What is Democracy? (13): International Democracy

There is a need for global democracy or international democracy. The power deflation experienced by the states vis-à-vis the market, multinationals, and each other means that decisions affecting the well-being of the people are taken by outside forces (the market, companies, other states etc.). It is obvious that this is incompatible with democracy and with the sovereignty of the people. Democratic control over events is an important value, but one which implies the presence of a state and a people capable of imposing their will. If they cannot impose their will, as is shown by many problems of globalization, then we have to look beyond the level of the state. International institutions can sometimes solve problems that are beyond the power of one individual state and one people.

Is democracy possible at a level that is higher than that of the state? A number of problems can only be solved at a transnational level, so we need this level. If democracy is important, then it is important that transnational decisions and organizations are democratic and based on the agreement of the people.

But is it possible? Democracy is not at its best on a large scale. Efficient participation is difficult in very large groups. On the other hand, international cooperation can stop events taking place without the agreement of the people. If we have international cooperation, we can avoid the situation in which one country takes a decision that has a negative effect in another country (for example, the decision to build a nuclear plant just at the border with another country, without involving the people of this other country; or the decision of one country to start destroying its rain forests, irrespective of the consequence for the global climate). And the agreement of the people is the hallmark of democracy.

International cooperation in the sense of defense cooperation in institutions like NATO can protect the national sovereignty of individual states and therefore also the right to self-government of the people of these individual states. And finally, international cooperation allows a nation to solve problems which it cannot solve on its own (pollution for example). In everyone of these three cases do we see that international cooperation has a positive influence on self-government and hence on democracy.

It is obvious that international organizations, set up to solve international problems and hence to give control to the people, must be democratic, at least when we remember that self-government is among the reasons for solving international problems. Some of these problems inhibit self-government because an individual nation is not able to deal with them.

International organizations are set up to recreate self-government by solving problems that inhibit self-government. Therefore, one should not create an undemocratic international institution, because the purpose of such an institution is precisely self-government.

How can we make international organizations more democratic than they currently are? There are not many examples to inspire us. In any case, the people of the different states have to be represented in these organizations and not only in their own states. Direct democracy is also a possibility.

Perhaps we can presume that we have a democratic decision from the moment that democratic states, in their position of members of the organization, take a common decision. These states represent the people and hence the people are indirectly involved in the decision. However, do these states have to decide unanimously? Or can we also apply the system of majority rule at an international level? In the latter case, we put aside entire nations.

Is this acceptable? It is certainly not acceptable for the nations concerned. The reason why these nations joined the organization in the first place, was to solve problems that escaped their power and to recapture their sovereignty. They will never accept to be outvoted.

The fact that international organizations take away a part of the sovereignty of states in order to be able to solve certain problems, does not have to imply a weakening of democracy. On the contrary, it can imply the rescue of democracy, on the condition of course that these organizations are governed democratically. The people of every individual state have less democratic power because they are minorities in a larger entity, but the “people” of the whole have more democracy because they are now able to solve problems they were not able to solve when they were still divided.

International cooperation can also promote democracy because it implies mutual influence. A state that needs other states in order to solve environmental problems for example will find it more difficult to ignore demands from these other states aimed at an improvement of the human rights situation or a strengthening of democratic institutions. The shield of sovereignty loses its strength and can no longer be used to counter criticism of human rights violations, because it is precisely the lack of sovereignty or self-government which forced the states to cooperate.

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