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Is global governance bound to be undemocratic?

Essay 2002 11 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Allgemeines und Theorien


Is global governance bound to be undemocratic?

The answer to this question seems to be very simple. Global governance is bound to be undemocratic because, according to Dahrendorf, Internationalisation “almost invariably means a loss of democracy”[1]. Why and if this is the case will be examined in this essay. Governance, in contrast to government[2], “refers to the process of making collective decisions, [...] in international relations, for example, no world government exists to resolve problems but many issues are resolved by negotiation”[3]. After a discussion about democracy in this context, the focus will be laid on different global intergovernmental organisations (IGOs), followed by a future outlook over possible future alternative possibilities and restraints. It will be shown that international democratic decision making is not likely to happen.

Before entering the discussion, it is necessary to define what the term ´democracy` refers to. Normally it is used in a national context, and even within this context there exist various forms in parallel in neighbouring nations, whose political styles span from governmental to federal, and from one party to multiple party systems. Regarding the international order, which can be seen as a society of states, definition becomes more difficult. A basic definition is offered by the MSN Encarta as follows: “A political system in which the people of a country rule through any form of government they choose to establish”[4] ; but this refers merely to the ´people` and to a permanent institutional idea that does catch the real process. The definition of a “democratic governmental system [which describes] a system of government based on the principle of majority decision-making”[5] might suit here better, although it uses the term government instead of governance. Hence a decision in international terms has to be supported by the majority to be called democratic. Yet it is not clear what kind of majority this could be. Is it the majority of states? This implies that each state would have one voice without special rights unlike a veto. However, is this really democratic? This would favour small (in size and population), generally powerless and poor states and put large, populous, generally rich and influential countries at a disadvantage. Liechtenstein, for instance, with an area of 160 sq. km and a population of 32,528[6], would be equal in voting power to the United States of America, with more than 60,000 times the area and 8,500 times the population. However, by using the size of the states or the number of their inhabitants as an indicator for the weight of their votes, there emerge other problems. Taking Norway and Italy as examples, both are roughly the same geographical size[7], but Italy’s population is nearly thirteen times[8] that of Norway. It would be therefore understandable if Italy would demand a higher influence only in terms of its population size, besides other factors, such as economic strength. Nevertheless by taking the number of inhabitants as the sole vote determining figure, China and India together would be able to control approximately 37.4% of the votes[9] ; this would not only disregard the interests of small, but also of large nations, as well. As well as geographical size and population differences between states, there exist economic differences, such as GDP or UN funding. “Those states that contribute 70 percent of the UN’s resources [,for instance,] cast fewer than 5 percent of the votes that determine the way those resources are allocated”[10]. As a result we can see that whatever majority the democratic process would be based on, it always discriminates against some states, and favours others.

Besides the question of how majority can be measured, it is not obvious if there is global governance at all. It is not manageable in the limited extent of this paper to examine single interstate negotiations which in the end might lead to collective decisions according to the initial definition in the introduction. For the purpose of this essay it is more appropriate to focus on some major platforms, or “seminar rooms”[11] for groups of states, such as IGOs like the UN, or the WTO.

Regarding these IGOs the question arises: Can the international system work with majority decisions? The United nations for instance has democratic elements but could it work if those would play a major role? This section therefore examines some IGOs on the background of the actual state system and power relations. The United Nations rely on the principle of ´one state one vote` in its General Assembly[12] and although it “had been set up as a world parliament”[13], it does not play a decisive role. The great powers ensured their status by the stronger position of the Security Council (UNSC) as permanent members with the right to veto decisions. Although the UN was not created as a government, the UNSC is able to make decisions and has the power to get them through because if the most powerful nations agree on an issue there is no state who would oppose them. The UN Charter legitimises them to impose economic sanctions, arms embargo or even use collective military actions to see that its decisions are carried out[14]. Yet even this small council, with only 15 states is not constituted in a democratic way due to the five permanent members’ right to veto. Even if such a small circle want to overrule only one permanent member this is not possible. Furthermore, there is no prospect that this might change in the future. This right is the exclusive assurance for selected elite nations that nothing can happen against their interests, that the council is not able to make any decision to their disadvantage. 60 vetoes of the United States “exercised in the Security Council between 1976 an 1990”show that states do use this medium[15]. Therefore there is no driving force inside the UNSC to change this situation and the General Assembly does not have the power to do that. Except for the issues concerning the assembly itself (admission or expulsion of member states, budget etc.), merely “recommendations”[16] are possible[17]. Yet even if the assembly had the power and the executive means to change the UN’s decision-making process, the organisation would remain weak because most of its members fear its strength, and they fear the possibility that this international or federal organisation might become a mere instrument for the power and hegemony of one or a few of its strongest members[18]. And so, small as well as great powers are afraid of loosing sovereignty and influence if the UN would become a mighty democratic institution, and therefore there are few promoters of a democratisation process. Notwithstanding this, there are elected elements inside the UN which have but very limited power to be called governing institutions. The Economic and Social Council for instance is based on a representative system where 54 members are elected by the General Assembly for three year terms[19]. Nevertheless its authority is restricted as there is no possibility for it to intervene in a country’s affairs if for instance human rights violations are detected. There was no way, for instance, to punish Turkey for its behaviour towards the Kurdish part of its population, and even an arms embargo was not favoured, as Turkey is part of NATO, and the partners are obliged to supply weapons in their alliance. Hence a decision without the means to implement it cannot be called governance.


[1] Dahrendorf, Ralph, The third Way and Liberty: An Authoritarian Streak in Europe’s new Center, Foreign Affairs, Sept./Okt. 1999, p.13,16

[2] “A government consists of institutions responsible for making collective decisions for society. More narrowly, government refers to the top political level within such institutions”: Hague, Rod, Harrop, Martin, Comparative Government and Politics - An Introduction, Palgrave, 2001, p.5

[3] ibid.

[4] MSN-Encarta,

[5] MSN-Dictionary,

[6] July 2001 est., CIA World Factbook,

[7] Lieber, Robert J., No Common Power – Understanding International Relations (2nd Edition), HarperCollinsPublishers, 1991, p.109, table 5.2

[8] CIA World Factbook

[9] world population: 6,157,400,560, China: 1,273,111,290, India: 1,029,991,145 (figures July 2001 est), CIA World Factbook

[10], p. 277

[11] Hall, Ian, Tutorial IR2004, Is globalization bringing governance and in which forms?, St. Andrews, 9.5.2002

[12] Russett, Bruce & Starr, Harvey & Kinsella, David, World Politics – The Menu for Choice, Bedford/St.Martins, 2000, p.274

[13] ibid.


[15] Russett, Bruce & Starr, Harvey & Kinsella, David, World Politics – The Menu for Choice, Bedford/St.Martins, 2000, p. 275


[17] Deutsch, Karl W., The Analysis of International Relations, Prentice Hall, 1988, p.232

[18] Deutsch, Karl W., The Analysis of International Relations, Prentice Hall, 1988, p.227



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Is global governance bound to be undemocratic?



Titel: Is global governance bound to be undemocratic?