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Thinking Creatively About Global Democracy

Jonathan Kuyper - 10th September 2012
Thinking Creatively About Global Democracy

On Tuesday, September 11, there are two events in Rome on the future of global democracy. I must admit that the first thing which caught my eye was the date. It may well be incidental that the symposia discussing what would truly be a staggering shift in world politics - global democratization - coincides with the anniversary of another event which fundamentally altered international affairs – the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. But the coincidence is worth noting.

I don’t think we should down-play the monumental effort it will take to get global democracy off-the-ground. Despite this, the project is gathering momentum. As a recent indicator the Manifesto for a Global Democracy (which has been spruiked by this journal) has collected an impressive list of signatories to the broad project. Among those on-board are Daniele Archibugi, Ulrich Beck, Mary Kaldor, Saskia Sassen, Richard Falk, Fernando Iglesias, George Monbiot, Vandana Shiva, and Andrew Strauss.

The Manifesto is attached to the Campaign for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA) project. The UNPA campaign, headed by Andreas Bummel, has several thousand civilian signatures, and, just as impressively, 826 parliamentarians signed-up. The Campaign and the Manifesto share a general vision for a more democratic world, in which global problems are addressed though a constitutionalized complex of democratic institutions. The centrepiece of such a structure would be a global parliamentary assembly, initially attached to the UN, and eventually becoming a free-standing institution. A global parliament would be checked-and-balanced by a host of national, regional, and international bodies such as a reformed International Court of Justice, and “a fairer and more balanced International Criminal Court.”

Over the past few months, I have actually attended – and spoken at - several events dedicated to the topic of global democracy; two of these events focused squarely on global parliamentary proposals. In Lund at the Earth Systems Governance conference, the UNPA campaign organized a terrific side event. Moderated by Frank Biermann and Ruben Zondervan, Andreas Bummel and Andrew Strauss noted all the virtues a global parliament could bring to world politics.

The same quixotic feeling underpinned the World Citizens Australia symposium at the University of Sydney. Orchestrated by Chris Hamer, several speakers discussed the brighter future a world parliament would usher in. Most notable was the talk by Bob Brown – the founder of the Australian Greens Party and long-serving Senator. Former Senator Brown maintained that a global parliament is the necessary tonic for a problematic present and fractious future. At the time of this speech, Bob Brown’s Green Party was the third largest political party in Australia and held the balance of power in the lower house.

At all these events, I actually feel a bit schizophrenic. I share the general view that ‘politics lags behind the facts’, and that as international organizations wield intrusive forms of public power, those affected persons deserve a say in how decisions are made and enacted. I also agree that ‘global crises require global solutions’ because I think it is fair to say that processes of globalization cannot (and should not) be rolled back. However, and this is where I begin to feel divided, I do not think that global democracy should entail a world parliament.

On first glance, I can see why those who seek global democracy clutch at parliamentary proposals. Within the confines of the nation-state, it is evident that parliaments have played an indispensible role. However, the global level is completely new terrain for democracy. There is no reason to think that a parliament is the natural way to move forward. And, even if we assume that the global system is sufficiently similar to the nation-state, the literature on democracy promotion indicates that premature attempts to instil parliamentary democracy in infertile terrain can lead to injurious (even deadly) outcomes.

So, as momentum for a global parliament grows in conjunction with global democracy, I want to offer two reasons to sever (or at least question) the connection. First, let’s begin with the counterfactual exercise: how could we build a global parliament? Really, I see two ways forward, which lead to something of a paradox for proponents. I can imagine a global parliament coming to fruition on the outskirts of world politics, through civil society or even a weak inter-state treaty process. This body would be quite toothless, though I guess the optimistic advocates would hope that it gains significant power over time.

The alternate route would see a strong world parliament come to pass, perhaps through the UN or through a binding inter-state treaty process. However, as soon as states realize that a parliament is going to impinge upon their sovereignty, they have only a couple of options. One option would be to exit the negotiation or demand a weaker institution. The other option is to take the bargaining seriously. In this instance, states will bargain hard over the institutional make-up and try to extract maximum gains. Strong states will use their bargaining power to ‘lock-in’ institutional advantage (c.f. the terrific work of G. John Ikenberry in After Victory). Weaker states will be presented with ‘take it or leave’ options. This surely cuts against the ideals upon which a global parliament is predicated.

And thus we have a paradox. On one hand, the parliament could be quite weak and symbolic, but not able to solve any major problems. On the other hand, a strong parliament – capable of tackling climate change, terrorism, health problems, and financial crises – would give powerful states an incentive to reaffirm their position in world politics. China and India would demand a ‘one-person, one-vote’ system. The US and Europe would likely demand veto rights. And so on. This paradox cannot be side-stepped by thinking that the parliament can begin weak and gain power over time. State leaders will not wake up one day and realize that they have lost a large chunk of their sovereign powers. As they lose power, states will recognize the trend and attempt to consolidate their relative standing. Attempts to compare a global parliament with the ‘success’ of the European Parliament miss the mark on both descriptive and evaluative terms.

The second major problem is that assuming global democracy requires a global parliament puts the cart before the horse. I think that ‘global democracy’ should be a time to exercise some creativity. I don’t know what global democracy should look like, but parliamentary democracy is just one (potentially unproductive) option. There is a very broad tendency in democratic theory to think in terms of ‘models’ of democracy, as David Held has written. And calls for a global parliament are indicative of this trend, as advocates seek to bring liberal, representative democracy wholesale to the world stage. The problem is models provide pre-packaged normative and institutional schemes, and thus stifle our imagination.

It also presupposes that liberal democracy represents the most viable way forward for global democracy. Not to devolve into a postmodernist-type critique, but there good reasons that societies all across the globe are sceptical of parliamentary democracy (think of the states which had Westminster democracy forced on them at the time of their accession from the British Empire). As Amartya Sen has written, democracy as voting is a pretty recent, Western innovation. Democracy as ‘public reason’ is the only really universal trend.

In that spirit, I think it would be useful to let go of the idea of models of democracy, and flex our creative capacity. What would global democracy as public reason entail? Would this discursive underpinning be more suitable to the fluidity and anarchy of world politics than a strict, hierarchical, and constitutional global parliament? Does ‘communicative action’ offer a solid springboard to tackle these issues? These are all big questions, and definitely the time to answer them is in another blog. With the impending discussions, I hope that the two reasons offered above provide a rationale to question the utility of a global parliament. But again I feel torn: the project of global democracy needs as much support as can be mustered. As much as I worry that a global parliament may hurt global democracy in the long-run, the efforts by UNPA, the Manifesto, and many others are vital to put these issues on the map and advance the possibility of democracy beyond borders.