Abuse of Power: Assessing Accountability in World Politics

By Keohane, Robert O. | Harvard International Review, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Abuse of Power: Assessing Accountability in World Politics


Keohane, Robert O., Harvard International Review


We read all the time that some person or organization in power should be "held accountable." Such demands are made on the UN Secretary-General, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Board of Directors of Enron, the President of the United States, and sometimes even non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Greenpeace. But what does this mean in world politics, where democratic accountability through elections is lacking and legal means of checking power wielders are fragmented and often ineffective? Can abuses of power in world politics be controlled through processes of accountability, or is "accountability talk" just hot air? My argument is that although accountability-based criticisms in world politics are often misplaced, accountability is a meaningful concept. Properly applied, it can be a useful tool to limit abuses of power.

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Accounting for Accountability

An accountability relationship is one in which an individual, group, or other entity demands that an agent report on his or her activities and can impose costs on the agent. In an authorized or institutionalized accountability relationship, the requirement to report and the right to sanction are mutually accepted. Other accountability relationships are contested: individuals, groups, or entities claim the right to hold agents accountable, but the agents do not recognize a corresponding obligation.

Democratic accountability within a constitutional system is a relationship in which power wielders are accountable to broad publics. Applied to world politics, democratic accountability could be conceptualized as a system in which agents whose actions make a sufficiently great impact on the lives of people in other societies must report to those people and be subject to sanctions from them, according to political science professor David Held.

But accountability need not be democratic. Indeed, it can also be hierarchical, in which subordinates are accountable to superiors, or pluralistic, as in Madisonian constitutionalism. Actual systems of accountability in constitutional democracies combine all three sources of accountability--democratic, hierarchic, and pluralistic.

Moreover, internal accountability involves arrangements within institutions to hold component entities accountable, usually because the accountability holder is providing legitimacy or financial resources to the agent. Because providing authorization and support creates means of influence, such influence can be used to close any "accountability gap" that may open between normative values of internal accountability and actual practice.

In external accountability, the entity is accountable to people who are outside the entity and whose lives the entity affects. The normative question then arises: should the acting entity be accountable to all those it affects? If so, an empirical question arises: given the valid claim for accountability, is accountability achieved or is there an accountability gap?

Rulers generally dislike being held accountable. Yet they often have reasons to submit to accountability mechanisms. In a democratic or pluralistic system, accountability may be essential to maintaining public confidence, and some degree of accountability in any system may be necessary to maintain the credibility of the agent. That is, the ruler may find other dimensions of power more important than lack of accountability. Furthermore, constitutional systems may be designed to limit abuses of power without reducing the amount of influence the leaders have when action is necessary. But we can expect power holders to seek to avoid accountability when they can do so without jeopardizing other goals. And in the absence of a constitutional system, the ability to avoid being held externally accountable can be viewed as one dimension of power. In other words, accountability is itself a power term. To discuss accountability is to discuss power. …

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