Can democracy go global?

Historically speaking, democracy has been largely confined to the institutions and practices of territorial nation-states. But in the present era, many key processes and decisions affecting our lives transcend the state level.

Can democracy go global?

The logical conclusion of this is that in a globalised world, democracy must also be made global. That, however, is easier said than done.

According to Jan Aart Scholte, professor of politics and international studies at the University of Warwick, debates on global democracy can be divided into three broad strands which he labels intergovernmentalists, modern cosmopolitanists and critical cosmopolitans.

Intergovernmentalists seek to democratize globalization through multinational collaboration between sovereign states. This approach leaves the fundamental structures of the present world system as they are.

Speaking at the launching event of the new Democracy and Global Transformations master’s programme, Scholte identified several shortcomings with this type of thinking.

– The present intergovernmental institutions, such as the G20, WTO, OECD or Nato, do not involve all states, and there is no equality between – or even within – those states that are involved in them. In addition, many multilateral institutions have autonomous power over states.

What’s even more problematic is that if the locus of global governance is the intergovernmental level, many key processes involving inter-regional transactions, transnational movements, local communities and privatised forms of regulation may escape the radar.

– One of the main answers to these concerns has been the revival of cosmopolitan ideas. Often this has meant promoting universal human rights, global civil society and some sort of democratic world government, Scholte explained.

Nonetheless, mainstream cosmopolitanism has weaknesses as well. Its notions of political identity are oversimplified, cultural sensitivity limited and it doesn't sufficiently take into account global ecological challenges.

– Therefore a more critical cosmopolitanism that recognises multiple types of political community, fosters transcultural engagement and develops eco-centric practices of citizenship is needed.

This vision also includes a more comprehensive notion of equality than what's implied by the basic human rights approach. A major redistribution of resources is a precondition for genuine global democracy.

– Some might call this alternative vision of global democracy unrealistic, but for a long time the ideas of decolonisation or a national welfare state were unrealistic too, Scholte said.

– We can’t speak now of what’s unrealistic in 2050.

Opening Seminar of the Programme continues tomorrow (9th September 2010)

Further information on the Master's Degree Programme in Democracy and Global Transformations » »

Text: Henri Purje
Photo: University of Helsinki

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