Jeffrey Sachs, professor of economics at Columbia University, is president of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. He has twice been named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and has been awarded 38 honorary doctorates from countries around the world. In June of this year, the 67-year-old became the recipient of the Sustainable Development Award of the Tang Prize (also known as the “Asian Nobel”), heady praise for the 50-year-long career of this scholar who has dedicated himself to the environment, poverty, and social justice since entering Harvard University’s Department of Economics in 1972.
During the New York Times-led Athens Democracy Forum 2022 at the end of September, Sachs once more became the focus of global attention. He came out against the U.S. with guns blazing, excoriating it as a “white-dominated, racist society,” as a formerly “slave-owning and genocidal country” that killed Native Americans to perpetuate “white culture,” and as a country that looks much the same to this day. “You can be democratic at home and ruthlessly imperial abroad,” he said. “The most violent country in the world in the 19th century by far (…) was Britain, and the most violent country in the world since 1950 has been the United States.”
Can democracy really achieve good government, good governance, and a happy life for ordinary people? According to Sachs, the biggest problem with contemporary democratic systems is the lack of “virtues” among the leaders of Western countries and that a democratic society without virtuous leadership will turn into a brutal regime as a result. He believes that one of President Joe Biden’s biggest mistakes is to attribute the current problems in the world to the confrontation between democracies and dictatorships, whereas, in reality, the greatest challenge in the world is for all of humanity to cooperate in overcoming the shared crises of environmental and developmental inequality. This statement was immediately applauded by the many young people in the audience, irrespective of racial background.
In one of the forum sub-sessions titled “Aristotle-Confucius Dialogue,” former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pointed out that, on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the world has been neither thorough nor decisive enough in condemning Russia, particularly with regard to the positions taken by China and India. From this, he proposed that the world coordinate and cooperate fully, learn the quality of global citizenship and make the global interest its mission, leading naturally to a more rational consideration of the whole picture.
Sachs did emphasize, however, that when the Soviet Union dissolved the Warsaw Pact, the U.S. pledged that NATO would not expand eastward; yet over the years, several U.S. presidents had broken their promises and allowed the military alliance to expand, thus ultimately leading to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Furthermore, when Ban was U.N. secretary-general, he witnessed the U.S. and Britain sending troops to Libya and Syria with his own eyes, causing countless civilian deaths and injuries. As these military operations bypassed the U.N., what remains to be said of any global interests?
In his speech and in response to questions, Sachs repeatedly cited the many atrocities committed by Britain and the U.S. in the past to consolidate their hegemony and vested interests around the world. They are the leaders of the modernization process; but how much moral ground do they have for latecomers to learn from? Likewise, the turn in American and British domestic politics towards extremism and populism correlates with Sachs’ interest in Aristotle. One of the discussion subjects of the Athens Democracy Forum between East and West was originally the “Socrates-Confucius Dialogue,” due to the many similarities between Chinese Confucianism and Greek Athenian culture. But it was precisely at Sachs’ suggestion that it was changed to the “Aristotle-Confucius Dialogue,” in hopes of drawing attention to the danger that Aristotle’s concepts of democracy and the right to vote could eventually devolve into mob rule.
On the other hand, so-called “voting democracies” have become more and more synonymous with plutocratic dictatorship, and “one person, one vote” has increasingly come to resemble “one dollar, one vote.” In their book “Democracy in America?”, two American scholars, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, argue conclusively that the economic elite and interest groups exert enormous influence over government policy, and that ordinary Americans have almost no power at all. Kishore Mahbubani, a professor at the University of Singapore, even states bluntly in his book “Asia’s 21st Century” that the U.S. has moved away from democracy and toward plutocratic rule, becoming a country “of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%.” There are many examples of how the electoral system has been gravely corrupted by money. As an example, a federal senator will spend three-quarters of their six years in office raising money rather than listening to people and solving their problems and will need to raise an average of $45,000 a day, without which it will be almost impossible to win re-election.
Indeed, if the people were truly in charge, how could they spend so much of their resources on foreign military operations instead of on renovating domestic infrastructure? Independently of one another, four speakers at the forum’s “Democratic Development” session from Turkey, the U.K., Africa and Tunisia also called out the failures of the democratic system. Is the electoral system truly more effective than other systems at selecting political leaders with leadership ability and a sense of popular compassion? Professor Sachs’ various rhetorical questions at the Athens Democracy Forum may have grated like nails on a chalkboard, but they are certainly worth pondering.
The author is an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Department of Finance.