The State of Global Politics

From the perspective of western politics, the idea of democracy developing into a global system of governance may be perceived as both natural and desirable. However, at this stage, we shall simply introduce the idea of global democracy as a concept through which political power might one day be extended beyond the nation-state.

For global democracy has yet to explain how effective transnational decision-making might be established, given the disparity of some 190+ nation states in terms of their various self-interests defined by cultural histories, political ideologies and economic influence. Equally, it must also explain who should, and who will, be allowed to participate in the formation of any system of global governance in terms of its conceptual executive, legislate and judicial branches.

So how might such a concept proceed?

It is suggested that any idea of global democracy has to first anticipate how it might affect present-day nation-state politics. For we might perceive an immediate problem in the etymology of the word democracy were 'demos' meaning 'people' and 'kratos' meaning 'power', such that the very idea of giving 'power to the people' might worry many existing governments around the world. However, within an evolutionary process, it is possible that the idea of a global democracy need only make initial reference to the voting rights of a nation state without necessarily making any reference to the voting rights of the individuals within each nation state. For over time, it may be possible that increased globalization may act as a catalyst for further change as social, political and economic relationships develop in-line with technology that then helps to facilitate the flow of people, resources and ideas across old national borders. In this respect, many of the prerequisite steps towards globalisation have already been taken, and may continue to be taken, outside of the direct control of national governments, especially if economic self-interests cannot be constrained by any given political ideology or single nation state. So while state governments will have to ultimately be active participants in globalization, underlying economic and social interactions between various transnational institutions may help create the conditions for change towards a limited form of global democracy, although 'we the people' may not necessarily have a direct vote in this process.

What type of transnational institutions are being considered?

Beyond multinational corporations continuing to lobby for free-markets to be extended across national borders, there are many other types of transnational institutions that may facilitate social, political, and economic developments on a global scale in the field of education, health and international aid. As these institutions expand in both number and scope, they can continue to exercise influence over national governments, e.g. in the field of international law and through free-trade agreements. As a result, many of their decisions will obligate national governments to abide by global policies, which in-turn may affect various populations without their direct consent. As such, there may be a flip-side to this type of globalisation, if individuals within each nation state start to feel they have no direct say in how laws and regulations, which affect them, but are being set by a form of global bureaucracy rather than global democracy. We might characterise these concerns as follows:

  • International bodies are perceived to operate in either an unaccountable or non-transparent fashion, which are considered contradictory to the goals of democracy.

  • These global institutions come to be seen as ineffective in addressing the worlds problems, e.g. population growth, climate change, volatile financial markets, poverty gaps etc.

  • If the views of the global majority are effectively ignored, decisions may simply continue to reflect the goals of a small minority, who hold power over the process of global governance.

Certainly, in respect to the last bullet, it is entirely possible that a few large and powerful national governments may continue to represent the self-interests of only a small minority within their own national borders, such that the voice of the global majority continues to be ignored. Of course, in practical terms, it may still be necessary to table the following question:

Does global democracy require the consensus of a global majority?

Given the complexity of almost any process that is global in scope, it is unclear how a global majority comes to understand all the issues involved, let alone decides which solution is best for planet Earth as a whole. Of course, we might consider the idea that only the individuals affected by the laws or regulations need participate, although this limited approach may create its own problems. For example, we might consider a local issue of planning consent, which is required to build new housing and industrial sites for an expanding population. While we might all understand the necessity for this process, any solution is often subject to a caveat, linked to the human condition, which might be expressed in the phrase: 'OK, as long as it is not in my backyard'. In this respect, those affected by a decision will often oppose it, even if it is the right thing to do for a wider majority. Of course, if we scale this type of problem up to a global level, the local population whose 'backyard' is going to be affected may be the entirety of a nation state.

So, given such basic concerns, is global democracy a realistic goal?

While, in principle, some proponents of global democracy may believe that individuals simply have the right to self determination, the more pragmatic may require evidence as to how this approach will actually help solve the world's problems. For a start, we possibly need to accept that global democracy may only be perceived as desirable by those who accept a 'western worldview'. In this context, the following map shows the distribution of full democracy in the darker green, where the population probably only accounts for about 1 billion of the 7 billion global population. This figure might be extended to 3 billion, if we include those nation states that embrace some of the basic principles of democracy. i.e. light green

Of course, the significance of population numbers has also to be seen in the context of economic and military power, which invariably underpins most political power in the world. As such, China and Russia along with their influence over much of the Middle-East, South America and Africa may not share the same vision of progress as the West, especially when expressed in terms of a global democracy. To illustrate the potential gulf between both the cultural philosophy and political ideology of China in respect to the West, we might consider the response of Eric Li, who is a venture capitalist and political scientist in Shanghai, to a question concerning the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei:

Weiwei statement: "I don't ask for much. Just the freedom to create, and the freedom for everyone to say what they want".

Li's Response: That, indeed, is simple enough of a statement. However, it is asking for much - too much. One fallacy in the modern Western political ideology is the so-called freedom of speech. It makes a presumption that speech, unlike acts, is harmless and therefore can and must be allowed absolute freedom, the freedom for everyone to say what they want. But of course nothing can be further from the truth grounded in thousands of years of human experience. Speech is act; and speech has been harmful to human society since time immemorial. In the West, one does not need to go further than 1933 to find an example of the power of speech by just one man, due to the unique circumstances of that particular time and place, causing death and destruction to millions. The prevailing cultural conditions are unique to different societies at different times. It is up to that society to determine the boundaries of speech and alter them as conditions change. Germany, for instance, due to its unique recent history, seems to believe the publication of Mein Kampf must not be allowed. Contemporary China is experiencing social transformations of which the speed and scale are unprecedented in human history. Under such conditions the fragility of social stability can be easily disrupted by amplified speech. A responsible person, one would think, would consider the consequences of advocating everyone being free to say whatever he wants. An intelligent observer of human society and student of history ought to be more thoughtful than simply asking, why is that a problem?

Of course, there are others who question some of Eric Li's interpretations of Chinas centralised, one-party state. For example. Minxin Pei forwards three arguments in support of the title of his book called 'China's Trapped Transition':

The first outlines the post-Mao China developing as a nation state in transition towards a market-based democracy from what was originally a Marxist authoritarian model. The second is that this transition effectively stalled when the Chinese government crushed the Tiananmen Square democratic movement in 1989, such that the subsequent economic and political reforms became dominated by the state. The third is that without massive disruption to its political, social and economic infrastructures, it will be impossible for China to escape its current trapped state.

As such, Minxin Pei argues that Chinas unfinished reforms has led to many problems, which obstruct the development of the rule of law. In addition, he argues that if China had developed an independent judiciary, media freedom and a more interactive civil society, many of the corruption issues that undermine the Chinese system could have been contained. For Pei believes that that the best way to fight systemic corruption is by the development of independent agencies, such as a free press supported by a freedom of information and open public discussions. In Pei's view, the inherent weakness of Chinas political system is that it views these institutions and social groups as a danger rather than a benefit.

So who is right?

At this point, we are not necessarily trying to reach any specific conclusion as to whether the future of politics will take the form of a global democracy or will be better served by what may be described as a global autocracy. However, we might want to question the idea of global autocracy in which a single powerful nation state can effectively veto any decision because it may not serve the future ambitions of that state regardless of the global benefits.

Note: The system of veto within the United Nations (UN) refers to a power of just five members of the UN Security Council, i.e. China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States, which enables them to block substantive resolutions, as well as decide which issues quantify as substantive. The power of the veto was essentially a deal struck at the creation of the UN, just after WW2, which many now see as undemocratic. Critics also highlight that the power of veto has been abused by the 5 permanent members for their own self-interests such that the UN has often been left powerless in the face of crimes against humanity.

At the very start of this discussion, it was suggested that what we now think of as politics may have evolved as a process for resolving disputes within relatively small groups, which then expanded into tribes, kingdoms and eventually nation states. However, for most of human history, the political process has been dominated by essentially authoritarian forms of governance with possibly only lip-service given to the idea of democracy in more recent times. So while the idea of democracy can be cited as a evolutionary step in the process of political governance, it is unclear that democracy, in and of itself, can be used as the blueprint for effective global governance in the future.

So what is wrong with democracy?

In principle, nothing, but problems arise in practice, because a majority voting system, even when it works, does not necessarily lead to sensible or practical solutions. For democracy is built on a basic, but not necessarily correct, assumption that all votes should be equal and therefore all opinions count the same. As such, democracy conceptually puts the same value on the opinions of the educated and the ignorant, the selfless and the self-interested and the law-abiding and criminal. Of course, the complexity of any voting system in combination with powerful self-interests often ensures that the balance of power tips in favour of the incumbency of some form of political and economic elite .

What powerful self-interests are we talking about?

While the major elements of government can be outlined in terms of three functional divisions, i.e. the executive, legislative, judiciary, the actual scope of each is much more complex in practice. Historically, political power was often acquired and enforced by conquest and subjugation, which even when superseded by democratically elected governments still left the remnants of a class hierarchy within many political systems. However, these remnants often continue to exist as very powerful institutions that retain considerable influence across all three branches of government, i.e. executive, legislative, judiciary, plus many other aspects of society at large, e.g. legal, education, religious and the media. While these institutions are often biased towards serving their own self-interest, they can also hold considerable influence over the voting majority. In this respect, it may be naive to assume that democracy will, or has ever, simply triumph in the face of powerful self-interests, which are often more than capable of manipulating ignorance, class divides, tribal mentality, corruption and the complexity of voting system to their own advantage.

Even so, can we not, at least, define the goal of political governance?

While there has never really been a universally accepted definition, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) defined this goal in terms of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Jefferson, who was one of Americas founding fathers and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) was also a proponent of democracy, republicanism and individual rights enshrined in a written constitution, which today many interpret as basic human rights.

Note: Human rights are intended to help protect people from political, legal, and social abuses. Examples of human rights are the right to religious freedom, the right to a fair trial , the right not to be tortured, and the right to engage in political activity. These rights are often a reflection of personal morality, which have been given legal support at both national and international levels based on a long history of developments, e.g. the Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789), and the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution (1791) etc.

While most constitutions are now essentially historical documents, they have collectively acted as stepping-stones in the development of human rights, which might be seen as a guiding light for the development of any future political process. However, in more practical and global terms, we might still have to question whether such a system puts too much priority on the rights of an individual, as argued by Eric Li, if individual self-interests can ultimately be detrimental to wider collective-interests. In this respect, we might return to Adam Smith (1723-1790), who was a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson, but whose work entitled The Wealth of Nations also questioned whether the self-interest of the individual, primarily in the economic domain, should be allowed to take priority over the collective interests of society, as a whole. For today, we have become well-aware how the self-interest of large corporations can influence, if not control, the economy of nation states and, in so doing, come to effectively control the political process.

But isn't democracy preferable  to dictatorship?

It might be argued that the work of Jefferson and Smith is representative of a Western philosophy, which is based on general democratic principles and free-market capitalism. However, if we accept that this has been the dominant philosophy, which has helped shape the world over the last few hundred years, it might also be argued that it is also broadly responsible for the global crisis we are now facing. While many will contest this assessment, it is still probably true to say that only a small minority of the global majority have actually been a beneficiary of this Western philosophy, which has come to underpin much of the global economy. Of course, given the economic rise to power of China in the last 20 years, it might be prudent to consider other approaches to political governance, which may have more to do with the philosophy of Confucius, than the ideology of communism. Confucius defined an idea he called 'Xiao Kang' that might be roughly interpreted as an attainable ideal in which a society might achieve peace and prosperity within a legal structure built upon moral foundations. History suggests that China may have quietly adopted this goal back in 1979, when many of Mao's communism principles were effectively abandoned. However, history also shows that China did not abandon the one-party state model or its centralist and somewhat authoritarian style of political governance, although Eric Li argues that it remained open to the idea of a meritocracy in order to achieve its goals. In this respect, China may have simply embraced pragmatism, rather than ideology, in order to meet its economic goals, which may also explain the continuance of widespread corruption and a growing wealth gap within Chinese society.

But can a global political system really be designed or will it simply evolve?

Before we can consider the wider implications of this question, we possibly need to review the starting point of this evolution, which it is assumed would be predicated on the political and economic differences of the worlds current super states, e.g. America, China, European Union and Russia. However, this aspect will be taken up in the next discussion.