Democracy in world politics

Seminar Paper, 2006

5 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Is international politics ultimately all about power and interest, such that democracy should remain of marginal importance to international relations?

The study of International Relations (IR) has long been concerned with Realpolitik, a form of political realism, which puts the self-help (military power) and survival (interest) motives of states at the centre of its inquiry to explain the structural realities of the anarchic international system, which is seen to exist under a constant threat of war. (Waltz, 1979) [Market] liberalism, on the other hand, opposes the realist tradition and aims for the emancipation of humanity. In the liberal tradition, the authority of democratic nations and the proliferation of free-markets are believed to need to extend to the international system, in order to bring about peace, security (Fukuyama, 1989) and happy consumers. The Neo-conservatives within the US administration seem to have embraced both realism and market liberalism and combined the two into a mesh that is hard to disentangle. Therefore, an obvious observation of the current era of US hegemony does indeed reaffirm that power and the interest of agencies in the international arena are prominent attributes of international politics. Powerful states, such as the US in Iraq, wage unilateral wars to secure their strategic interests and at the same time support market liberalism, while the biggest beneficiaries, multinational corporations (MNCs), smile broadly in the background. In this regard, it appears as if notions of democracy, power, and interest are not only juxtaposed, but are in fact feeding on each other, perpetuating but one form of democracy - that of market liberalism.

Global civil society has risen in opposition to these developments and contests the US unilateral approach of spreading liberal democracy and capitalism through interventionism. The power of civil society is defined not in terms of miliary capability, but rather in the sheer number of people represented. Civil society groups are arguing for a global democracy, one that is bottom- up and expresses different interests in a diverse world. (Kuldor, 2003) Innovative approaches to democracy, such as cosmopolitan and deliberative approaches, are in favour of thinking about international politics from a people’s perspective and are interested in the reconfiguration of democracy itself to put power and the fulfilment of diverse interests where it belongs - into the hand of the people. This paper therefore argues that while international politics revolves around power and interest, it is important to think about how concepts of transnational democracy can be utilized to democratise the international systems in ways that represent the interest of the people and recognise them as the true foundation of authority.

Due to the confines of this paper, only cosmopolitan and deliberative approaches will be considered here, as they together deliver the most ‘persuasive account’ of transnational democracy. These two concepts are of further interest as they represent a superimposition of vertical bottom-up (reflexivity in public sphere, transcended into decisions) and horizontal bottom-down (cosmopolitan international norms and law) approaches. It should be noted that global or transnational democracy, as a ‘shared fascination’ of political theorists and international relations scholars, is a rather new field of inquiry and is still in its infancy. (McGrew, 2002)

Cosmopolitan democracy aims to establish a functional relationship and overlap of democratic governance on five different levels: the local, state-wide, interstate, regional and global. (Archibugi, 2004) On the local level, the strengthening of intergovernmental and non­governmental organization to bring together communities and local bodies is supported. On the state level, the expansion of democracy is promoted. In a cosmopolitan view, intergovernmental organizations, such as the United Nations (UN), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Bank need to increase their accountability and legitimacy. Regional networks and organizations, such as the European Union (EU) are seen as important promoters and links to foster democracy. The global dimension is by far the most ambitious project for cosmopolitans. The aim is to establish a democratically governed world government as the ‘cardinal institution’, (Archibugi, 2004) in which any tensions and constraints between the aforementioned overlapping dimensions would be solved in a ‘domain of global constitutionalism’ by internationalising democratic law. (Held, 1999)

Deliberative democracy, as a talk-centric approach, puts debate and discussions amongst all members of the wider public sphere at its core. (Chambers, 2003) It aims to produce ‘reasonable, well-informed opinions’, in which reflexivity is thought to ‘create intelligent action’ in a world of overlapping communities of fate. It thus affects decision-making in public spheres, while it is not reliant on formal institutions or voting. (Dryzek, 2006) Its principles include non-domination, participation, public deliberation, responsive governance and the ‘right of all-affected to a voice in public decisions’. Its principles offer a foundation upon which ‘inclusive, responsive and responsible’ global democracy can be built. (McGrew, 2002)

Today, most states are already democratic and democracy has no ‘global rivals’ as a form of government. (Diamond, 2003) It might be too early to claim that democracy is a universal value, but an increasing number of people ‘have reason to see it as valuably’. (Sen, 1997) However, powerful economic and structural forces have a tight grip on the realities in the international system and are considered to ‘impede the prospects of transnational democracy’. (McGrew, 2002) At the same time, in the age of globalisation, notions of sovereignty and territoriality, as powerful concepts to explain the struggle for power and interest in IR, have been re-examined and some scholars point towards an ‘unbundling of territoriality’. (Ruggie, 1993) In contrast, US hegemony reassures those who believe in the importance of thinking about power and interests as prevailing state-centric concepts of concern in the study of IR. In spite of all of the above issues, cosmopolitan and deliberative theories, as ambitious and radical normative approaches, offer viable options to democratise the international system. They are of course inherently idealistic, but to not think about and promote them would mean to accept power and interest as a natural and inevitable quality of the international system.

People around the globe continue to form non-governmental networks to organise and mobilise against US hegemonic power and the interests of market liberalism. Transnational democratic concepts, especially cosmopolitan and deliberative approaches, are powerful tools for the wider public sphere to unite and jointly democratise the international system in more inclusive and stratified ways. Public discourses and deliberations in the form of protests and political activism have already forced many governments and major transnational agencies (i.e. UN, WTO) to think about and to put on the reform agenda values of transparency, accountability, participation and legitimacy. (McGrew, 2002)

The struggle for power and interest in international politics is unlikely to disappear, but as the civil society and other actors continue to press for reform on the global stage, there is the possibility for power to be partly put back into the hands of the people, who would be enabled to express their interests in democratic ways. Transnational democracy is therefore of crucial importance in challenging the dominant paradigms of power and interest in the international system, and needs to be firmly positioned in the study and practise of international relations as an ongoing project.

If democratic states are ‘morally reliable’, do we need démocratisation of the international system itself, or can we just rely on coalitions of these ‘reliable’ states?

Moral reliability was termed as an assumed characteristic of some democratic states in a cosmopolitan institutional proposal, which endeavours into the ‘permissibility of preventive war’. (Buchanan, Keohane, 2004) Not only does this assumption seem to be problematic as a criterion to build a conceptual framework, as it leaves unbridgeable room for normative interpretation, it also seems to entail an unsurmountable teleological spiral between morality and reliability. However, taking its postulation as a given perquisite of (some) democratic states, the above stated question remains. To answer the question from a cosmopolitan viewpoint, one would argue that the democratisation of the international system remains important in the era of globalisation in order to continue the reproduction of democracy both in international institutions as well as within states.

In recent decades, two main trends could be observed in the international arena. One is commonly referred to as globalisation, defined by a growing level of interdependence and interconnectedness of the social and economic international system. (Held, 1999:84) The other trend is the rise and manifestation of democratic rule in a growing number of states around the globe as the principal form of political organization. (Diamond, 2003:260-261) The assumption that democracy would follow in the wake of social and economic globalisation prompted a number of scholars to envisage a merger of the two phenomena, towards cosmopolitanism. (Archibugi, 2004:437-438) These scholars claim that the project of global democracy is the logical, idealistic and normative extension of the liberal Enlightenment ideals of human emancipation and perpetual peace. (Kant, 1964) This view gives reason for its proponents to argue that state democracy needs to be extended into the international system itself. (Bohman)

The atrocities of 9/11, in conjunction with the unilateral quest of the US to fight global terrorism and promote democracy, fuelled a quest amongst cosmopolitans to reaffirm ‘an alternative strategy’ rooted in international law and justice. The cosmopolitan alternative, they realise had been ‘temporarily lost from view’ and needs to ‘fight to regain’ its prominence. (Held, 2003) They maintain that in order to fight terrorism, democracy should be promoted on a global scale, however its propagation should not be monopolised by the US; instead international regimes such as the United Nations (UN) or the International Criminal Court (ICC) are seen to hold and have proven a higher degree of legitimacy, which should be harnessed and built upon. (McFaul, 2004) A cosmopolitan institutional design explored the ‘permissibility of preventive war’, as mentioned, in line with cosmopolitan norms. Its proposal is grounded around a set of ex ante and ex post incentives and sanctions to hold states accountable who are willing to intervene and those who oppose preventive action. (Buchanan, Keohane: 2004)

Thus, institutional accountability is based on three design principles: effectiveness, mutual respect and inclusion of international institutions (such as the UN) to govern the preventive use of force. Decisions to use force should be taken by agents who are ‘comparatively’ morally reliable. These agents would be best suited to effectively endorse the responsible use of force and to prevent massive human rights (HR) violations. They are ‘morally reliable if they have proven a ‘decent’ record to protect and promote HR over a ‘considerable’ period of time.

Such characteristics of democratic states are not only open for interpretation semantically, but are also difficult to determine practically. The proposal realises these shortcomings and offers a solution: the provision of ‘incentives’ to ensure that decisions are made with ‘best available information’ and are consistent with ‘cosmopolitan principles’. (Buchanan, Keohane: 2004)

While the feasibility of the criterion remains questionable, it does however point towards the need to democratise international institutions themselves in order to ensure the long-term realisation of cosmopolitanism. It follows that the evaluation and choice of who is eligible as ‘morally reliable’ can only be determined by an overarching international institutions based on international law. The recognition of these institutions, especially by powerful states, is thus crucial. Unfortunately current realities do not support this ideal, in light of unilateral interventions by the US to invade Iraq and its disregard of the UN Security Council.

The veto power of the members of the UN Security Council continues to be a problematic issue when it comes to the use of preventive force. The interests of powerful states (in addition to the fact that not all of its members are especially democratic, i.e. China and Russia) are often in the way of endorsing decisions properly, that is without hidden agendas of strategic interests. The need for the democratisation of the Security Council, for it to become more inclusive, must become a stated goal of those democratic nations thus far excluded. Smaller democratic nations, who are assumed to be ‘morally reliable’, need to adhere into coalitions amongst each other; they can thus create a substantial counterweight to the ‘irresponsible’ unilateral forays of powerful states. By doing so, they would inevitably commence to search for ways of promoting democratic principles in international institutions, and to pressure powerful states to revert to multilateral means of resolving global problems.

Accountability and legitimacy at both the domestic and international levels indeed show tendencies of moving into a closer relationship. (Clark, 2005) The forces of socio-economic global transformations not only move people and their issues into closer proximity, but also increase the possibility of a cosmopolitan model of accountable and justice-oriented international political global order. The rise of democratic principles in a growing number of nation states clearly indicates a probable chance for them to also move beyond state borders into the international system. Democratising the international system is the foremost responsibility of ‘morally reliable’ nations. Existing international institutions, such as the UN need to be overhauled and reformed under the auspice of these democratic nations.

Even if it is assumed that states are ‘morally reliable’, it is no guarantee that they will remain so indefinitely. Democracy is not a static condition. However, if the international system itself becomes democratic it can enable and support democratic coalitions. Democratic coalitions will find important allies in international institutions to proliferate democracy if these institutions are themselves legitimate and accountable. The move towards a global democratic system is a slow process and requires patience and perseverance from democratic nations to foster its principles both internally and externally. If the international system itself becomes democratic, in the long run this could only be considered an additional merit for ‘morally reliable’ democratic coalitions in their pursuit to ensure legitimacy and accountability in the international system.


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Democracy in world politics
The Australian National University
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Jan Lüdert (Author), 2006, Democracy in world politics, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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