Global Policy Forum

Globalization Needs a Dose of Democracy


By Richard Falk and Andrew Strauss

October 5, 1999

The economic and political problems of the last year have driven home just how reliant the world has become upon effective international solutions to what would previously have been considered regional or local problems.

A foreign reserve shortfall in Thailand triggered an economic crisis in emerging markets that very possibly would have engulfed the whole of the world economy if not for extensive intervention by the IMF. Human rights crises in tiny Kosovo and in East Timor were seen as having profoundly destabilizing implications and as calling for significant military responses by NATO and the United Nations.

Because of the urgent demands of a more interconnected, globalized world it seems inevitable that the international order will play a significantly enhanced role in the next century. There is, however, no structure in place to ensure that this order will be organized along democratic lines.

In fact, despite the increasing importance placed on democratization of domestic governance, almost no attention has been devoted to ensuring that this most fundamental political value is applied to the increasingly important global dimensions of our politics.

Accepting the challenge to extend democracy beyond its familiar link to the state does not tell us how this might best be done. We believe that the most promising innovation would be a worldwide grassroots campaign to establish the first Global Peoples' Assembly.

To many this idea must seem fanciful. Certainly it seems unlikely that most governments would support a proposal that would threaten their monopoly in the global arena. But governmental reluctance need not be decisive.

Globalization is creating a nongovernmental global civil society composed of nongovernmental organizations, transnational business, labor, media, cultural and religious institutions and networks, and cosmopolitan individuals with extraordinary wealth and influence. This numerically small yet highly visible globalized citizenry now has the capacity, perhaps with the help of some forward-looking governments, to organize such an assembly.

If, as the democratic principle asserts, political authority ultimately resides in citizens, then the citizenry has the right to found its own assembly.

How could we proceed to bring this assembly into being? Perhaps the most effective initial move would be to issue an appeal endorsed by moral authority figures (religious leaders, Nobel Peace Prize laureates) that calls on the peoples of the world to bring about such an assembly. If well-executed, this appeal would probably succeed in raising needed organizing funds.

As a second stage, meetings could be arranged throughout the world with the goal of forming a citizens' committee that could organize and administer global elections. A voting formula based upon one person, one vote would probably be acceptable and fairest. Elections could then be held, monitored by respected observers.

Along the way many stumbling blocks would of course arise. Global voter roles would have to be generated. A system of campaign finance and other election rules would need to be established, and attempts to manipulate or undermine elections would have to be effectively guarded against.

Some governments would undoubtedly not allow elections to occur in their countries. As a result, these societies would initially be unrepresented, or temporarily represented by a selection process carried out among citizens in exile.

There is little reason to believe that logistical and political problems could not be solved by sufficiently dedicated participants. The innovation of a global assembly seems far less radical than was the bitter historical struggle waged for centuries against royal absolutism to establish parliamentary bodies representative of the citizenry.

Once established, the assembly would play a modest role at first. But if it achieved a respected presence over a period of years, it would begin to influence governments and media. At this point it could seek formal inclusion within the United Nations system.

Until this point is reached, the assembly would have an international legal status similar to that of such nongovernmental organizations as the Red Cross, Amnesty International or the International Olympic Committee - but with one big difference. It could lay some claim to represent all the peoples of the world.

As the only such body, it would have the potential to become influential long before receiving formal recognition. Parliament in England, after all, began as an informal advisory body whose influence as the sole representative of the people gradually achieved potency.

In our own time, the increasingly powerful, directly elected European Parliament existed for many years as a largely symbolic representative of the peoples of the European Union.

The global assembly could usefully contribute to the creation of planetary norms by expressing views on critical issues of global policy. Not only could such an assembly be a vehicle for championing social justice, it could greatly contribute to the development of a more peaceful global order.

Representatives from different countries and civilizations would convene in a climate of civility to advance mutual interests and discuss differences. Interest groups trying to influence the assembly would coalesce across national lines.

The normal parliamentary business of delegates working to build social consensus on issues would encourage the development of universal values over more parochial concerns and beliefs. A more democratic world, in which individuals and groups are less likely to perceive their rights as threatened, is a world more likely to be at peace. The rise of global civil society at this auspicious dawning of a new millennium gives us the opportunity to participate in creating a democratic system in which governmental power, domestic and international, is derived directly from the consent of the governed. Given a global peoples' assembly, the grander project of a democratic form of global governance could proceed with considerable confidence.


Mr. Falk is the Albert G. Milbank professor of international law and practice at Princeton University. Mr. Strauss is an associate professor of international law at the Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, Delaware.


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