Wednesday, January 17, 2007

From the draft introduction, A Politics, Not a Society

Below is a bit from the introduction - still in draft and will get rewritten drastically - from my book ms., A Politics, Not a Society: The United Nations, Global Civil Society, and the Legitimacy of the International System After Global Governance. It won't look this way in the final version in the book.

The argument is offered in four parts following the Introduction.

Part One addresses the institutional United Nations, as a political institution. The conceptual backdrop for this is to show the limits of the UN system, the official public international system, as a purely political system, lacking the legitimacy that only a society can give. Concretely, in a series of short sections, it considers the contradictions of the UN, and considers them through an examination of the recent attempt at comprehensive and systematic UN reform. That effort was largely a failure; the reasons why demonstrate the limits of international politics. But I argue that the experience also illuminates the cul-de-sac in which the politics of the UN finds itself trapped. This is familiar territory that examines contemporary policy issues of UN reform one by one. I suggest, however, that rather than lament the inability of the international system to move forward, it might be better to accept that this cul-de-sac collectively represents what international actors actually desire from an international political system. It might be thought to represent not the failure of collective will, but instead its consummation. If not precisely the culmination of our desires, then at least the balance of them, in relatively stable and change-resistant equilibrium. We should consider the possibility, in other words, that the current impasse of the international political system is compounded because it is not so much an exercise in frustration as satisfaction – satisfaction with political stalemate insincerely protested and insincerely denied. A system in which the participants are, on the whole, satisfied with it rather than frustrated by the inability to change it – even if no one admits their satisfaction – is far harder to change, and this might explain some of the persistent inability to change.

Part Two turns to the question of legitimacy, and the special interrelationship of the institutional UN and global civil society. It assumes that there is a driver – economic globalization, although I will not seek to demonstrate this – that in some fashion provides a causal reason why this international system, now in incommodious equilibrium, might not remain so permanently. More prosaically, I assume that the demands placed upon the international system will continue to grow. Those demands require forms of action that cannot be accomplished without a legitimacy that the international system currently lacks. Part Two analyzes the form of legitimacy that would be required, a society and not merely a politics. It considers the democratic deficit of the international order and considers ways either to address the deficit, go around it, or to conclude that it cannot be remedied. Global civil society is introduced as a possible solution to the general legitimacy problem and democratic legitimacy particularly; perhaps it can serve to provide a society in which political institutions can be embedded so as to gain legitimacy. Perhaps global civil society, in the absence of a genuinely global democracy, can effectively stand in for democratic participation, as intermediary and representative of the “peoples of the world” to expanding UN institutions of global governance. Moreover, perhaps human rights, considered as an ideology, can substitute for values of democracy and participation that are hard if not impossible to achieve in a global system. However, Part Two finally turns to consider these various claims skeptically, finally concluding that global civil society cannot provide the UN with the legitimacy it seeks. Global civil society cannot turn the international political system into an international society, let alone a democratic one.

Part Three continues the search for legitimacy, which is to say, continues the attempt to find a way in which the international system can be a society, so to create the legitimacy necessary to liberal international global governance. It begins by laying out a series of ideal positions with respect to the debate between nation-state sovereignty and liberal internationalism. The question is whether any of the leading liberal internationalist positions can succeed where global civil society, considered as a mechanism for generating social legitimacy, has failed. The positions principally considered are global constitutionalism, global government networks, global administrative law, cosmopolitanism, and global bourgeois elites. They are the leading positions offered by intellectuals seeking to theorize global governance today. The conclusion concerning these positions (understood as proposed mechanisms by which to address the legitimacy deficit of the international system for purposes of expanding liberal international global governance), however, is that none of them generates the requisite legitimacy because all fail to establish a meaningful social order in which political institutions of governance can be embedded. The Part ends with a decidedly peculiar twist – by asking what might be the outcome if, contrary to the argument of Parts Two and Three, global bourgeois elites were able to create the legitimacy necessary to global governance. It looks to a historical parallel with the rise of bourgeois civil society in the eighteenth century in England and Scotland to suggest that it might mean the withdrawal of the global elites from the leadership of global peoples to collapse into mere global managerialism.

Part Four returns, finally and briefly, as a conclusion, back to the United Nations and the international political system. The conclusion of the two social Parts is that there is little or no prospect of an international society that could provide legitimacy to expanding institutions of global governance. In that case, what are the political consequences for the UN system? After global governance, what? I suggest that a return to robust multilateralism, one which conspicuously gives up the dream of global governance, nonetheless gives the UN a way forward by affirming its purely political status and the limits that they imply. I urge a system that puts democratic sovereignty at the center of the system, one which focuses on the hedgerows of competence and not on the supposedly growing tree of governance. It means not forgiving the mistakes and excesses, the corruption and incompetence, of the UN because, after all, it is supposedly indispensable and has unique legitimacy. It has neither; the General Assembly and the organs it controls will always be with us, and always a place of corruption, rent seeking, and failed cooperation games – the task should be simply confine it to what it is. Those parts of the UN that work should be subsidized – in effect a leveraged buyout of by donor countries of the specialized UN agencies, such as the WHO, which function well, and move to other mechanisms, such as the World Bank or alternative non-UN human rights organs or a caucus of democracies, to substitute for those that do not. Multilateralism need not automatically betoken a gradualist approach leading toward liberal internationalism; it can betoken instead a commitment to governance by democratic sovereigns that remain sovereign and democratic while closing the regulatory gaps between them, and addressing the profound range of global problems that address us all. By giving up any pretension that it will ever become anything so glorious as “global governance,” to focus on discrete and concrete tasks done competently, the international system might yet find a way out of today’s political impasse.

1 comment:

gary said...


I haven't read your past blog articles, but obviously you've given the subject of the UN a great deal of thought. And I certainly agree with the various ironies that you've pointed out. I've been thinking about how one would address the deficiencies. To that end I've assembled my own vision of what the UN should look like into a website...

I'd be very interested in your feedback. Good luck with the book, btw.