On the distinction between international democracy and global democracy

Andreas Bummel, 13. November 2012

At international meetings, top government representatives such as heads of state or foreign ministers often address the need of making the United Nations "more democratic" and "more representative." In recent times, for example, this was the case at the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in August or at the Bali Democracy Forum that closed last week. The main theme in Bali was "Advancing Democratic Principles at the Global Setting" and "Democratic Global Governance."

Top leaders gathered at the 5th Bali Democracy Forum to discuss "democratic global governance" (picture: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Indonesia)

Advocates of global democracy, however, need not hold their breath.

For the panelists in Bali, the main insight can probably be boiled down to the statement included in the conference report that "important decisions affecting global interests should reflect the views of the majority of countries and should not be determined by a small minority of powerful countries."

As Pitan Daslani stressed in the Jakarta Globe, one of the main worries was the reform of the UN Security Council. For them, democratizing the UN primarily means to strengthen the principle of equality of states (that is, the UN General Assembly), to enlarge the UN Security Council (that is, make it more representative), and to get rid of the privileges of the Council's permanent five members.

In the "final document" of the Non-Aligned Summit that runs over more than 160 pages, it sounds like this:

The Movement reiterated its strong concern at the growing resort to unilateralism and unilaterally imposed measures that undermine the UN Charter and international law, and further reiterated its commitment to promoting, preserving and strengthening multilateralism and the multilateral decision making process through the UN, by strictly adhering to its Charter and international law, with the aim of creating a just and equitable world order and global democratic governance, and not one based on monopoly by the powerful few;

These aims might or might not be laudable. The point is that it's an incomplete and narrow approach. The underlying assumption is that "democratic global governance" is accomplished once the principle of sovereign equality of states is fully reflected in international decision-making. In a previous post I have tried to show that this is anything but democratic.

Former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali who will celebrate his 90th birthday this week, has made it quite clear in this article that there is an important distinction between international democracy and global democracy.

When governments talk about global democratization or democratizing the UN, they refer to the concept of international democracy, that is, the relationship between governments in the international arena and in international bodies. However, in a proper use of the term, global democracy is something very different. It's a "third dimension of democratization," as Boutros-Ghali writes, namely "developing global democracy beyond states." Global democracy in this sense deals with the status of the world's citizens in the global order.

Now here are some of the most important differences between international and global democracy (and for sure there are more):

  • The unit of concern in international democracy is the states whereas in global democracy it's the citizens.
  • The starting point of international democracy is national independence whereas in global democracy it's global interdependence.
  • The main paradigm of international democracy is the sovereign equality of states whereas in global democracy it's the equality of all human beings.
  • Representation in international democracy is achieved through officials who are appointed by the executive branch of national governments whereas in global democracy it is achieved through citizen-elected representatives, that is, parliamentarians.
  • The perspective prevalent in international democracy is national interests whereas in global democracy it's the common planetary interest of all human beings.

There is nothing innovative about international democracy. It's a state-centric ideology that is not necessarily appealing as such. People want more than that today. With regard to the Bali Democracy Forum, Ignas Kleden, the chair of the Indonesian Community for Democracy, has asked in an OpEd: "Who's event is it?", stressing the desire of civil society to be better included in this intergovernmental forum.

If we ask "Who's UN is it?", the answer is still quite clear. As yet, there's no government I know of that has clearly endorsed the idea of global democracy in it's proper meaning.

A UN Parliamentary Assembly would be a way of reconciling international and global democracy. Embracing elements of global democracy by supporting a UN Parliamentary Assembly would make initiatives such as the Bali Democracy Forum much more credible, appealing, and forceful.