Global Institutionalisation of Power and Democracy as an Alternative to the International System

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18th May 2020 Politics Reference this

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“To what extent is the global institutionalisation of power, in the form of a global democracy, a realistic alternative to the modern international system

Perhaps the most significant questions facing political and social theorists at the beginning of this century are those concerning forms of power at the global level. Few topics in global politics are bigger and more emotive than the idea of all humankind uniting under one common political authority. While such a concept as a World Government is by no means a new idea, being proposed in various forms since ancient times, it has never before existed in human history. In the modern world, those who argue for a form of global political authority often do so with reference to various conceptions of a ‘Global Democracy’, which for the sake of this paper will be assumed to be the most desirable.  Such conception of a global democracy in this instance would involve the institutionalisation of power on a global level in some form of parliament or legislative body allowing for appropriate representation and accountability, as well as a judiciary capable of enforcing equality under law. While many argue in favour of such a change to a more integrated system of international politics, there is a more common argument that such a goal is in reality impossible to manifest. Such arguments emphasise its empirical impossibility, pointing to a lack of logical correspondence between the goal of a single global government and the current reality of international politics in which this change must take place. Despite a growing literature surrounding the prospect of a global authority of various forms, there remains large disagreement over the actual plausibility of a form of World State or Global Democracy, and to what extent the institutionalisation of power in this respect is a realistic alternative to the modern international system.

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The first and most commonly levelled criticism directed toward any notion of a world state is the problem represented by the concept of state sovereignty, or more accurately the surrender of it. As classically defined, sovereignty refers to the “the idea that there is a final and absolute political authority in the political community [. . .] and no final and absolute authority exists elsewhere” (Hinsley 1986, 26). In the modern world the sovereign state both frames and stabilises its territory security (Edkins, Shapiro, Pin-Fat 2004, 79). Sovereign power represents an absolute authority with the exclusive right to enforce the law of the land, and whose purpose is to protect the rights of its citizen’s and take any action that is necessary to preserve its own security (Edkins, Shapiro, Pin-Fat 2004, 5-12). A Global Democracy, as with any form of authority, necessarily requires the surrender of such notions of absolute sovereignty by its constituents. As Swedish philosopher Torbjörn Tännsjö has argued, both multilateral cooperation between states, and any conception of hybrid system of “sharedsovereignty between the world government and nation-state” would fail to provide meaningful resolutions to challenges such organisations are meant to address, namely human security, global, justice, and other collective action problems such as climate change (Tännsjö 2008, 122-125). Global Democracy thus necessarily requires a monopoly on the legitimate use of force as well as absolute decision-making authority over nation-states with regards to jurisdictional issues. This is seen by many as a point of serious tension, making the establishment of a global authority extremely unlikely if not impossible (Dahl 1999, 271). At least partial surrender of state sovereignty is clearly possible in the modern world as can be seen with the establishment of the United Nations (UN), European Union (EU), or the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC for example, does not undermine the authority of well-functioning domestic legal orders, and can be argued to in fact enhance state rights and responsibilities (Lu 2006). However, what is significantly more difficult to achieving is surrender of military jurisdiction to a common global authority, even if said form is a Global Democracy.

The contemporary multipolar arena of international politics is dominated by separate, independent, and ultimately self-interested states (Krasner 1999, 5-23). This current system, in which states are rationally motivated to pursue every means possible to assure its own survival, is commonly referred to as ‘International Anarchy’ (Waltz, 1979, 111-2). International anarchy in this sense is often compared to a Hobbesian ‘State of Nature’ by contemporary international ‘realists’ (Lu 2006). In Hobbes’ work, the ‘State of Nature’ is theorised to motivate cooperation and submission to political authority due to the physical equality, and therefore vulnerability, of individual human beings (Hobbes, 2009, 52). As even the strongest person may be killed by the weakest, the State of Nature is a perpetual state of sporadic warfare in which life is “nasty, brutish, and short” and individuals must constantly struggle for their own security (Hobbes, 2009, 52-56). According to the theory, it is shown to be in everyone’s self-interest to submit to a higher authority for the sake of their own security (Heller 1982, 21-25). If such a theory is indeed accurate the question remains why then is there political authority and justice within states, yet there still remains anarchy between them. For Hobbes, although mutual vulnerabilities and interests result in individuals surrendering their ultimate liberty in exchange for security, it is arguably much harder to ‘kill’ a State than it is to kill a human being, making the security threat toward sovereign states, and the individuals which constitute them, more tolerable, hence a lack of rational basis to advance towards a “global leviathan” (Hobbes, 2009, 64). Furthermore, although the proliferation of nuclear weapons is seen to reduce the State to a level of vulnerability similar to that of an individual in a ‘state of nature’, as is argued in Danial Deudney’s theory of “Nuclear One-Worldism”, so long as states are not suicidal one can reasonably expect them to be deterred by the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction (Deudney 1995, 212). Thus, by holding the insurmountable costs of such an intolerable war at bay through the tactic of deterrence, one can perceive that States are not as desperate for security as they otherwise would be, and may quite rationally prefer a nuclear standoff to the potentially riskier option of giving up their sovereignty to a global authority which would in turn possess a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.  If a transition from a multipolar to unipolar world with a single Global Democracy were advocated, many states would conceivably not comply in this scenario.

The issue in applying Hobbes’ theory of the ‘state of nature’ to the contemporary system of international politics, is that the theory is retrospective in nature. The theory is meant to advocate allegiance to an existing state, not justify the establishment of one, let alone on a global scale (Greenhill 2008, 357). The fact that it is collectively rational to submit to a common authority does not naturally entail that it is individually rational to do so, as people in a state of nature may realistically not trust each other enough to form a state and instead be content to remain in a suboptimal world (Wendt 2003, 34). The paradox here is best illustrated using an aspect of game theory known as the ‘prisoners’ dilemma’, in which it is shown how two perfectly rational actors may not cooperate, even if it is in their best interest to do so (Snyder, Glenn 1971). The example commonly goes that, there are two members of a criminal gang imprisoned in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other (Snyder, Glenn 1971). Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner two options, either betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other prisoner by remaining silent (Snyder, Glenn 1971). There are three possible outcomes to this situation; A) If both prisoners remain silent they will only serve the minimum 1 year in jail, B) If both prisoners testify against the other they both serve 2 years in jail, C) If one testifies while the other remains silent, the one who testifies will be set free while the other serves the maximum 3 years in prison (Snyder, Glenn 1971). Given that the prisoners cannot communicate with each other and have no idea if the other can be relied on to remain silent, the rational decision for both parties is to testify, even if this is not the best possible outcome (Snyder, Glenn 1971). In this example the lack of assurance that the other party will cooperate results in a sub-optimal result for both. However, if a figure of authority is introduced, such as a mafia boss who forces the two prisoners to remain silent through the threatening of their families, one gains a significantly different result (Snyder, Glenn 1971). In such a case both prisoners would be forced to cooperate and thus only serve the minimum 1 year sentence, a better alternative than had they been allowed to act in their own self-interest as is the case in a state of nature (Snyder, Glenn 1971). This therefore, highlights the essential issue when states come together to cooperate and in theory form a World State from within a system of Anarchy. For such actors, it is only rational to submit to the social contract after it has already been created, since only then can they trust it to be enforced (Wendt 1992, 396-412). The paradox here is therefore articulated to be that a World State cannot be established without it first existing to guarantee cooperation in the first place. As a result of this dilemma, states will inevitably remain egoist in nature and retain their sovereignty. Because of this it is argued, compellingly, by those such as Stephen Kranser that “World government is thus infeasible as a solution to global problems because of the unsurpassable difficulties of establishing ‘authoritative hierarchies’ at the global or international level” (Krasner 1999, 42).

From such a conclusion any attempt to establish a common Global Democracy would inevitably fail due to the lack of trust, or specifically a lack of enforced cooperation for individual states to rely on. However, what purely realist theories such as this fail to account for is the subtler, but just as pivotal, role the ‘struggle for recognition’ may play in the formation of collective identity, and hence the development of a common global authority. Indeed, it must be possible to form common authority without it first existing, otherwise humanity would have never developed civilisation to begin with. As first outlined in the work of German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel, it is not just the need for physical security, but also the desire for self-recognition which drives the creation of collective communities among people (O’regan 2000, 532). Initially individuals form their identity by recognising the difference between themselves and others, the very action of which serves to constitute the individual as a particular type of actor, thereby creating the ‘Self’ (Mercer 1995, 230-242). According to the theory, this perception of difference between the ‘Self’ and ‘Other’, invariably results in the desire for recognition by ‘Other’, which in turn results in conflict and what is referred to as the ‘Struggle for Recognition’ (O’regan 2000, 532). The desire for recognition in this sense is ultimately the desire to be perceived as a subject rather than an object, to be seen as a legitimate location of needs, rights, and agency, a status which can only come through the aforementioned recognition (Greenhill 2008, 360-362). For Hegel, this struggle for recognition and subjectivity eventually results in a state of mutual recognition between the ‘Self’ and ‘Other’ (Testa, Ruggiu, Cortella 2016, 230). This equality between the ‘Self’ and the ‘Other’ then necessarily implies the inherent perception of the specific normative status of the other person, implying normative constraints on how the Other may be treated, hence some level of rights, and therefore shared collective identity eventually emerges (Greenhill 2008, 360-362). It is therefore seen that a shift in identity can transform relationships and that the mutual recognition between separate individuals in a state of nature is a fundamental factor in the formation of a collective identity, necessary for any state or common authority. This is supported by the work of Axel Honneth, who identifies a common pattern throughout human history of mutual recognition resulting from conflict, from which he explains the progress towards the development of progressively larger collective identities (Honneth, 1995, 17). For Honneth, human beings continuously challenge existing systems of order in a way that, when successful, gives rise to new systems that more effectively fulfil their individual or collective need for recognition (Honneth, 1995, 17). Asymmetric recognition or misrecognition is in turn seen as the initiator or driving force behind the ‘struggles for recognition’ and its primary purpose of bringing about social change in attempt to gain said recognition (Honneth 1995, 24-30). Thus, it seems plausible that continued social friction and struggles for recognition in the modern world will result in the systems of mutual recognition that will crystallise into shared global collective identities. In essence, development of the international system, driven by the need for recognition, will contribute to the formation of overarching collective identity which enables a sufficient level of community identity to enable the security dilemma to be resolved.

It should be noted however that, for a number of modern scholars, and indeed the original Hegelian theory itself, the formation of modern sovereign states as a result of the process of mutual recognition represents the furthest end-point of the cycle, and precludes further collective identity on a global level (Williams 1997, 358). According to Robert Williams, “A state that subordinated its sovereignty to some supranational body would contradict its fundamental unifying principle through which it achieves sovereignty and secures freedom for its citizens” (Williams 1997, 358). Furthermore, the more dominant states who enjoy the benefits of asymmetric recognition within the current system, and thereby do not require the subjective recognition a Global Democracy would provide, would likely be resistant to world state formation.  While compelling, such arguments fail to recognise the effect of continued technological advancement. Using the assumed continued technological advancement, it is possible to extrapolate the Hegelian theory of the struggle for recognition to apply not just to the interaction between individuals or various political communities, but also the larger arena of international anarchy (Wendt 2003, 556). In the work of Alexander Wendt, the exponential rise in communication across state boundaries as well as the continuous development of increasingly destructive weapons technology, undermines the sense of national identity and mutual recognition a state derives from is territorial borders (Wendt 2003, 556). Wendt goes on to argue that, “the ability of Great Powers to insulate themselves from global demands for recognition will erode, making it more and more difficult to sustain a system in which their power is and privileges are not tied to an enforceable rule of law” (Wendt 2003, 524). Advancements in communication and travel technology enable greater flow of information and facilitate easier relationships across sovereign state boarders. Through the growing permeability of state borders, such advancements in technology allow for mutual recognition and the formation of global collective identity.  Furthermore, as such communication takes place, and collective identities are formed across borders, systems of recognition will conceivably be pressured to change also (Wendt 1999, 78-134). The development of different identity groups in forms that transcend territorial state sovereignty and conflict with sentiments of nationalism, will naturally challenge existing paradigms of recognition and systems of order, giving rise to new systems that more effectively enable appropriate recognition. It therefore seems plausible that, should technological advancement be assumed to continue, sovereign states would allow the surrender of their negative freedom to engage in unilateral violence, due to the desired positive freedom of fully recognised subjectivity as well as the significant level of common trust that comes from the resultant global collective identity, that they cannot otherwise achieve.

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Ultimately the feasibility of establishing the global institutionalisation of power, in the form of a Global Democracy, is contingent upon the development of a sufficient collective global identity. While the security dilemma justifies allegiance to common authority, the establishment of such authority cannot manifest without initial assurance of cooperation among its potential constituents. The ‘struggle for recognition’, present in the formation of political communities and increasingly larger collective identities throughout human history is the means by which the paradox can potentially be broken. Therefore, the global institutionalisation of power, in the form of a Global Democracy, is to a large extent a realistic alternative to the modern international system.  

Word Count: 2694


  1. Dahl, G (1999), Radical Conservatism and the Future of Politics, SAGE Publications, London, Viewed 28 September 2017 <>
  2. Deudney, D (1995), ‘Nuclear weapons and the waning of the real-state’, Daedalus, Vol.124(2), p.209-231, Viewed 20 September 2017 <>
  3. Edkins, J Shapiro, M Pin-Fat, V (2004), Sovereign Lives Power in Global Politics, Hoboken, Taylor and Francis

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