Global democracy. Allianssin Youth, Development and Security -seminaarissa 3.6. 2010

Erkki Tuomioja,

PhD. MP; Former minister for Foreign Affairs of Finland


For several centuries world politics have been analysed and conducted on the basis of a Westphalian world order, created in 1648 by the Treaty of Westphalen – where sovereign actors – originally sovereign rulers rather than sovereign nations states – were the sole actors who counted, or had the right to be counted. Now, in the globalized world of today the whole concept of absolute sovereignty has become a rather theoretical construction as interdependence has inevitably eroded its foundation. 
The growth of the world’s population has irrevocably changed the world and is the most obvious reason why interdependence – whether we like or not, in both thing good and bad, is a reality that no-one can escape. This applies to all and any countries, big or small, armed with nuclear weapons or not, and irrespective of whether they embrace globalisation or would want to opt out of it. 
The world’s population has during my lifetime grown threefold from 2,3 billion when I was born after WW2, to 6,9 billion today. And although it is now true that this growth has begun to even out, the number of people on earth will reach at least nine or ten billion before we can attain zero population growth. 
This has enormous consequences for how mankind interacts with its natural environment. We have only very recently become aware of how unsustainably we have managed our natural resources since the start of the industrial revolution. This awareness has been largely brought about by climate change, which is the number one challenge to our security and survival in the world today.
It may be that, even at best, we have only a few decades time in which to adapt our behaviour to the exigencies of ecologically, socially and economically sustainable development. I don’t think anyone can say for certain, whether we can achieve this sustainable balance in time to save the world or not.

What was still possible and workable in a world with a few hundred million or even 2 billion people is no longer valid in a world with 6,9 billion people, let alone with more than 9 billion. This undermines one of the defining features of the Westphalian order, namely the use of power politics, including resorting to war to further you national interest to and gain advantage at the cost of other nations or the environment.
Leaving all moral and ethical considerations aside one cannot deny that this way of furthering one’s national interest, and the power politics used as its instrument, could, in many cases bring benefits for limited periods of time anyway – limited, because no empire in history has lasted for ever. But the complex nature of today’s post-industrial societies make reliance on military power and force more and more unproductive as software and knowledge, rather than hardware and muscle power, are the key to success and well-being. 
In addition one must also recognize how Weapons of Mass Destruction have changed the scope and context of power politics. But even without resorting to WMD also the development of so-called conventional weapons has drastically changed the nature of war. If the aim of military power to defend civilians and society then it has been progressively failing as casualties in today’s wars mainly affect those not in uniform.

Increasing and deepening the international division of labour, which is essentially what globalization means, has brought huge benefits in terms of enhanced growth, strengthened potential for the realization of Human Rights and better environmental management, increasing wealth and wellbeing. And this has not been limited to the already more better off parts of the world. That hundreds of millions of  people have been lifted out of abject poverty and from living in the shadow of recurring famines, particularly in China,  India and elsewhere in Asia, would not have been possible without taking advantage of the global markets created and opened by globalization

The challenge is, that these benefits are not distributed equally around the world or inside different societies with many people becoming distinct losers in this development. On the contrary it seems that income and wealth differentials are increasing, both within countries and regions and between them.

The second huge challenge is exercising democratic control over the processes involved in globalization. In a sense this means giving an adequate answer to the question ”who is in charge?”. 

While democracy has never in history been so widespread in terms of the absolute number of people and the relative proportion of all people in the world who can elect or dismiss their governments in more or less free and fair elections, there is also a growing feeling, particularly in the older and established democracies, that democratic elections have become irrelevant as those elected are not really in charge and increasingly resort to mouthing  the slogans of the current TINA-doctrine – meaning  ”there is no alternative – used to justify whatever is the programme of the day of  the government in office.

Diminishing belief in the possibilities of democracy has led to growing voter apathy on the one hand, and increasing belief in the necessity of and justification for extra-parliamentary activism, which need not always be regarded negatively, as long as it firmly keeps to non-violent methods.

  National and Global Democracy

The former Speaker or the US House of Representatives Tip O’Neill is known for his observation, that ”All politics is local”. I think this reflects a deep wisdom about the origins and nature of democracy, and is a useful reminder that democracy cannot be introduced on a continental, let alone global level, if it is not firmly rooted in national or even regional and local levels.

Democracy has, indeed, been essentially a national project, and when the power of national governments to steer the economy have been eroded and taken over by international agreements and organisations and/or anonymous global market forces, they have been perceived to have become impotent. This perception corresponds to reality, even if this impotence has often been exaggerated with the intention of getting electorates to acquiesce more easily in what governments actually have themselves chosen and/or to dismiss the possibility for alternative choices.

Globalization calls for global democracy. This does not mean that we could begin to build this with a globally elected world parliament or, even end up with a world parliament. We shall have to realistically recognize that global governance will for the foreseeable future remain the domain and responsibility of  inter-governmental cooperation in international organisations.

Only the European Union can with any credibility claim to have tried to address the issue of bringing democracy into its intergovernmental supranational decision-making. And in the EU it is, in my opinion, rather the efforts to involve the national parliaments of the member states in exercising control over the proceedings and decision-making in the Council, rather than the European Parliament as it exists today, that can enhance the inadequate democratic legitimacy of the union.

I make a specific point of mentioning the European Union because I regard the EU at present, with all its well-known faults and shortcomings, as our best available instrument in endeavouring to achieve better management of globalization and enhancing global democracy.

Global democracy is also served by the emergency of a Global civil society and the technologies which have made it much more difficult for authoritarian regimes to control and censor the use of modern communication technology, such as the internet. Global democracy is also enhanced by reforms in international organisations which seek to give both parliaments and civil society some sort of, albeit limited and mostly advisory role, in international organisations and negotiation processes, even if they remain in the sphere of inter-governmental cooperation.

Democracy needs stable and legitimate institutions, but they are not enough. A vibrant civil society, free and accessible media and a fair distribution of resources for civic and political participation are also necessary. Here the globalization of civil society can be seen as having developed in some respects further than formal trans-national institutions.

This said it should be absolutely clear, that here can be no global democracy without democratically ruled countries and states.

So far in history there is not a single example of any genuine democracy worth the name, which does not include freely constituted political parties, competing with each other in free and fair elections.
I state this categorically, not as an answer to those who in the 20th century used to claim that single party-regimes, whether of the Communist, Fascist or Nationalist variety, were somehow superior to multiparty democracies, which undoubtedly had, in many instances, rather poor track records in terms of producing stability, wellbeing and efficient government for their peoples, particularly in the 20’s and 30’s. In those circumstances, and even after the Second World War, apologists for single-party regimes could also point out how their single parties in an almost mystical way had solved class and other conflicts in their societies by harmoniously bringing together the nation in the only party allowed, usually under the leadership of a wise and benevolent Dear Leader.
Even in today’s world one may find such examples in many places, and not only in the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. China is of course a much more sophisticated and, at least in economic terms, an even admirably well-run country, but it nevertheless is a non-democratic single party state. The Chinese regime no longer seeks to justify its continuation primarily in terms of Marxist-Leninist or any other ideology, but rather as the system of government, which not only is necessary to achieve undeniable economic success, but is also the only reliable way, in which such a vast country can be managed and kept together in a stable manner.
But the remark about multi-party democracy is, at least in a European context, no longer needed to stave of off calls for single-party regimes. Rather it is necessary because in most if not all of our more established democracies in Europe there is a growing dissatisfaction with democratic institutions in general and with political parties in particular.
This dissatisfaction is often reflected in falling voter turnouts in elections and in a sometimes not so cordial loathing of political leaders, but so far not in any real demand for replacing democratic institutions with authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, with or without one or more political parties. Most of those dissatisfied with party politics are not calling for a new single-party or for other authoritarian solutions; rather they are engaged in a wishful hankering for some sort of more direct democracy, which gives a direct voice to citizens.
But however dissatisfied we are, and irrespective of how justified this dissatisfaction is, we should remember that political parties are a necessary condition for any real democracy, just as are parliaments acting as legislators, no matter how corrupt, undeserving or just plain stupid we may deem our elected representatives to be.
But while parties are still a necessary condition for real democracy, they are not sufficient. There are, of course, also many countries around with outwardly open elections and quite a host of parties, but which do not necessarily meet our understanding or real democracy, but this is not the point. The point, rather, is that even countries like the Nordic countries, which we like to think meet all the requirements of genuine democracy with a free press and no manipulation whatsoever of elections etc., would be sorely lacking if they did not have vibrant and free civil society working alongside with and sometimes challenging the political establishment and its established political parties.
Historically all the Nordic countries have a long tradition of civil society and popular mass movements interacting with the political system. Not only the Social-Democratic parties qualify as mass parties with roots in the labour movement, but other parties too have their roots in mass movements of a nationalist, agrarian or religious kind.
In today’s Nordic societies parties and civil society have undergone substantial changes. The most obvious trend has been the steady erosion of membership in political parties and some of the traditional NGO:s. This does not necessarily mean that interest and participation in political participation has fallen in a similar manner. The Nordic countries have traditionally had a rather high rate of voter participation in National elections. This has slightly declined but remains at a relatively high level, except in Finland which has seen a more dramatic fall. 

To return to the headline of my remarks: Global Democracy: what is it needed for? Democracy is, of course, a value in itself. But it is even more. I find it difficult to believe, that we could achieve the kind of better global governance needed to bring about the kind of ecologically, socially and economically sustainable development that is essential for saving the world as an humanly inhabitable environment without Global Democracy.

The instrument for delivering this kind of global governance should of course be the United Nations and its special organisations. This is true although a minority of UN member states fulfil the criteria we should have for genuine democracy. Effective global governance must be universal and kicking countries out of the UN for their violations of democracy and human rights is something that can only be contemplated in very rare cases and extreme circumstances.

  G 20 and global governance

But what should we think of the G20 which only in a few years time has evolved to become perhaps the most relevant forum for discussing and also implementing better global governance?

Of the many G combinations the G20 has the best claim to of global representation. The G20 countries account for 90 % of the world’s GNP, 80 % of world trade and two thirds of the world’s population. Meeting and taking decisions in this forum is a belated recognition of the fact, that in a world facing its first truly global recession and the equally urgent and global threat of climate change, no lasting solutions can be found if a large share of the world’s population is excluded. This also entails including the poorest of the poor, who have had the least say in all global processes.

But the self-appointed G20 is not an international organisation and has no established rules of procedure. That is a source of strength compared with the institutional paralysis which seriously impedes the speed and efficiency of many international institutions and negotiations, but it is also a weakness. To become universally binding and workable almost all decisions taken by the G20 have also to be adopted by many international organisations and agreed on by their member states, and in many cases ratified by them as well.
The most serious weakness of the G20 as a self-appointed forum is its lack of legitimacy. This creates increasing resentment particularly in the vast majority of the world’s countries who are excluded from its meetings. It is also an added incitement for all the demonstrators who regularly besiege the venues of any G group meeting. One answer to this legitimacy deficit could be combining G20 reform with reform of the UN Security Council.

Even if the Security Council reform has not moved anywhere in the past few years, it is not yet dead either. The multiple crises the world is facing today should have helped to create some sense of urgency and willingness to move forward with the dormant reform agenda.

We have to be content with less than perfect solution. The veto of the present five permanent members cannot be abolished in the foreseeable future, nor will there be a single seat for all the members of the European Union. But some official positions notwithstanding there is a consensus that there will have to be more permanent members on the Council with no new vetoes. The inclusion of Brazil, Germany, India, Japan and an African country as new permanent members can hardly be contested on any rational grounds.

An enlarged Security Council would also see the number of non-permanent countries increased so that the council would become a G21 or G25. The countries represented on the reformed Security Council should also take the place of the present G20. This new G20 (or G whatever the actual number of SC members) need not be any more institutionalised than the present one. The advantage of having the new group having the same composition as the Security Council is, that it would carry much more legitimacy as the participation of non-permanent changing members will mean, that every country has the possibility of being elected to the group for two years.
Another advantage of having the G20 being made up by all the members of the Security Council is, that these countries will at least partly have the contact and negotiating framework needed for the G20 already in place working on the issues handled by the Security Council. Governments should give urgent and serious consideration to this and other proposals which seek to address the democracy and legitimacy deficits of global governance in today’s world.