Will Democracy Survive in the Globalisation Era?

, by Lucio Levi

All the versions of this article: [English] [italiano]

Will Democracy Survive in the Globalisation Era?

Democratic peace theory holds that democracies do not wage war against one another. Two false consequences are drawn from this theory. The first is that the spread of democracy to every state would in itself be sufficient to achieve universal peace. The second is that spreading democracy should be the first foreign policy priority of all democratic states.

These views ignore the fact that historical conditions may either promote or hamper the success of democracy and its stabilization. As asserted by James Madison at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, “The means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home”.

This law of politics explains not only the erosion of freedom in the US after 9/11, but also the collapse of democratic institutions in Italy, Germany and Spain between the World Wars, and more generally the authoritarian degeneration of political regimes caused by the political and military pressure they experienced on their borders. The lesson we can draw from historical experience is that peace, or at least international détente, is the principal prerequisite of democracy.

A more recent lesson can be learned from the setbacks in the US doctrine of bringing democracy to the Middle-East and from the experience of failed states such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Efforts to establish democracy in this region are frustrated by the climate of insecurity, violence and corruption prevailing in those countries, which worsened after the US military interventions.

This experience shows that an additional preliminary condition is needed in order to pave the way to democracy: namely, a stable government that assures the rule of law. Moreover, regrettable as it may be for the idealist, there are material requirements for a democratic society, i.e. the eradication of poverty, disease and illiteracy. They enable people to become rational and intellectually aware actors in the decision-making process.

Democracy in the world

And yet, in spite of these obstacles on the road to successful democracy, past decades have seen a sweeping advance of democracy in the world since the Portuguese revolution in 1974. It has spread to Southern and Eastern Europe, the ex-Soviet Union, Asia and Latin America. For the first time in UN history a majority of member states’ governments are elected through a democratic procedure. According to the latest Freedom House Report (January 2008), there are 121 electoral democracies in the world, among which liberal democracies number 90, partly free countries 60 and only 43 not free. This extraordinary progress of democracy depends to a high degree on two parallel processes: the effect of globalisation and the end of Cold War.

Nevertheless, we should recognize that democracy has never shown such worrying signs of weakness as today. At world level there is a widening gap between the market and civil society. These have become global while politics remains substantially confined within national borders. Consequently, the decisions on which the destiny of peoples depends, such as those of security, control of the global economy, international justice or protection of the environment, tend to shift away from representative institutions.

Democratisation of international relations

The feeling widely shared among citizens is that the most important decisions have migrated away from institutions under their control and towards international power centres free from any form of democratic supervision. Globalisation thus brings about the crisis of democracy. In fact, seen from a global viewpoint, the decisions taken at the national level where democratic powers exist are relatively minor. At the international level, on the other hand, where the most important decisions are taken, there are no democratic institutions.

The danger we are facing is the depletion of democracy. More precisely we should ask ourselves how long democracy can last in a world where citizens are excluded from participating in decisions which determine their destiny. The alternative—globalisation—must be democratised before it destroys democracy entirely.

The danger we are facing is the depletion of democracy

International relations, which are still the jousting ground for diplomatic and military rivalries among states and antagonism between non-state actors, can only be brought under popular control by international democracy. Analysis of the structures of international organizations shows that these are diplomatic machines within which governments pursue co-operation.

Recently some of them have been enriched with parliamentary assemblies which represent their national parliaments’ response to the globalisation process but are also an admission of the erosion of their power. In other words, they attempt to shift parliamentary control of governments to international level. Most such multinational assemblies are made up of national parliamentarians, although the European Parliament, which represents the most advanced evolution of this category of international assemblies, is directly elected.

The role of the European Parliament

The European Parliament is the laboratory of international democracy. Since the introduction of direct elections it has increased its legislative and control powers over the Commission—that is, over what is potentially the European government. This means that the democratization of the European Union has been a mighty tool for strengthening European institutions. It is worth recalling that the dilemma which arose during the process of European integration, namely whether to concentrate on strengthening the European Community first or to democratize it first, has been solved in favor of the second option. The same hypothesis can be formulated as regards the problem of democratization of the UN.

The plan to bring globalisation under democratic control is meeting with formidable opposition not only from states with authoritarian regimes, but primarily from the US government which is unwilling to let its own freedom of action to be lessened by the international organizations to which it belongs, nor by movements arising in the global civil society. This is a further example of the premise that, to be a promoter of international democracy, it is not enough to have a democratic regime—a necessary, but insufficient condition.

The plan to bring globalisation under democratic control is meeting with formidable opposition

To overcome US opposition, a centre of power must emerge capable of supporting the plan for a world democratic order. It is reasonable to believe that Europe will play such a role. For instance, the European Parliament supports the project for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly. The significance of European unification lies in surpassing the nation-state, a form of political organization that develops strong relations with the other states.

Therefore it is fairly safe to assume that the EU does not have hegemonic ambitions, nor will any future European Federation. Although the EU aspires to independence in its relationship with the US, its objective will not be to replace the US as the stabilizer of world order.

Europe will rather pursue a policy of co-operation with the US with the prospect of joint management of the world order, open to participation of other regional groupings of states. On the other hand, Europe will hold sufficient power to relieve the United States of some of its overwhelming world responsibilities and thus have the authority to persuade it to support the democratic reform of the UN.

The article was published in March 2008 in the Federalist Debate.

Lucio Levi is Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Turin, Italy, and member of the Executive Committe of the World Federalist Movement - WFM - and of the Federal Committee of the Union of European Federalistd - UEF.

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