agreement.

Had the resolution passed, it would have meant an end to state war in the Western Hemisphere. Now, the idea of full peace in the west seems unlikely, and the sustainability of peace in Colombia is also questioned. Players on both sides of the negotiation table are reluctant to work together to draw up another resolution to their decades-long conflict, especially after it was rejected so narrowly by the Colombian people. After all, why should they put more effort into developing a completely different peace settlement if the Colombian people may reject the fruits of their painstaking negotiations again?

The referendum on the Colombian peace treaty with the FARC is just one example of the the trend toward more direct involvement of voters in foreign policy.

Before Colombia there was the Brexit referendum, which caused a number of other countries to consider holding referendums on exiting the European Union as well. In 2014, there was the vote concerning Scottish independence.

All of these are examples of the shift toward using public referendums as methods of determining foreign policy.

Democracy is grounded in the principle of self-govern ment, and yet, the results of both the Colombian referendum and the Brexit referendum came as surprises. In order for a democracy to be wellgoverned, the people must have a basic understanding of the issues facing their country; and this is true whether they are voting on domestic or foreign policy.

The referendums have caused the administrations of both countries to undergo significant changes, thus demonstrating the fact that democracy does not lend itself to a coherent foreign policy.

Referendums may be an effective method of making foreign policy decisions more democratic; but in order for referendums to be an effective method of creating coherent foreign policy, there must be a certain level of basic education on foreign affairs. 1899-1904 Secretary of War Elihu Root put it quite succinctly:

“The democracy which is undertaking to direct the business of diplomacy … must acquire a knowledge of the fundamental and essential facts and principles upon which the relations of nations depend,” Elihu said. “Without such a knowledge there can be no intelligent discussion and consideration of foreign policy and diplomatic conduct.”

It is not enough to simply have foreign policy  upon which a majority agrees (a difficult enough task in itself); it must be well-informed and precise — qualities which do not often translate well to a yes-or-no question on a ballot.

If referendums are to be effective methods of maintaining the democratic process in foreign policy, then the people voting must be well-educated, attentive and prudent citizens.  When voters lack an understanding of the foreign policy they are being asked to approve, misrepresentation and ignorance will run rampant. It is imperative that responsible citizens in a democracy know what is going on beyond their personal bubble, be it the UD Bubble or a larger, national bubble.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here