Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 April 2004
Issue No. 686
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Towards global democracy

The article below is a summary of the statement of former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali during the "21st Century Talks" session, recently organised at UNESCO on the theme, "Should globalisation be made more democratic?"

Democratising globalisation is one of the major challenges of the 21st century. If we fail to grasp the importance and urgency of the task, we arguably run the risk of seeing globalisation pervert and distort what has been achieved at great cost down the centuries and what remains, even today, the goal towards which many peoples still aspire -- democracy at the national level.

It is clear that the democracies, even the most solidly grounded, constructed as they are around the nation-state, have been significantly weakened as a consequence of globalisation. For, whereas international society consists of numerous political communities geared to a system of compartmentalisation between states, global society decompartmentalises the universal. In the economic sphere, large firms are being globalised as a combined effect of technological progress, the rationalisation of management methods and the democratisation of productivity. In the financial sphere, the world has been globalised in real terms as a result of deregulation of various kinds, the end of exchange controls, financial innovation and advances in telecommunications. In the sphere of information, the pattern of our lives is today shaped by the universal and instantaneous transmission of news and data.

These far-reaching changes mean that the major problems concerning the future of humanity are essentially transnational. It is clear that issues such as safeguarding the environment, fighting AIDS, controlling population growth, combating hunger or meeting the great technological and genetic challenges are all planetary in scale and can only be partially addressed at the level of the nation-state.

This anxiety-generating phenomenon of globalisation heightens frustrations, undermines traditional bonds of solidarity and marginalises countries, not to say whole regions of the planet. This situation is not without risk. Wars, exclusion, hatred and ethnic or religious antagonism are invariably fostered in such a climate. And irrational and fanatical thinking is always on the lookout for an opportunity to offer false solutions to distraught peoples.

We therefore have a compelling duty today to reflect upon a project for living together that will offer states and men and women throughout the world material grounds for hope. For the countries of the South, the fact of being unable to play a part in the management of globalisation amounts to being historically sidelined. It is in this context that the democratisation of globalisation takes on its full significance. Democracy, to be truly meaningful, must be capable of being exercised wherever power is concentrated -- at the local and national level, naturally, but also globally. Democracy should be the mode that governs the exercise of power in all its forms. In other words, the phenomenon of the globalisation of the economy should be matched by a movement towards the globalisation of democracy.

Global democracy involves more than simply transforming the structures of national democracy. It must embody a new and specific architecture, adapted to a constituency that is not directly one of citizens but rather of states, multinational firms, municipalities, political parties, etc. This will doubtless call for the creation of new political institutions as well as the reform of existing international organisations.

How then can we contribute to the democratisation of globalisation? I had the occasion to explore this question in detail in the "Agenda for Democratisation" that I submitted to the United Nations General Assembly on 16 December 1996, which has been largely ignored since I left that organisation. Our action should be governed by four guiding principles.

Firstly, there is a need to broaden the scope of democracy within the United Nations system itself. This will naturally involve reforming the Security Council and strengthening the Economic and Social Council. In saying this, I am very conscious of raising a paradox at a time when the United Nations is experiencing one of its most serious crises.

Secondly, it is vital to implicate transnational firms in the process of democratisation so that they appear not as predators playing upon gaps in the international social order but rather as agents of democratic development.

Thirdly, we need to link the exercise of political and economic power to the aspirations of social and cultural stakeholders, NGOs, municipalities, universities, parliaments, political parties, religious groups, the media, etc. This will not be easy, but we have no choice. For, whether or not states wish to integrate non-state actors in the decision-making process and the management of democracy, the latter will continue to influence the development of the new international system. However, the example of the International Labour Organisation, which was set up before the United Nations, in which each state is represented by employers, workers and governments, shows that technical solutions are possible, whether within the framework of the United Nations by establishing a second General Assembly, or indeed through the creation of a new international organisation.

Lastly, if we wish to avoid the prospect of yesterday's Cold War turning into cultural confrontation, into a war of civilisations fuelled by large-scale international migratory movements and international terrorism, we must defend cultural diversity and pluri- lingualism, which is as important for planetary democracy as pluri-partyism is for national democracy. It is moreover one of the raisons d'être of UNESCO.

Such a proposition may seem highly anticipatory, not to say utopian. But I wish to believe, and obstinately continue to believe, that peace between nations based on the democratisation of globalisation is one of those utopias both conceivable and attainable.

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