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Cosmopolitan democracy and its critics


Daniele Archibugi*


To be published in Bruce Morrison (ed.), Transnational Democracy: A Critical Consideration of Sites and Sources, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2003, chapter XIII.


Italian National Research Council
Via dei Taurini, 19
00185 Roma, Italy
email archibu@isrds.rm.cnr.it

Revised - 15 January 2003 – Complete version


The origins of cosmopolitan democracy


Less than fifteen years ago we witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, yet we get the feeling that the event already belongs to a distant past. Today, we find ourselves in an entirely new global political era, and the dreams of a world founded on the rule of law, co-operation among people and even democratic public participation in global decision-making, have dissolved as can only happen to the boldest of utopias. Meanwhile we continue to die because of wars, political violence and famine, just as we did twenty years ago.

It is not the fist time that humanity has cherished dreams of justice that have suddenly been put aside. Following the Prise de la Bastille, for instance, the many new expectations that emerged from the revolution continued to be nourished throughout even the Napoleonic wars. The Battle of Waterloo, however, put an end to the dreams of the revolution – moreover so badly pursued - of freedom, equality and fraternity. In our time, there are those who hold the belief that the fall of the Twin Towers marked the ending of the hopes raised by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Despite the radical effects that the events of September the 11 have had on reshaping world-wide politics, a new political order has not yet emerged to suppress the hope for a global society keen to the values of democracy and legality. The collapse of the Soviet Union, with the parallel victory of the West, coupled with the new wave of democracy and the accentuation of economic and social globalisation, have brought profound changes to global politics. The idea of a cosmopolitan democracy, also one of the products of this era, may yet be the beneficiary of these developments. Neither Waterloo, nor the fall of the Twin Towers, could entirely and enduringly suppress the aspirations for a New World order.

The victory of the West, understood here as that ensemble of advanced capitalist states governed by liberal-democratic regimes, is not unprecedented: the allies brought a similarly thorough defeat to the fascist regimes during the Second World War. Rather, what is entirely new is the resolution of the Cold War without resorting to an armed conflict. The liberal-democratic and capitalist bloc had simply grown powerful enough as to prevent a violent confrontation with its post-WWII rival. Thus, the strength of liberal democracies has not been measured exclusively in military terms – a physical confrontation between the two major nuclear powers would have spared no winners – but rather in terms of its political, economic and cultural abilities.

The West’s hegemony has only grown since the end of the Second World War. What effect was this victory to have on the rest of the world? Would the triumph of Western democracies generate similar political systems in the remaining part of the globe? Some positive effects were observed at the beginning of the 1990’s, when a new wave of democracy permeated countries in the South as well as in the East. Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel left their prison cells to rule from the presidential palaces of their respective countries. Free elections became a positive tool for the legitimisation of governments in a steadily increasing number of states. The United Nations, after decades of dullness imposed by its super-powers’ rivalry, appeared to rediscover the ambitions nurtured by its founders: the establishment of a political locus where the most important global issues could be condensed.

These examples are by no means an attempt to dismiss the despicable behaviour that Western democracies have all too often assumed outside their national borders. Colonial adventures and the many battles fought for them find their echo in the brutality exerted by Western states over the Third World. Moreover, on far too many occasions the United States has supported bloody and despotic regimes in the South, with the sole intention of gaining their loyalty and using it against their communal enemies, the Soviet Union and its allies. With the menace dissolved, one could have hoped that the West would have chosen more cautiously its friends and partners, favouring the consolidation of democratic movements within developing countries rather than supporting those elites that, although to them loyal, were nonetheless despotic in nature. Within the West, the United States’ foreign policy had been dominated by the slogan “the enemies of my enemies are my friends”; but could it have been replaced with the more promising maxim “the friends of my rights are my friends”?

Putting aside the political vicissitudes, economic and social processes have increasingly connected the various parts of the globe. Globalisation – a word that nobody likes but that everybody uses – has become the emblem of our times. As David Held notes (1995, p. 17), mortgage repayments, the spread of a contagious disease, or employment for instance – all examples of factors that directly affect our daily lives – can be dependent upon decisions taken in places remote to the areas interested: as with an American Federal Reserve increase in interest rates for instance, or the intent of a tropical government to keep secret the development of a new epidemic, or the choice of a Japanese firm to invest abroad. It is only fair to question how such a pronounced globalisation could proceed in spheres as different as finance, trade, fashion and the mass media without exerting repercussions also upon the international political system.


The necessity for a cosmopolitan democracy


The historical events mentioned above have led to the idea of a cosmopolitan democracy: the attempts to globalise not only the economic model that won the battle, but also its political model (the necessity of a democracy beyond the state has been discussed in Archibugi and Held, 1995; Held, 1995; 1997; 2002; Falk, 1995; 1998; McGrew, 1997; 2002; Archibugi and Koheler, 1997; Archibugi, Held and Koehler, 1998; Kaldor, 1998; Linklater, 1998; Habermas, 1998; 2001; Dryzek, 1999; Thompson, 1999; Holden, 2000; Archibugi, 2003). Though, the expression “to globalise democracy” hides a trap: must we read the maxim as the application of a democratic system in every state in the world, or as a worldwide democracy? The most tenacious defenders of democracy within states often become sceptics, if not even cynics, when confronted with the hypothesis of a global democracy. Dahrendorf (2002, p. 9) settled the issues by hastily declaring that to propose a global democracy is to “bark at the moon”. With a more elegant argument, Dahl (1999, p. 21) concluded that “the international system will lie below any reasonable threshold of democracy”. Nonetheless, cosmopolitan democracy continues to take upon itself the risks of proposing the globalisation of a democracy both at the level of state institutions - present and future - and at the level of global society. Cosmopolitan democracy aspires simultaneously to the pursuit of democratic values within, among and beyond the role of the state.

The necessary condition for the pursuit of such a goal is dependent on a combination of assumptions, to be examined in turn:

  • Democracy is to be conceptualised as a process rather than as a static agglomeration of norms and procedures.

  • An international conflicting system impedes the establishment of a democracy within states.

  • Democracy within states does not affect unequivocally the foreign policy of any given state.

  • Global democracy is not just the result of the generalisation of democracy within the state.

  • Globalisation erodes states autonomy.

  • The stake-holders’ community in a relevant and growing number of specific issues does not necessarily coincide with the states’ territorial borders.

  • The development of an ethical adhesion spurs citizens to become increasingly more participant towards those issues that affect other individuals and communities, even when these are geographically and culturally very distant from their own.


Democracy is to be conceptualised as an historical process rather than as an agglomeration of norms and procedures – Democracy cannot be understood in static terms. Those states with the most grounded traditions are today attempting to sail their system into uncharted waters. For example, in the most fully established regimes, the number of rights-holders is on the increase: minorities, immigrants, future generation, even animals, have today been granted a particular set of rights. Modalities for decision-making are once again under dispute, as indicated by the debate over deliberative democracy (Habermas, 1998; Dryzek, 2000; Bohman, 1998), while the issue of aggregation of political preferences, initially raised by Condorcet, is once again at the centre of the debate.th

Never before has the debate within democratic theory been so vigorous as during the last decade of the 20 century, the same decade that also witnessed the victory of democracy. What conclusions could we possibly draw from all this? First of all, that the idea of democracy as an unaccomplished mission is gaining new support (Dunn, 1982). More generally, democracy is increasingly seen as an endless journey, such that we lack today the ability to predict the direction in which future generations will push the forms of contestation, participation, and management.

Such assumptions place democracy not only in a world historical context, but also within the history specific to each political community. The way in which the evaluation of the political systems is effectively configured becomes therefore decisive: each and every political system can be evaluated more effectively on the basis of a scale relative to its own development, rather than through a simplistic democracy/non-democracy dichotomy. This would imply that, in order to evaluate the political system of a state, it becomes necessary to take into account both the level of, and the path to, democracy (see Beetham, 1994; and ch. 10 in this volume; UNDP, 2002).


A system of states based on conflict impedes democracy within states. – The absence of a peaceful international climate has the effect of blocking dissent, of modifying opposition and inhibiting freedom of information within states. Citizens’ rights are limited and, in order to satisfy the need for security, civil and political rights are therefore wounded. This is all but new. Back in the 16thth century, Erasmus noted that “I am loth to suspect here what only too often, alas!, has turned out to be the truth: that the rumour of war with the Turks has been trumped up with the purpose of mulcting the Christian population, so that being burned and crushed in all possible ways it might be all the more servile towards the tyranny of both kind of princes (ecclesiastical and secular)” (Erasmus, 1536, pp. 347-8). In the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau elucidated upon the connection between internal/external by reminding that war, or its menace, was but a method employed by tyrants as a means to control their subjects: "war and conquest without and the encroachment of despotism within give each other mutual support...Aggressive princes wage war at least as much on their subjects as on their enemies, and the conquering nation is left no better off than the conquered" (1756, p. 91). These observations took on a new meaning during the Cold War: in the East the foreign menace was being employed as a tool to inhibit democracy, whilst in the West to limit its potential (Kaldor, 1990). At the same time, leaderships were fuelling the confrontation – the democratic ones no less than the autocratic leadership of the old Soviet Union – as an instrument to maintain internal dominion.

The Cold War has ended, but the need to find scapegoats has not ceased. Extremist parties – even in democratic states –still reinforce their power by fuelling the flames of international conflict. The development of democracy has thus been influenced both by the lack of external conditions and the will to create them. Even today, the dangers of terrorism have led to an imposed limitation on civil rights in many states. It is, therefore, undoubtedly significant that the recent project of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (see Beetham, ch. 10 in this volume) evaluates the democratic status of a state, possibly for the first time, also on the basis of its external conditions. Thus, an international order, founded both on peace and the rule of law, is a necessary condition for the progression of democracy within states.


Democracy within states favours peace. – The presence of a democratic structure hinders the ability of governments to engage in insane wars that put at risk the life and the welfare of their citizens. A noble liberal tradition has pointed out that autocrats are most prone to conflicts, whereas control exerted by the public over its government has the ability to contain this. Jeremy Bentham (1786-89) maintained that, to diminish the chances of engaging in a war, it becomes necessary to abolish the secrecy operating within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and to allow citizens to verify the conformity of foreign policies to their interest. James Madison (1792) believed that in order to prevent conflict from taking place, the will of governments would have to be subjected to the will of the people. Immanuel Kant (1795, p. 100) held that if a state adopted a republican constitution, the chances of going at war would be few and far between since, “if the approval of citizens were required on the issue of whether or not to go at war, there would be nothing more natural if these [the citizens] - once having acknowledge their responsibility for any calamities caused by the war - were to give the matter a considerable amount of thought before engaging in such a wicked game”.


Democracy within states does not univocally influence a state’s foreign policy. – Democratic states do not necessarily apply to their foreign policy those same principles and values on which their internal system is built. Already Tucidides narrates with disenchanted realism how citizens of the polis voted with enthusiasm, “amongst a pile other fascinating nonsense” (Book VI, 8. See also 1 and 24 in the same book) in favour of the campaign against Sicily, despite the fact they were totally oblivious to both the island’s location or its size. The analogies between Athens’s foreign policy and the United States’ are many (cfr. Gilbert, 1999, ch. 4). Of course, Realist theorists would not expect a democratic regime to necessarily imply a more virtuous foreign policy. The calamity of USA engagement in Vietnam, purportedly in democracy’s name, should still torment the consciences of democrats. Cosmopolitan democracy, therefore, takes for granted the lesson imparted by realists regarding the absence of consistency between domestic and foreign policies. It is, however, through further investigation of two hidden virtues of democratic regimes that it may become possible to bridge the “real” and the “ideal” elements of their foreign policies. The first of these two virtues is the interest of states in generating and participating in inter/trans-national associations (Russett and Oneal, 2001). The second one is the tendency of states to nourish a greater respect for rules when these are shared amongst communities that recognise each other as analogous.


Global democracy is not just the result of generalising democracy within the state. The debate that has flourished over the hypothesis that “democracies do not fight each other” (Doyle, 1983; Russett, 1993; Russett and Oneal, 2001) suggests a connection, casual and precise, binding the system internal to states to peace at the international level. According to a syllogism that is never made explicit, the persistence of war is ascribable to the presence of non-democratic states. Consequently, it is by simply acting upon the internal political systems of a state that one can guarantee a peaceful community at the international level.

Although the attainment of democracy within states does strengthen the international rule of law and might also show the ability to reduce the necessity to resort to war, we do not consider this sufficiently strong to act as the base for the reform of international relations (see Franceschet, 2000 for a comparison between democratic peace and cosmopolitan democracy). There is an added specific dimension that requires consideration, and that is how to extend democracy also to a global level, which cannot be understood solely in terms of “absence of war”.


Globalisation limits the political autonomy of a state. It would be hard to imagine nowadays a state’s political community that is both autonomous and independent. Each state’s political choices are bound to a set of obligations and formalities (as for example those determined by agreements undersigned between states) and, even more so, to informalities (see, after Held, 1995; the flourishing debate on the matter: Clark, 1999; Cerny, 1999; Keohane, 2003). Whilst the traditional internal/external dichotomy of international relations assumes the existence of a defined separation between the two areas, these two dimensions appear progressively connected, as has been highlighted by the literature on international regimes (Rosenau, 1997). The chances of a state’s political community taking decisions autonomously are thinning, which consequentially leads us to the question: via what kind of structures will the various political communities be able to deliberate in a democratic fashion on matters that are of interest to them?


Stake-holders’ communities don’t always respect national borders. – We can identify two sets of interests that bypass states’ borders. On the one hand, we can find matters that involve all inhabitants of the planet. Many environmental problems are authentically global, since they influence the destiny of both men and women irrespectively of their state of origin (Gleeson and Low, 2001), though we must not think that only issues of such breadth cross a state’s borders. Borders are also crossed by circumscribed communities who share communal interests on a limited number of aspects, all equally important to them. The management of a lake surrounded by five different states, the existence of a religious or linguistic community with members scattered in remote areas of the world, the dependence of workers in more than one state on the strategic choices of the same multinational firm, the ethics of a specialised and professional society, are all issues that are not faced democratically within a state’s political community. In most cases, such “overlapping communities of faith” (Held, 1995, p. 136) lack the means necessary to influence those political choices that affect their destiny. Governments have put in place specific inter-governmental organisations, but these are dominated by government officials rather than by a stake-holders’ majority, causing in turn the adoption of statist perspectives. Even in cases where all participating states are democratic ones, the deliberative process on these matters does not follow the democratic principle according to which everyone who is involved should benefit from the right to take part in the decision-making process, not even if all participating states were democratic.

Take the striking example of the nuclear experiments conducted by the French government in 1996 in Mururoa, in the Pacific: the decision to undertake the experiment was based on the procedures of a state with a long-standing tradition of democracy. Evidently, though, the stake-holders’ community was substantially different, since the French public was not exposed to eventual nuclear radiation, but was receiving the (supposed) advantage in terms of national security and/or nuclear energy. The French public would have certainly had a different reaction if those same experiments had been conducted in the Parisian region. Instead, the communities in the Pacific experienced the environmental disadvantages only. The Mururoa case is certainly one of the most outstanding, but the occasions in which a state’s political community diverge from the stake-holders community are increasing.

The role of stake-holders in a democratic community has long been recognised: democratic theory attempts to take into account not only the sum of each individual preference, but also the number of times each individual is involved in making a specific choice. In a similar fashion, a significant part of contemporary democratic theory, inspired by Rousseau, is committed to the analysis of the process concerning the production of preferences rather than its aggregation (Young, 2000, p. 23). This is just one of many fields in which the theory and practice of democracy are developing, but still today this issue is being neglect at the international level. Can the issues affecting stake-holders alien to a single state continue to be overlooked in a democratic order?


A global ethical participation. – It is not only a common interest that brings populations closer together. Already Kant (1795, p. 107) noted that “in reference to the association of the world’s populations one has progressively come to such an indication, that the violation of a right in any one point of the Earth, is adverted in all of its points”. Together with the violation of human rights, also natural catastrophes, conditions of extreme poverty and environmental risks tend to increasingly unite the various populations of this planet.

Human beings are capable of a solidarity that often extends beyond the perimeters of their state. Surveys have revealed that approximately 15 % of the Earth’s inhabitants already perceive themselves as global citizens, against the 38 % who identify themselves nationally and 47 % locally (Norris, 2000. For a discussion, see Marchetti, 2002). If we take these data at prima faciae, it emerges that only a minority of the World’s population considers its own identity to reside in those institutions that depend upon the Weberian monopoly of legitimised use of force. The emergence a multiple identity could lead also to multiple layers of governance. If to this we add the increasing global identity amongst young people and among those with a higher cultural level, it becomes licit to ask: what results will these surveys yield in 10, 50 or 100 years time?

This diffused feeling of participation to global issues is expressing itself also via the formation of an increasing number of non-governmental organisations and global movements (Glasius et al., 2001; 2002; Pianta, 2003). Although there is a tendency to exaggerate the extent to which citizens participate in matters that do not directly affect their political community, the feeling of belonging to a planetary community is nevertheless growing and assuming a political dimension.

It has been observed that the necessity of reaching a political association amongst various populations would hold even in the absence of a process of globalisation (Saward, 2000, p. 33). If globalisation strengthens the need for the coordination of inter-state politics, as a result of the interests of single components, the tension towards global ethics would not dissipate even if it were possible to re-establish the autonomous conditions of each state.

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