Thinkers bristle at the thought of consensus. Michael Crichton, the famous science fiction writer and the author of “Jurassic Park”, called consensus the “refuge of scoundrels” and the quest for consensus in science as pernicious. He said, “There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.” In domestic politics, it has been considered even more dangerous with Margaret Thatcher calling consensus as the “negation of leadership”. When a leader starts looking for consensus, there is the foul smell of an emerging dictatorship. Yet, political scientists today are touting something called “consensus democracy.” The only place where this operates is in Guernsey, a Crown dependency island in the English Channel inhabited by about 63,000 people. Its legislature is called the States of Deliberation and the departments are headed, not by a minister, but a committee of five persons. There are no political parties, though these and not banned and all candidates contest as independents. This utopian model has been in existence for a long time but has not been replicated elsewhere in spite of voluminous research being published about its merits.
It is in the area of international relations that the idea of consensus is really taking root. The basic nature of consensus being suppression of dissent and a viewpoint generated at the apex becoming the consensus, consensus in world bodies is essentially a superpower consensus. The most visible of this superpower consensus requirement is the Security Council veto awarded to five nations by the UN charter, in spite of the claim of the charter to represent the collective will of “We, the people of the United Nations”. Amrit Narang, Counsellor in the India’s Permanent Mission to the UN, on July 11, 2018 described the Security Council as the “most grotesque example of global power oligopoly”. Democracy is based on the principle that nations last and leaders are perishable as individuals and as inheritors. Yet, experience has shown that the permanent membership of the Security Council has become inheritable. Communists in China inherited it as successors to the Nationalists. The expulsion of Taiwan was not even taken to the Security Council where Taiwan could veto it. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation inherited it, though there was not much in common between the two in terms of the ingredients of national power. Russian Federation has a smaller territory, population and economy and a different political system as compared to its predecessor. The only thing that remained the same was the number of nuclear weapons, as it inherited all these destructive toys. Perhaps that was decisive in it being declared the heir.
The requirement of consensus among the permanent members has been the undoing of the United Nations. It has to remain a spectator, even though not mute, when one of these five is in breach of international norms. When they directly confront each other, as in the Cuba missile crisis, the UN watches till the antagonists sort it out among themselves. When one of them attacks a weak member of the UN, it again watches till either the asymmetric war subjugates the weaker nation or till the mighty aggressor suffers attrition and withdraws as happened in Vietnam and later in Afghanistan where both USSR and the US met this fate in succession. That has not prevented other multilateral international bodies from drifting towards the chimera of consensus with members of such bodies asking for their pound of flesh for contributing to the consensus or a tiny minority actually holding back the consent to the frustration of the rest. This flies in the face of the academic scholars who are churning out research papers extolling the virtues of consensus and listing the evils of majoritarianism.
NATO, the bulwark during Cold War against the spread of communism and later of Russian expansionism to the west, can be expanded only with the consensus of all member states. Threatened with a Ukraine-like, what Putin calls “special military operation” and what the world sees as all-out war, Finland and Sweden have been kept waiting for processing of their request to join NATO by the demurring Turkey. Ironically, Turkey’s Erdogan is accused of subverting democracy and fomenting Islamic fundamentalism by restoring of Hijab in public institutions and reconverting to a mosque the Hagia Sophia, a Church built by Roman emperor Constantine and himself going to pray there. The fresco of Christ, the oldest image in the world of the messiah, in that monument has been concealed behind a drape. That does not prevent Erdogan from claiming that he will not agree to the inclusion of Finland and Sweden because these democracies are harbouring Kurdish terrorists! The devil of consensus holds back the will of 29 members of NATO against that of Turkey.
Jesse Ball, the American novelist and poet bluntly highlighted the tendency to give a determinative role to consensus in human affairs, “It is at the heart of our human enterprise… to allow consensus a power it ought not to have”. Yet, considerations of realpolitik get the upper hand and ways are found to display consensus where there is none. Some nations may count their coins more than their values and decide to abstain to avoid treading on the toes of either of the powerful antagonists. The presiding officer at a forum may claim consensus by silencing one of the smaller parties by denying it the opportunity to speak. The matter may be taken to the UN General Assembly where the decision is by majority. The BBC reported on March 29, 2013 how three countries blocked the consensus at the Final UN Diplomatic Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty that would have blocked the flow of arms to be used for acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and terrorism. Just three renegade regimes, Syria, North Korea and Iran withheld their consent. The sponsors had to take the matter to the UN General Assembly where it was approved with a massive majority with only these three rogue states opposing it.
The device of consensus gives a veto power to every member. It is an uncomfortable truth that there have always been, there are at present and there will always be rogue states ruthlessly governed by megalomaniac, whimsical dictators. Yet, consensus compels the rule-bound democracies to look up to these enemies of a peaceful international order to make rules for regulating the activities of such regimes, a task as impossible as regulating superpowers through the Security Council. The world is inherently diverse and an emphasis on consensus is bound to be frustrating. Disregarding the will of a huge majority is at least as big a sin as ignoring the minority. The golden mean is to include reasonable safeguards for the legitimate interest of the latter without enabling them to ride roughshod over the majority as Syria, North Korea and Iran sought to do.