Event ReportsPublished on Jul 30, 2016
Is global public opinion the last true superpower in world affairs?

ORF Kolkata organised a roundtable discussion on the theme — “Is global public opinion the last true superpower in world affairs?” — on  July 23, 2016. The first panellist at the roundtable was Ashok Malik, Distinguished Fellow, ORF, New Delhi. Malik acknowledged the power and reality of public opinion in shaping public policy and governance in the post-cold-war years. At the same time, he cautioned against the dangers of allowing public opinion to become the sole arbiter in world politics and governance. By citing concrete examples, Malik argued how the search for public opinion and the belief that public voice, however angry or anguished is morally superior to the more ‘clinical expert voice’ has led to the opinion of specialists and experts being ignored. This happened, for example, in the case of Brexit. He also drew attention to the danger of foreign policy or trade policy being determined by emotionalism ‘masquerading as global public opinion.’

For instance, few years ago in India, there was a debate on permitting the use and consumption of food products that were Genetically Modified (GM). Despite such food products being introduced under scientific guidelines and regulations, public opinion was given preference over scientific guidelines in disallowing GM food crops in the country. In this instance, Malik wondered whether public opinion won the day by taking more informed decisions than the scientific bodies. He found the process by which the decision was arrived at to be decidedly problematic.

Malik further stated that there is a constant pressure on Government, the Foreign Ministry in particular, to ‘do something’ although that ‘something’ is often indescribable or unfathomable. Public opinion, according to Malik, also leads to veto. That, in turn, gives rise to conflicting public opinions and a lack of consensus on pertinent issues. For instance, the UN framework Convention on Climate Change failed to arrive at a consensus owing to the involvement of a wide variety of NGOs with different orientations that had conflicting ideas on climate change. In conclusion, Malik emphasised the need to understand the limitations of public opinion in making it work as a global force.

Prof. Suranjan Das, Vice Chancellor, Jadavpur University, was the second panellist. He began by questioning how global or autonomous public opinion can be in reality. He stated that there cannot be one voice as each country is different from the other and thus the needs will vary in terms of their socio-economic and political conditions. Even within a country, one cannot hope to find one voice. He stressed that in this century opinions are constructed on powerfully vested interests of some people and the base remains on an unequal platform. He also gave importance to the role of the market forces where he emphasised that some particular stories are fed in order to generate a particular kind of public opinion. He concluded by stating that people need to be cautious as the emotionalism which encourages public or global opinion may be ambiguous and may perhaps be fulfilling the needs of the dominant powers within the society while ignoring the rest. However, we need to recognise that it is the committed minority which takes the lead in creating public opinion, he added.

The third panellist in the roundtable was Prof. Radharaman Chakraborty, former Vice Chancellor, Netaji Subhas Open University, Kolkata. Prof. Chakraborty remarked that he does not believe that global public opinion is entitled to power status let alone any status at all. He recognised the merits of public opinion by stating that public opinion has in some instances has turned the tide of events like the movement against apartheid or racial discrimination. Also organisations like the UNESCO survived on the strength of public opinion. He also gave the example of the United Nations which he called as a service institution whose motivation comes from the ideas of the enlightened public opinion. Having stated the positivity of public opinion he argued that despite their importance, opinions of transnational groups cannot add to global opinion. States are the main actors in forming regional and global opinion. Sustainable opinions can bend national actors to position global norms. But there are situations where public opinion is manipulated by the state to generate regional opinions. He concluded by stating that politics also plays a role in creating or dismissing public opinion, but the question is does it take public opinion into confidence on matters such as terrorism. Thus the political generation of public opinion may be looked at as threat in some respects but it cannot be called as a super power.

This report is prepared by Pratnashree Basu, Junior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata.

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