Special advisers are a proliferating breed, roaming the planet with their suitcases and delivering on issues as varied as nuclear disarmament in North Korea, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and oil deals in the Caspian. In many instances, these individuals — former officials, academics and sometimes cultural icons — bring specific qualifications or moral weight to the table, which the governments that dispatch them hope will increase their chances of obtaining what they want.
What all these track-II diplomats have in common, however, is that they are not elected, which means that they are often unaccountable and, in many instances, are paid sums of money well beyond the limits set for public servants.
In addition, far too often special advisers are drawn from a pool of politically connected individuals or appointed by politicians more as a reward for past deeds or allegiance than for their qualifications. In other words, the lack of supervision and regulation surrounding the appointment of special advisers invites corruption and means that under certain circumstances the narrow interests of a select group rather than those of the country are served.
Such arguments may have surfaced — and no one could have questioned their validity — as the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) essentially blocked President Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) budget for special advisers, leading the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government to abandon its reliance on such individuals in 2006.
Two years later, president-elect Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) victory in the March election was partly the result of his advocacy of a “cleaner” government, which seemed to dovetail with the KMT’s opposition to the DPP’s use of special advisers.
But in a reversal of position, the KMT is now proposing to resurrect the budget for special advisers, which shows yet again that the party’s opposition to DPP practices over the past eight years was more cynical political maneuvering than a concerted effort to better serve the people of Taiwan.
Furthermore, given the party’s history (and the jury is still out on whether it has reformed itself), there exists a very real possibility that in the coming months the budget set aside for such positions will grow and that the attributions of an already less-than-transparent system will become even more opaque.
For a party with a long tradition of kickbacks, special advisers only represent one among many means by which to line the pockets of supporters and cronies, or win new allegiances.
Even more worrying, perhaps, is that the appointment of special advisers under a KMT government would be the continuation of a practice, honed in the past eight years, of conducting diplomacy via unofficial channels, which translates into sets of decisions that, while they can potentially affect the entire nation, are made by unelected officials (former KMT chairman Lien Chan [連戰] comes to mind) in backroom deals that have more in common with black-market barter than state-to-state diplomacy.
Moreover, as the Ma administration has made some concessions to the opposition by bringing into its Cabinet non-KMT candidates, special advisers could provide the means to work outside the veneer of multiplicity by conducting real diplomacy via back channels, thus nullifying the ability of non-KMT Cabinet members to effect change and balance out a stacked executive and legislature.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with track-II diplomacy, as long as the special advisers who engage in it operate within well-established and enforced boundaries and do not constitute what amounts to a shadow government, such as the group of non-elected, largely unaccountable individuals who led the US into its catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003.
It will therefore be of capital importance for Taiwan that in the months and years to come, KMT-appointed special advisers are scrutinized and their actions closely monitored to ensure that they do not endanger the interests of the nation.
Under a democratic system, accountability is key and the KMT knows this. But there exists the real possibility that it, or some elements within it, will substitute the illusion of accountability with the real thing by appointing government officials who in reality are little more than a smokescreen for non-elected special advisers whose power will be difficult to monitor. Should this come about, how much those individuals are paid would be the least of our worries.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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