BOOK REVIEW: Deliberative Democracy as the answer to Canada’s Foreign Policy Stasis

In order to restore the connection between citizens and global affairs, foreign policy must return to the mainstream discourse of Canadian politics. As it stands, our traditional democratic institutions in the form of an election every few years are insufficient. More needs to be done – citizens require a platform to engage in foreign policy discussions with each other on a regular basis.

by Aug 20, 2020

Canada’s loss at a bid for a United Nations Security Council seat was not a big surprise to those in Canada’s foreign policy community. As a result of our late entrance into the race, lukewarm positions on key issues, and other strong candidates in Norway and Ireland, Canada was considered to be a heavy underdog from the beginning.


However, the more concerning issue arising out of the Security Council campaign was that Canadians themselves showed widespread opposition and cynicism towards the bid. As a result of increasingly isolationist policies around the world and most notably from our closest ally in the United States, many Canadians have begun to question the effectiveness of the United Nations and by extension, the Security Council.


While it is true that the United Nations has seen its position weakened in recent years, the organization is still central to Canada’s international aspirations. As a middle-power liberal democratic country, Canada relies on a coalition of like-minded nations to pursue its international objectives, and the United Nations is the most effective platform to accomplish this. The generally negative reaction to Canada’s pursuit of a UNSC seat shows that Canadians are becoming disconnected from our foreign policy, and as a result, are supporting drastic cuts to Canada’s global engagement. This disconnect was most clearly demonstrated during the last federal election, where foreign policy issues were largely neglected by all parties, and most notably by the Liberal Party who even declined to participate in a foreign policy debate.


In order to restore the connection between citizens and global affairs, foreign policy must return to the mainstream discourse of Canadian politics. As it stands, our traditional democratic institutions in the form of an election every few years are insufficient. More needs to be done – citizens require a platform to engage in foreign policy discussions with each other on a regular basis.


Professor James Fishkin has spent a career at Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative Democracy studying ways to incorporate citizen deliberation into a part of our mainstream democratic institutions, to bridge the gap between citizens and the public policy choices being made on their behalf. In his recent book Democracy When the People are Thinking: Revitalizing Our Politics Through Public Deliberation, Fishkin argues that for a number of reasons, traditional democratic institutions are insufficient in generating a strong democratic ethos. Modern democracies require more political equality, deliberation, and participation to truly reflect the democratic societies envisioned by their founders. To address this, Fishkin proposes “deliberative polling” as a method to elevate the nature of existing democracies.


Fishkin argues that competitive elections have failed to live up to our stated democratic values, as political parties have become solely focused on winning, often using blatantly undemocratic methods to do so, such as voter suppression, willfully spreading fake news on social media, and amplifying existing political echo chambers. As a result, citizens are not fully informed of the issues, and parties have little incentive to provide this to them when other methods work better in getting the vote. As the political arena becomes dominated by tools of persuasion, Fishkin cautions that the “will of the people” is being replaced by the “whims of the people.”


To counter this phenomenon, Fishkin proposes greater deliberation in our democratic systems as a way to incorporate popular control from the citizenry into political decision-making. He outlines four key criteria for effective popular control: Inclusion, choice, deliberation and impact. First, all adult citizens must have an equal opportunity to participate in the political system. Second, the different options for public decision-making need to be significantly available and different. Third, citizens need to be effectively motivated to consider the reasons for and against pursuing different policy options, while receiving accurate information about them. Lastly, citizens choices must have an impact on final policy decisions being made by governments. While inclusion, choice and impact are present to a certain extent in our democracy, the slow disappearance of proper deliberation in recent decades is quite alarming.


To bring deliberation back into our democratic systems, Fishkin proposes a method called “deliberative polling.” Inspired by the Athenian legislative commissions (nomothetai), this method provides the ordinary citizenry with an opportunity to deliberate on policy proposals before they are enacted into law. In such an exercise, a group of citizens are given a set of policy proposals and asked to deliberate with each other on the merits of enacting or not enacting each proposal.


There are a number of conditions which elevate deliberative polling beyond the political debates citizens may already be having with each other in pubs across the country. First, there is demographic and attitudinal representativeness, meaning that the group of deliberating citizens are wholly representative of the entire population. The citizens are also properly informed of arguments both for and against each proposal, which can be provided through balanced briefing materials, and access to competing experts who can answer questions arising out of the deliberation. As a result, participants experience knowledge gain of the issues and become more informed through the course of the exercise, which can be an explanatory variable to explain opinion change. Deliberative polling will also usually elicit some degree of opinion change from the participants, which would reflect the effect of an informed deliberation between citizens.  Lastly, in order to avoid distortions which may arise in a group discussion, such as domination by individuals or polarization of the group, a moderator is also present to flag these issues should they occur.


So is deliberative democracy the way to address the disconnect between Canadian citizens and foreign policy? While it is impossible to guarantee that deliberative democracy will rejuvenate foreign policy discourse among citizens, there are many cases of deliberative democracy around the world that would appear promising. For example, between 1996 and 1998, Fishkin conducted a deliberative democracy in Texas to guide the States future energy policy. Despite Texas’ reputation as an oil-heavy economy, citizens demonstrated an increased level of interest in renewables and energy efficiency as a result of the deliberation, which directly contributed to the building of new renewable energy projects. Recently in 2019, the University of Iceland, in collaboration with Fishkin, conducted a deliberative poll on the revision of the country’s constitution. Following the deliberation, researchers found significant shifts in attitudes in a number of important topics, such as the electoral system for the president, the parliament’s power to indict ministers, and provisions to amend the constitution. These case studies demonstrate that through deliberation, even the most traditional and rigid attitudes can be shifted.


A group of leading foreign affairs organizations in Canada, including the CIC, are planning to apply the concept of deliberative democracy to rejuvenate Canada’s foreign policy. Beginning this fall, the Global Ambition Project will bring together a group of Canada’s premier foreign policy experts to craft an agenda of policy proposals to be put to a representative sample of Canadians in the form of a deliberative democracy exercise. By putting some of the most important policy issues in the hands of citizens to deliberate, we hope to reinvigorate the foreign policy discourse in Canada, elevating it to its deserved level of importance.


Foreign policy is often thought of as an area that is driven by government elites, where citizens do not possess the prerequisite knowledge to have their opinions heard. As citizens, when we do not get an opportunity to feed into Canada’s foreign policy, we become increasingly disconnected and provide less support than is needed for our government to take leadership in an increasingly dangerous world. Deliberative democracy can help to restore the connection between citizens and decision-makers within the government. With this, our government will finally be able to count on deep support from Canadians when taking actions to navigate our country through this period of global turmoil.

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Michael Chen is a Junior Research Fellow at the CIC National Office and a second-year Master’s student at the Munk School of Global Affairs